Israel's Right-wingers Are Living in Denial

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Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Wishes he had the powers of President Vladimir Putin.Credit: Moti Milrod

Israel’s political class has largely chosen to ignore the U.K. parliament’s ringing endorsement to recognize Palestine as a state last week. It seems Israel’s leaders hope the rising wave of European determination to stop Israel’s creeping annexation of the West Bank will simply go away.

Doing so is a remarkable instance of one of humankind’s most primitive defense mechanisms: denial. In denial we simply screen off awareness of any unpleasant fact, with the tacit belief that it will go away. Israel’s political right has been quite adept in making use of this.

Its reaction to the European Union’s growing determination to no longer accept Israel’s annexation of the West Bank has shown various levels of immaturity, ranging from the mild to the truly pathological. Lieberman has reacted to EU criticism by telling it to solve its own problems before lecturing Israel – a masterpiece of diplomatic finesse, if there ever was one.

Naftali Bennett has been even more remarkable: When the EU passed a law that doesn’t allow cooperation with Israeli organizations in the occupied territories, he called for the severing of ties with the body. This is a truly fitting reaction from Israel’s economy minister, and a stunning exhibition of political and psychological immaturity, given that the EU accounts for about half of Israel’s foreign trade.

Lieberman, of course, looks longingly to his political idol, Vladimir Putin, and envies him for getting away with annexing Crimea. And Bennett seems content to see himself as a latter-day Bar Kochba – forgetting that he only brought destruction on the people of Israel. But Lieberman isn’t Putin, Bennett isn’t Bar Kochba, and Israel isn’t Russia – which is quite fortunate, as one million Russian immigrants in Israel can attest.

So let me spell out the reality in very simple terms. As far as the EU is concerned, the West Bank does not belong to Israel. The Knesset has, therefore, no mandate about whether to annex the West Bank, or to “give” the Palestinians a state, any more than it can make decisions about southern Italy.

Israel’s political right generally complains that such a position denies Israel’s right to exist. This kicking and screaming simply disregards the fact that the EU’s position is exactly the same with respect to Russia and Ukraine: Russia has no legal say over Ukraine, period. Nobody denies Russia’s right to exist, but the EU has been imposing ever-stronger sanctions on Russia because of its military involvement in Ukraine. So Israel is not even being singled out unfairly. The fact that Ukraine is already a sovereign state, whereas Palestine isn’t, makes less of a difference to Europe than Israel’s rightists would like to believe.

Sweden and Britain’s decisions to recognize a Palestinian state reflect public opinion in their countries. They are by no means outliers in the EU, and other major countries might follow them soon.

While the EU does not use language as uncivilized as Lieberman’s or Bennett’s, it will continue acting according to its values. If this requires sanctions, these will be cranked up gradually – not because the EU hates Israel or Israelis, but because the occupation is illegal. Unfortunately, ordinary Israelis will have to pay the price for the near-insanity of Israel’s political right.