The Real News interview by Paul Jay, senior editor TRNN, 18 March 2015
“Netanyahu invoked racist calls about Arabs flowing to the polls to get out his vote; his win will make it easier to isolate Israel because Netanyahu is the face of Israel as it really is.”
Ali Abunimah is co-founder of the award-winning online publication The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. His latest book is titled The Battle for Justice in Palestine. Based in Chicago, he has written hundreds of articles on the question of Palestine in major publications including The New York Times, The Guardian and for Al Jazeera.
Paul Jay: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
As we tape this interview, the Israeli elections, according to most sources, are too close to call. But Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, says he’s won, that he’s the one in the best position to make a coalition with all the various other parties. And, I think, according to most parliamentary tradition, he’s the most likely one for the president of Israel to ask to form the government first. But the president of Israel has so far said that he wants a national coalition, a national unity government. So we’ll see if any of that transpires.
Now joining us to make some sense of all of this is Ali Abunimah. Ali is cofounder of the award-winning online publication The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and The Battle for Justice in Palestine.
Thanks for joining us, Ali.
Ali Abunimah: Thank you, Paul.
Jay: So if you go with what’s–well, let’s see if you agree with me. The most likely scenario here is Netanyahu gets asked to form a government and he puts together a coalition. What do you make of it?
ABUNIMAH: Well, I think what we can say from what we know now, which is the exit polls from the various Israeli networks, is that Netanyahu, who had been trailing in the polls and who’d been predicted to do very poorly, that he did relatively well. The Likud, his party, and the Zionist Union are said to be neck and neck at about 27 or 28 seats. It looks like, from the arithmetic, as it appears now from the exit polls, that Netanyahu would have a clearer path to forming a coalition, a right-wing coalition, and thus remaining in office. It looks very difficult, if not impossible, for the so-called Zionist Union–headed by Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni–to form a government without the support of the Joint List, the Arab parties, which together won 13 seats and look like they’re going to be the third-largest grouping in the Israeli parliament.
JAY: And how likely is that, that the Joint List, Palestinian-Arab Joint List would join the coalition?
ABUNIMAH: Well, there’s no chance they would join a coalition, first and foremost because no Zionist party has ever asked an Arab party to join a coalition. And they’ve said they would not as well.
But in the past, going back to the early 1990s, there have been situations where Labor Party-led governments have been supported from the outside by the Arab parties who have tacitly agreed or made agreements not to vote against the government on matters of confidence. So in theory that’s possible.
But I doubt that the political climate in Israel, which is very anti-Arab–and we saw Netanyahu openly inciting against Arab voters today on election day, warning chose Jewish voters that the Arabs are voting in droves, come out and vote. And then he gave a press conference, where he warned the Labor Party is going to come to power with the support of the Arab parties. In this electoral climate, I think it’s unlikely that even if labor were willing to accept the support of the Arab parties, that the other potential coalition partners would accept that support.
JAY: And, in fact, during the election, much of the Zionist Unity, Labour Party critique of Netanyahu is that he should actually be tougher on Palestinians. It’s not like they’re for some kind of compromise here.
ABUNIMAH: That’s right. And that’s why I think that for some Palestinians–and actually I’m going to confess to this–I’m actually somewhat relieved by the result, because for Palestinians, there is no practical difference between these major groupings. I think the most pithy and tragic observation came from a Palestinian journalist in Gaza, Jehad Saftawi, who Tweeted, he said, in Gaza we’re anxiously waiting for the results of the Israeli elections to see which Israeli politician will bomb us. And I think for Palestinians that’s been the experience.
We’ve seen Yitzhak Herzog, this supposedly dovish Labor Party leader, saying that Netanyahu has not been tough enough, that he didn’t hit Gaza hard enough. He’s been saying he’ll continue building settlements. He was on the BBC this morning saying that he sees eye-to-eye with Netanyahu on the issue of Iran. Of course, we know that Netanyahu’s out there making these outlandish and baseless claims about Iran being on the edge of having nuclear weapons and so on. Herzog has said that he will do everything to protect Israeli war crimes suspects from facing any kind of justice. So, for Palestinians there is no practical difference. But the danger of the Labor-led coalition coming to power is that it removes any kind of international pressure from Israel.
The advantage, from the Palestinian perspective, of having Netanyahu is that it’s sort of truth in advertising. You know, when you buy some junk food and you have a box that says nutrition facts on the box, well, it tells you exactly what’s in there, how much fat, how much high-fructose corn syrup, how much of the other things that might harm you are in there. And so Netanyahu is kind of a truth in advertising. He’s very clear: no Palestinian state, no compromise. And so I think that’s very salutary for the world to understand what Israel really is and to begin to have to reckon with the reality that Israel has to be dealt with on that basis and not return to a charade of a peace process, where the Palestinians are dragged into endless negotiations while Israel is allowed to kill them, colonize their land, impose apartheid on them with no consequences.
JAY: Now, one of the things that Netanyahu’s been saying in the election campaign is that everyone’s out to get me, he says, especially foreign powers (he doesn’t say who they are) and foreign money. He says foreign money’s been coming in, flooding in to defeat him. Now, I thought that’s a little bit rich, given–or ironic, I should say, given, if I understand correctly, the majority of the majority of Netanyahu’s funders are in fact American billionaires like Sheldon Adelson. That being said, who’s he talking about? What foreign money?
ABUNIMAH: Well, he has been saying–and he gave a press conference today as well where he repeated these claims. And, frankly, he sounded like a classical anti-Semite in terms of saying the Arabs instead of the Jews–the Arabs and foreign moneyed interests are conspiring to overthrow me. He sounded paranoid.
But in reality I think he is a shrewd politician and he knows that this kind of paranoid rhetoric, this victim rhetoric, really does mobilize his base. And it appears to have worked, along with the incitement against Palestinian citizens of Israel, when he said in a video he released this morning, the Arabs are moving on the polling places in droves. And it was interesting that in the language he used in Hebrew, he used particularly military analogies. He talked about the Arabs moving on the polling places as if they were advancing in a military fashion. And he told Jewish voters, we do not have V15 (that’s this organization he claims is working against him); we have order number eight. Now, order number eight, as all Israelis know, is the call-up order for the general reserves. When order number eight is implemented, it means that Israeli reserve soldiers should go to their mustering sites. So he was actually appealing to Jewish voters as if they were being called up to a military operation. Of course, this military operation is directed against Palestinian citizens of Israel. So what it shows is a mindset where he and his base view Palestinian citizens of Israel as an internal enemy. But that rhetoric is very, very effective.
JAY: Now, it’s no secret that President Obama, Netanyahu, are not very fond of each other. One of President Obama’s campaign team, if I understand it correctly, was in Israel–I don’t think working for Obama. He’d been, I guess, hired by the Zionist Unity Party.
But on the question of Iran, there may have been some rhetoric that’s similar to Netanyahu’s. But do you think Herzog, if he is able to form a coalition, wouldn’t be a little bit more in Obama’s court on this?
ABUNIMAH: Well, I think that what would happen is that there would be champagne corks popping in the White House and in European capitals, where they would be saying, oh, look, finally an Israeli government we can do business with. And, of course, my contention is that very little would change. Let’s remember that it was supposedly dovish or left-wing governments in Israel that have often done the most to expand some settlements on Palestinian land. Tzipi Livni, who is, of course, the coleader of the Zionist Union, was one of the masterminds and architects of the massacre in Gaza in 2008, 2009.
So, again, from the Palestinian experience, there is no difference. The Israelis will keep stealing land, keep settling land.
JAY: No, I take your point. From the point of view of the Palestinians, I take your point that it could even be better having Netanyahu, as you said, because he is what he is and everyone seems to know it.
But on the question of Iran, do you not think there might be a difference in terms of Israel not trying so hard to sabotage Obama? I mean, partly in terms of the partisan politics of this. Netanyahu’s so connected with Republicans and the neocons in Washington, is Herzog likely to be a little bit more of an ally of Obama?
ABUNIMAH: I think, on a political level. But I’ve pointed out before that Obama and Netanyahu may be at odds over Iran, but they’re not at odds on the issue of Palestinian rights. And I think that the most likely result–look, no matter what Netanyahu says, he’s not going to derail the negotiations between Obama and Iran. The U.S. political military establishment has made a decision that they need to deal with Iran. And I don’t think they’re going to let Netanyahu or anyone else stand in the way. And I think that the Republican antics with this, particularly the letter of the so-called 47 traitors, has backfired. And the polling I’ve seen says that the vast majority of the American public supports the U.S. negotiations with Iran. So I just don’t think Netanyahu is a factor there.
If Herzog were to come in, the most likely thing that would happen is it’s going to paper over the sort of the rancorous relationship that Obama has with Netanyahu. That would probably go away. And it would simply give Israel an even bigger blank check to continue to build settlements, to continue to kill Palestinians in Gaza, with no consequences. Obama, the European governments, all of those, they want Herzog in office not because they think it’s really going to advance the peace process in any real way, but it takes pressure off them. It allows them to restart the charade of negotiations, the charade of a peace processes that’s been going on for 20 years, and say, look, you may not like the reality, but here we have a peace process.
ABUNIMAH: Netanyahu does not allow them to have that pretense. And I think that’s an important clarifying factor.
JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Ali.
ABUNIMAH: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.