From our Chief Executive Aug 2020

Where to start? Even for the most engaged watchers, keeping up to date with and making sense of developments in Israel throughout August has been a challenge.

Israel remains in the grip of a Covid-19 crisis with a spike in cases and the scale of the economic toll becoming clearer. As we see around the world, this crisis is experienced most acutely by the economically weaker segments of society including, in Israel’s case, ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens.

And if this is not enough we are witnessing incredible developments on the domestic social and political front as well as of course in Israel’s standing in the Middle East.

The regular demonstrations in Jerusalem and across the country that we wrote to you about a few weeks ago continue with the Saturday night demonstrations on Balfour Street in the heart of Jerusalem drawing tens of thousands of people. At the heart of these demonstrations is a dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the second wave of COVID-19 infections and the economic impact of the pandemic, as well as over corruption concerns. In recent weeks anger has been fuelled by the handling of the protests by the authorities and attempts to prevent peaceful demonstrations and reports of excessive use of force by the police. This was starkly exposed to Israelis when the former head of the Shin Bet (Israel’s security service), Carmi Gillon was hauled away from the protest site.

Israelis have also taken to the streets to protests the spike in violence against women. We saw a mass walkout from workplaces on Sunday in response to a growing phenomenon of rape and violence and exposed by public outrage to the alleged gang-rape of a teenage girl in Eilat.

Last week also saw a march led by bereaved Arab Israeli mothers who have taken to the street to demand state accountability for the gross negligence of under-policing in Arab communities in Israel and the resulting fatalities from high crime rates. (see story in newsletter).

And of course August has also seen the historic announcement that the United Arab Emirates had reached an agreement with Israel to normalize relations in exchange for Israel putting its annexation plans on ice (and also, apparently, the delivery of advanced US military technology to the Emiratis). While the US has assured the UAE that it will not recognize any Israeli annexation for “some time,” there is speculation as to what this means, precisely. UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash has said, what Netanyahu refers to “as suspension, we’re seeing as stopping.”

We should always celebrate peace—Israel reached an historic agreement to normalize relations with one of its distant neighbours After months of campaigns spotlighting the folly of any plan to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank, we should welcome the fact that threat appears to have receded.But we must remain vigilant. We know that it has not gone away.
Despite explicit commitments made to the US and the UAE, Netanyahu has publicly reiterated that annexation remains his policy – and that his commitment to it is unaffected by the recent deal with the UAE. He argued before his cabinet this week that “in the current agreement, not only has Israel not withdrawn from a single square meter, but the Trump plan includes, at my request, the application of Israeli sovereignty to extensive tracts of territory in Judea and Samaria. I’m the one who insisted on inserting sovereignty into the plan, and that plan hasn’t changed. President Trump is committed to it, and I’m committed to negotiating on the basis of it.”

First, it’s worth pointing out that with few direct benefits, the costs of formal annexation of the West Bank were — and remain — steep. Annexation threatened to destabilize a decades-long peace agreement with Jordan. It posed clear harms to Israel’s relationship with the European Union – and with the Democratic Party. It was a stark violation of a norm that is at the core of the post-war international order: inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force.
In short, Israel stood to gain little to from formal, de jure annexation. Israel already effectively controls the entirety of the territory under discussion. And it has continued, virtually unimpeded, with a state-driven settlement enterprise that in many ways amounts to de facto annexation. “Why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free?” as the saying goes.
It is not yet known whether Netanyahu was genuinely committed to de jure annexation – or how close it came. What is clear is that, at a certain point, the offer from the UAE was more compelling. It was a deal that offered fewer downsides than moving forward with annexation. Netanyahu took it.

But it is important to keep in mind that this deal, whatever its bilateral benefits, does nothing to resolve the basic, underlying disputes at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinians conflict. Neither is it slowing down the plans for a major new settlement project in the E1 area — a step that experts say would devastate prospects for peace and risk displacing the Palestinians who live there.

On this score, Netanyahu has nothing to offer but continued occupation, ongoing de facto annexation, and conflict. As Dr. Nimrod Goren, founder and head of Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, noted recently, “even without annexation, Netanyahu has tightened Israeli control of the Palestinian territories consistently.”

Perhaps this breakthrough might serve, as Goren suggests, as a catalyst for “a renewed discourse of peace and hope – not only with distant neighbours in the Gulf, but also with the ones next-door in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” Only time will tell. But this will rely on making a robust case in the public square for a broader Israeli engagement toward peace with the Palestinians.
This will require that Israel’s progressive camp continue to build a strong infrastructure for producing and sustaining ideas in the realm of foreign policy. That’s why NIF is proud to support institutions like Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, whose cutting-edge analysis and deeply researched policy proposals are grounded in expert knowledge of the region – and a set of common values.

These values – which include a commitment to Israel’s security, a recognition of the common humanity of Israelis, Palestinians, and all those living in the region, and an understanding that occupation and annexation are antithetical to democracy and peaceful coexistence – are central to Mitvim’s work and vision.

And that vision – of a just Israel at peace with itself and with its neighbours – is what NIF was built to support.
And this vision and our commitment to democracy and the values of justice also fuels our long-term work building Israeli civil society and supporting women’s groups, civil liberties groups and those working in Israel’s most vulnerable communities.

As we look towards the Jewish New Year and reflect on the challenges, troubles and complexities of the year that is ending, we thank you for your partnership and support for our positive vision.