This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a video in which he stated that those opposed to Israeli settlements in the West Bank are in fact advocating “ethnic cleansing” of Jews. In the video, Netanyahu attempts to contrast this nefarious goal with the supposed liberal pluralism of Israel by referencing Israel’s two million strong Palestinian population. The two-minute video earned an “unusually forceful” rebuke from the U.S. State Department with a spokesperson calling Netanyahu’s terminology “inappropriate and unhelpful.”
It is duplicitous for Netanyahu to use such terminology given the fact that Israel was founded as a result of an ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Zionist forces in 1948 which caused the expulsion of more than 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. The subsequent barring of reentry of these Palestinians, the destruction of more than 400 villages, and the setting of booby-traps and posting of border patrols to further discourage Palestinian return cemented this ethnic cleansing and the Jewish majority in Israel.
This inversion of logic is compounded with his false analogy about Palestinian citizens of Israel. These citizens are the descendants of the few Palestinians who remained in the land that would become Israel after the 1948 ethnic cleansing. Settlers in the West Bank, on the other hand, live on land seized from West Bank Palestinians, are armed and protected by occupying Israeli soldiers, often terrorize neighboring Palestinian communities and benefit from a series of roads for solely Jewish Israeli use. They represent the front edge of the continuing Israeli dispossession and expulsion of Palestinians.
At the same time, Israel is actively undertaking projects of “Judaization” of the Galilee, Jerusalem and the Negev aimed at increasing the Jewish population in these regions and decreasing services to Palestinian citizens. Current defense minister Avigdor Lieberman also advocated for the denaturalization and de facto expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel as part of a proposed peace deal. This combination of settlement policy, land appropriation and population transfer based on ethnic identity demonstrates that Israel’s founding project of ethnic cleansing continues to this day.
Given this history in Israel, it raises the question why Netanyahu would choose to release a video, in English, that would invite such comparisons and criticisms. One also wonders why Netanyahu would so blatantly attack the positions of his greatest ally, the United States. His relationship with the Obama administration is already strained and Israel relies heavily on the USA for military aid and diplomatic cover. However, taking this video in the context of a series of recent comments and looking at the timing of the remarks, it becomes clear that this statement was not a poorly timed blunder.
Rather, this accusation of ethnic cleansing falls into a recent pattern by the Israeli prime minister aimed specifically at slandering Palestinian national aspirations. Late last year, Netanyahu, in a bizarre form of Holocaust denial, placed blame for the Final Solution on Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a mandate-era Palestinian national leader, instead of Hitler. Doubling down on those remarks, he later stated that he wanted “to show that the father of the Palestinian nation wanted to destroy the Jews even without territories, without occupation, and without settlements.” More recently, he stated that he “care[s] more about Palestinians than their own leaders do” after allegations leveled by Israel against a Gazan charity worker of siphoning money to Hamas. In Netanyahu’s mind, the historic leaders of the Palestinian nation are responsible for the murder of 6 million Jews and its contemporary leaders are consumed with this same hatred.
What these statements attempt to do is attribute inherent anti-Semitism to Palestinian national aspirations for independence and an end to occupation. As support grows for these aspirations alongside opposition to Israeli transgressions, Netanyahu has recognized that it is no longer sufficient to unilaterally and actively undermine prospects for peace in order to ensure Israel’s continued control over the West Bank. At the same time, he knows he cannot actually annex the West Bank to Israel without an almighty international outcry. Therefore, to normalize Israeli control of the West Bank, he is working to delegitimize Palestinian national claims to the territory by painting them as necessarily anti-Semitic. If the western world, to which these English YouTube videos are meant to appeal, accepts this characterization of the Palestinian national movement, Israeli control of the West Bank transforms from a de facto state of affairs into a just solution. The temporary becomes permanent.
Why, however, is Netanyahu issuing these statements now, especially since he knows they will further damage the relationship with the Obama administration? On one hand, he remains certain that he could basically say anything and still rely on US support at the UN, having previously lectured the president and insulted Vice President Biden on multiple occasions by announcing settlement expansions during his visits. Also, his timing speaks to his confidence about the next president of the United States. Both parties have issued their most pro-Israel platforms of all time. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have also made promises that they would repair the relationship between the USA and Israel that has been so strained under Barack Obama. Netanyahu, therefore, stands in a powerful position vis-à-vis relations with the USA. He knows can pretty much say whatever he wants as long as the next president is insistent on improving the US relationship with Israel. And what he wants is to make sure the West Bank stays under Israeli control, permanently.