Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim in a Facebook video on Friday that the Palestinian demand for the evacuation of Jewish settlements from the West Bank constitutes “ethnic cleansing” belongs in the same league as “Arabs are coming to vote in droves” and “the Mufti persuaded Hitler to exterminate the Jews.” It’s the kind of statement you can’t believe he really said until you see he really said it. Then come the aftershocks, when all sorts of people in the know laud the utterance as a brilliant gambit of a grandmaster strategist.
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He wanted to divert the public agenda from the recent crisis over railroad construction on Shabbat, which tainted him, to rebuffing the expected backlash of leftists over his right wing assertions, at which he excels. He is distracting attention from the ongoing police investigation of potential corruption charges. He wants to humiliate Mahmoud Abbas a bit more, after the Palestinian leader was forced to agree to a Moscow summit without preconditions, and perhaps to scuttle the meeting altogether. He wants to show Yair Lapid, who has been breathing down his neck in the polls after assuming a more right wing position, how a consummate rabble-rouser can muster up the nationalist mob without even breaking a sweat. He wants to stick it to U.S. President Barack Obama while he still can, just for the fun of it - or to show what a ferocious war he'll wage against the prospective UN Security Council resolution on the conflict.
But whatever the rationale, it’s hard to decide whether Netanyahu’s statement was more off-putting than off the wall or vice versa. International jurists are at loggerheads whether ethnic cleansing should be considered a form of genocide, but all agree that it is a crime against humanity. Netanyahu apparently thinks that Abbas and the Palestinians are all potential ethnic cleansers, along with the rest of the world, which is egging them on. Not only are U.S. presidents from Jimmy Carter onward inciters, aides and abettors of an abhorrent crime, but, according to Netanyahu’s logic, former Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin, who evacuated settlements in the Sinai, and Ariel Sharon, who removed settlements during the Gaza disengagement, belong in the same rogues gallery as Stalin, Milosevic et al.
Netanyahu asserts in his video that the nearly two million Arabs in Israel are living proof that there is no need to remove Jews from Judea and Samaria in order to achieve peace. Does Netanyahu mean that Jewish settlers will become Palestinian citizens, pay taxes to the government in East Jerusalem or Ramallah or that their children will sing, “Palestine is my revenge and the land of steadfastness” from the PLO anthem? Of course not. In his vision of peace, the Jewish settlers will continue to be Israeli citizens, will enjoy the protection of the Israel Defense Forces even if they reside deep inside Palestinian territories and will sing “As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning” out of Hatikvah. This doesn’t even bear a passing resemblance to the status of Arabs in Israel, but what won’t Netanyahu do in the service of false equivalents and cheap propaganda.
It was Abe Lincoln who supposedly coined the definition of a hypocrite as someone who kills both his parents and then pleads for mercy from the court because he is an orphan. The Hebrew-Yiddish equivalent, in memory of the 19th century anti-Semitic marauders of the Ukraine and Russia, is “the robbed Cossack.” Many governments around the world view settlements in the West Bank as a violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids the transfer of an occupiers’ population into occupied territory, while others, including the United States, prefer to keep this question in a hazy grey area. But all agree that the settlements were established under the auspices of the occupying power and against the wishes of the local inhabitants. It’s one thing to now claim sovereignty over settlement blocs because facts on the ground have created a new status quo, but to then describe Palestinian demands to remove all settlers as “ethnic cleansing” breaks new records of self-victimization, chutzpah and lack of self-awareness. After years that Israel has toiled to prevent the loaded term “ethnic cleansing” from entering the Israeli-Palestinian lexicon, Netanyahu is now pushing it in himself, through the front door.
Netanyahu might be cheered by the Israeli right and by his Evangelical fans in America, and perhaps he is signaling with this video that this is where his heart truly belongs. The claim that evacuation of settlements is ethnic cleansing was brought to the fore, after all, by the militant orange-shirted opposition to the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. In most other eyes, however, Netanyahu’s statement only damages Israel’s image abroad and portrays it as more obstinate and hard line than it really is. If the prime minister did so by design as part of some Machiavellian machination or even if he was just swept away by his own rhetoric that’s one thing, but if it’s part of an escalating sequence of inexplicable, self-damaging moves on Netanyahu’s part, Israel may have much more to worry about than its image abroad.