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Netanyahu's emergency unity government will fight the pandemic — but fail Palestinians

Israel's main political rivals agreed to work together to fight coronavirus — they are also primed to annex West Bank territory.
Image: Protest against Israeli settlements amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank?EUR(R)
Palestinian demonstrators argue with Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israeli settlements near Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on May 2, 2020.Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

On Thursday, Israel will seat its next government, once again headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after the third election in just under a year. Though it is being billed as an emergency national unity coalition and includes Benny Gantz, the former speaker of the Knesset, it won’t diverge much from Netanyahu’s previous governments when it comes to making peace with the Palestinians or treating its own Palestinian citizens with dignity and equality. Most troublesome, Netanyahu, long emboldened by President Donald Trump and anxious to cement American approval before the U.S. elections in November, will likely move to annex large swaths of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank this summer. Such a move will practically wipe what is left of Palestine off the map if it is not stopped.

A real emergency national unity government including the opposition to Netanyahu could have ensured that annexation was not on the agenda during this time of crisis

A real emergency national unity government including the opposition to Netanyahu could have ensured that annexation was not on the agenda during this time of crisis. Gantz, a retired general and former chief of staff of the Israeli military, entered politics in 2019 as the anti-Netanyahu candidate who was going to fight Netanyahu’s corruption and bring an end to his destructive, decade-long rule. Because of this, the Joint List, the coalition of Palestinian Israeli political parties, was initially prepared to support Gantz for prime minister to remove Netanyahu. However, after Gantz tacked even further to the right and moved to endorse partial annexation earlier this year, this was no longer possible.

Instead, Gantz ended up echoing Netanyahu’s racist campaign tactics, including running an ad boasting of how many Palestinians he killed in Gaza in 2014 during Israel’s devastating attack when he was the army's chief of staff, and shifting position on undemocratic policies like annexation in an attempt to appeal to right-wing voters, before ultimately breaking up the opposition coalition he headed to join with Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud party and a man he based his entire political career on unseating.

According to the coalition agreement, Netanyahu — who was also indicted on three counts of corruption, with a trial date set for this month — will serve as prime minister for 18 months while Gantz will be the deputy prime minister and minister of defense. After that, Gantz will serve as prime minister for 18 months with Netanyahu as his deputy. (This is less unusual than it sounds for Israeli politics, which had this power-sharing scenario before, notably between Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres in the 1980s.) However, what should be of great concern to Americans and the international community is the part of the coalition agreement dealing with annexation of the Palestinian West Bank, which would not only be a flagrant violation of international law but bury once and for all the possibility of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the occupied territories as part of the two-state solution, the cornerstone of U.S. and international efforts to make peace in the region for decades.

Under the coalition agreement, Netanyahu can introduce legislation to annex 30 percent of the West Bank, including most Jewish settlements built on occupied Palestinian land and the Jordan Valley, as soon as July, as long as it’s done in coordination with the Trump administration. Given the right-wing nature of the Parliament that was just elected, annexation will likely pass easily. In reality, Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise rendered the two-state near impossible to achieve long ago. There will be no turning back.

Netanyahu was encouraged by Trump’s aggressive support.

While campaigning over the past year, Netanyahu repeatedly pledged to annex large parts of the West Bank if re-elected, including all Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley, with Gantz jumping on the annexation bandwagon as well, announcing in January that he would annex the Jordan Valley if elected. Netanyahu was encouraged by Trump’s aggressive support, culminating in the release of the remaining details of Trump’s diplomatic plan for Palestine/Israel this year.

The plan, whose primary author is Trump’s son-in-law, and close Netanyahu family friend, Jared Kushner, gave Israeli leaders a greenlight to annex 30 percent of the West Bank, including settlements and part of the Jordan Valley. The announcement in January followed Trump’s earlier breaking with international law and decades of U.S. policy under presidents of both parties, first by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital in the absence of a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians and moving the U.S. embassy there, and then announcing late last year that the U.S. no longer considers Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be illegal, despite dozens of U.N. resolutions saying they are. Just last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated the Trump administration’s position on Israeli annexation of the West Bank, declaring "the Israelis will ultimately make those decisions.” Today Pompeo arrived in Israel to discuss annexation and other matters. Rather than serving as a brake to these dangerous moves, Gantz is enabling and encouraging both Netanyahu and Trump.

In attempting to justify his decision to join with Netanyahu, Gantz cited the COVID-19 pandemic, stating it was in the best interests of Israelis. But even in the face of the crisis, Netanyahu and his government have continued their racist rhetoric against Palestinian citizens of Israel, including in their response to the virus. It took weeks of pressure from Arab politicians and doctors on the front lines to push the government to open dedicated testing facilities in Palestinian communities. It is therefore unsurprising that we are now seeing a surge in coronavirus cases, three weeks after the surge in Jewish towns. We’re only beginning to get a sense of how widely it has spread in our communities.

As a Palestinian citizen of Israel, medical doctor and parliamentarian, I’m intimately familiar with the discrimination and inequities that existed in Israel’s health care system before the outbreak. I am deeply concerned that the government’s failure to adequately protect our communities will harm patients. Since the establishment of the state 72 years ago, Israel has failed to build hospitals in Palestinian towns, meaning we don’t have adequate capacity or equipment, particularly in relation to the resources made available to Jewish communities. It is a microcosm of the way Israel treats its indigenous Palestinian citizens and the first test of the new government.

Emboldened by Trump, Netanyahu and the Israeli right are more dangerous than ever, with Gantz along for the ride as a fig leaf. With Gantz's defection, the opposition of supposedly liberal/moderate Zionist Jewish parties is in disarray, not that they’ve ever actually presented much opposition to Netanyahu over the years anyway. With the strong showing of the Joint List over the last two elections — we won 15 seats in the last vote and are the third-largest party in Parliament — it’s becoming increasingly clear that we are the true opposition resisting Israel’s long descent into racist, right-wing extremism, and to its brutal, more than half-century military rule over Palestinians in the occupied territories.

We have consistently advocated universal values of freedom and equality, regardless of race or religion. We can be trusted to defend liberal democratic principles and pluralism, because we are most at risk when they are threatened. We urge Americans and members of Congress who are alarmed by the Trump administration and the threat it poses to the world to recognize that Palestinians are your natural and most dependable allies in the struggle against Trumpism globally. Trump and the Republican Party, and Netanyahu and the Israeli right cemented their alliance long ago and are working hand in hand to advance their dangerous, reactionary agenda in Israel, the Palestinian territories, the U.S. and around the world. Those of us who are resisting the onslaught and fighting for a more compassionate, inclusive and just world must stand together as well.

The international community can start by making clear to Israeli leaders that there will be definite consequences, including a severing of diplomatic relations, sanctions and other measures, for annexing the West Bank and continuing to deny Palestinians their freedom.