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Netanyahu's 'Ethnic Cleansing' Comments Rewrite History While Looking to the Future

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Avigdor Lieberman and Benjamin Netanyahu after signing their coalition agreement, Jerusalem, May 25, 2016.
Avigdor Lieberman and Benjamin Netanyahu after signing their coalition agreement, Jerusalem, May 25, 2016. Credit: Emil Salman

MK Ayman Odeh was right when he said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is trying to rewrite history when he compares a minority that has been living here for generations upon generations, and on which the State of Israel was imposed, with the settlers who were transferred, in violation of international law, into occupied territory, thereby riding roughshod over all the human rights of residents of the West Bank and Gaza.” In the metaphysics of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the question of “the settlers” is one of the problems that any future agreement must take into account, just like the problem of “the refugees.” But Israeli Arabs, until now at least, were not an issue requiring a “solution.”

Netanyahu has begun preparing the ground for a new equation, one that views the settlers as the expelled Jews of Palestine. This equation, as always, will serve to offset Israel’s commitments against the commitments “it would have had” were it not fettered by its inherent morality, which prevented it from expelling all the Arabs in the War of Independence.

No wonder that when Netanyahu said “ethnic cleansing,” he said it in English. Even Israelis, with all the empathy they feel for the evacuated settlers, don’t buy the analogy to ethnic cleansing when it comes to the residents of the red-roofed houses who, at most, will find themselves led in their private cars to new apartments in the center of the country.

As is his wont, the prime minister places the potential “ethnic cleansing” of the settlers in the balance against the actual tragedy of the Palestinian narrative. And this time as well, his rewrite of history serves as an obvious hint to the future: If the Palestinians (and more and more states around the world) are in any case accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing and of expelling 700,000 Arab residents of Israel from their land, why not retroactively add to their number all those whom it’s still possible to expel?

If there are any Palestinians at the negotiating table who still dream of a “return,” even if only a symbolic one, or of some other kind of compensation, they’d better wake up. Not only is there no longer any room for talking about recognizing the Palestinian refugees, even symbolically, but from now on, care must be taken that Israel won’t place Israeli Arabs on the table, as an ungenerous and decidedly cruel bargaining chip.

This “downgrading” of Israeli Arabs into a bargaining chip for use in future negotiations over the settlements can be credited to the political creativity of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. It’s true that the late minister Rehavam Ze’evi was talking about “transfer” long before Lieberman immigrated to Israel, but Lieberman is the only one who managed to position the idea of transfer, which in the past was unacceptable even to discuss, as a refreshing bit of realpolitik, or of thinking outside the box.

It’s possible that the process was facilitated by the Euro-Asiatic whiff of Lieberman’s hatred for Arabs. In contrast to the local racism, which is inextricably bound to the history of the Middle East, Lieberman’s version seems to be indifferent to the conflict. And therein lies its “charm.”

The erasure of the 1967 border lines and the attempt to deny the conflict’s territorial nature serve not just the people who dream of the entire Land of Israel, but also those who dream of a State of Israel free of minorities, whatever its borders. In contrast with disciples of the entire Land of Israel, it seems that Lieberman is willing to divide the land, but outside the 1967 box — to “reboot” the logic of the 1947 partition plan, which separated Arabs from Jews, but without recreating the territorial division of those days. It’s land in exchange for Palestinians — that is to say, part of the territories in exchange for all of the Palestinians.

It’s not for nothing that everyone is suddenly talking about the Sykes-Picot agreement. The upheavals in the Middle East have fired the imaginations of both Netanyahu and Lieberman: to redraw the map of the region, but this time, without the English and the French.

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