In wake of Netanyahu victory, a narrow path forward for Palestine

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech next to his wife Sara as he reacts to exit poll figures in Israel's parliamentary elections late on March 17, 2015 in the city of Tel Aviv. (Photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech next to his wife Sara as he reacts to exit poll figures in Israel's parliamentary elections late on March 17, 2015 in the city of Tel Aviv.

Diana Buttu was not optimistic about the outcome of the Israeli elections before Tuesday, nor was she surprised. Now, with Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party having retained the majority, and with the prime minister renouncing the two-state solution in a final bid for conservative Israeli votes, the Palestinian attorney, policy adviser and former negotiator sees a narrow path forward for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

“I think that there will be a U.N. resolution,” proposed by the Palestinians, Buttu said in an interview Wednesday, “to have a deadline for the occupation to end. We’re coming up on 50 years,” she said, referring to the anniversary of the 1967 War when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

The United States, which has been a staunch ally of Israel, has traditionally exercised its veto power at the U.N. Security Council to block Israel-related resolutions. Buttu doesn’t see that policy changing anytime soon despite the poor personal relationship between President Obama and Netanyahu, who has grown increasingly close to Republican party leadership. Still, Obama told Netanyahu in a phone call on Thursday that the United States would have to ‘re-assess our options’ based on Netanyahu’s comments on Palestinian statehood, The New York Times reported Friday. Separately, Politico cited hints by unnamed administration officials that the U.S. “would not rule out the possibility” of relaxing its U.N. veto pen.

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Whatever happens at the U.N., Buttu believes public pressure and civil rights-style activism, including marches and boycotts and pushing for international sanctions against Israel could make a difference.

“If we’re going to move forward, we have to begin to hold Israel accountable,” she said. “You can’t pretend that this is business as usual.”

On the eve of his reelection Netanyahu said he would prevent Palestinian statehood. Then he issued a video warning to supporters to counter the votes of Arab citizens. “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” Netanyahu said, adding: “Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.”

“I mean how do you step down from that?” Buttu asked; “once you’ve made it very clear that you don’t want to see a Palestinian state, you don’t want to see Palestinian freedom, and that you believe that your own citizens; citizens of the state, are a strategic or a demographic threat to your country?”

Netanyahu revised his pre-election statements in an interview Wednesday with msnbc’s Andrea Mitchell, saying he still favors a two-state solution but none is possible as long as Hamas is in power. He also said he is “proud to be the president of all Israeli citizens.”

But Buttu hopes that a new right-wing government will only encourage Palestinian supporters to embrace the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” movement launched in 2005 to spotlight what BDS supporters, including Buttu, call “Israeli apartheid.”

Palestinians, she said, should engage the international community the way black South Africans and African-Americans once did. 

“In the West Bank, you have two different laws, two sets of laws for different people,” she said, noting that Jewish Israelis there live under a different law than Palestinians. “Even inside Israel, there are different laws in place for the Jewish citizens of the state versus somebody like me who’s a Palestinian citizen of the state.”

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She is more optimistic about electoral gains made in the Israeli parliament this week for Israeli Arab citizens. A new Arab coalition party won 14 seats, due largely to historic voter turn-out in that community, becoming the third-largest party in the Knesset.

“The third largest party in [the just-concluded] election was a party that models itself after Martin Luther King.” She describes the Joint List, a collection of four small Israeli parties, as “a civil rights group that consists both of Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis ... nationalists, environmentalists, feminists, you name it.”

Arabs make up approximately 20% of Israel’s population.

“So they’re going to have to be pushing against this tide of very racist legislation,” she said, referring to the controversial “nationality” legislation drafted by Netanyahu’s cabinet last November, which enshrines the idea of Israel as a Jewish state, not a multi-cultural one, into law, and delists Arabic as a national language. Critics including the Anti-Defamation League have warned that the legislation would undermine Israel’s democratic character. Others, including Arab citizens of Israeli call it racist. It’s “legislation that goes against where Palestinians can live, to what types of jobs they can have, to the rights and privileges, the benefits that they get in the state. So there is a civil rights struggle that’s happening,” she said.

Buttu sees the larger issue as the need to combine the struggles of Arabs inside and outside the internationally recognized Israeli borders. “Now that Netanyahu has declared the two state solution dead, it’s time for the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to be joining this civil rights movement,” she said. “And I think that’s what we’re going to see in the coming years.”