How Israel aims to redefine “ethnic cleansing”

Netanyahu’s controversial comments have thrown another obstacle in the way of Palestinian statehood, analysts say

On one level, an incendiary video posted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend looked suspiciously like an own goal.

In it, Netanyahu argues that a Palestinian demand to dismantle Jewish settlements amounts to the “ethnic cleansing” of some 650,000 Jews living in the occupied territories in violation of international law.

“The Palestinian leadership actually demands a Palestinian state with one pre-condition: no Jews,” he says in the short video posted on Facebook last Friday. “There’s a phrase for that: It’s called ethnic cleansing.”

Netanyahu’s aim was not hard to decipher. He wants yet another obstacle in the way of Palestinian efforts to seek international backing for statehood. It comes as pressure mounts separately from France and Russia for the Israeli government to re-engage in peace talks.

Now Netanyahu can argue that when Palestinian leaders call for a state free of armed, Jewish-only colonies breaking up any hope of Palestinian territorial contiguity they should be labelled as ethnic cleansers.

Backed by Trump adviser

Early indications are that Netanyahu’s upending of international law may quickly win backing from the US right – and potentially from the next US administration, if Republican candidate Donald Trump is elected president in November.

On Sunday, the Haaretz daily quoted Trump adviser David Friedman as agreeing with Netanyahu and accusing the Palestinians of planning to make any future state “judenrein” – the term Nazis used to mean “empty of Jews”.

“It is an entirely racist and anti-Semitic position,” Friedman added.

Amal Jamal, a politics professor at Tel Aviv University, told Al Jazeera that Netanyahu’s video should be understood as the flipside of his earlier precondition for peace talks: that the Palestinians recognise Israel as an exclusively Jewish state.

That demand was intended as a trap for the Palestinian leadership, especially given that Israel includes 1.7 million Palestinian citizens who already suffer rampant and institutionalised discrimination.

Population swap

In Friday’s video, Netanyahu again exploited the existence of this large minority of Palestinians inside Israel to advance his right-wing agenda. He explicitly equated the settlers in the occupied territories with Israel’s Palestinian citizens, saying neither is “an obstacle to peace”.

The implication is that, should the Palestinian leadership insist on the settlers being “ethnically cleansed” from their illegal colonies, Israel would be justified in demanding tit-for-tat. If the settlers have to return to Israel, why not a population swap, with Israel’s Palestinian minority forced into the occupied territories?

Palestinian leaders in Israel understood the danger. Ahmed Tibi, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, wrote at the weekend: “We are not Israeli settlers, Mr Netanyahu … [We] are not foreign immigrants that came to Israel and applied for visas or citizenship … [We] are the indigenous population.”

Jamal said that Netanyahu’s claim would also help him to “set the domestic agenda” against political rivals on the far-right, such as Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, both of them identified with the settler movement. Lieberman has repeatedly announced plans for land swaps that would redraw Israel’s recognised borders to move some Palestinian communities outside Israel in return for the annexation of the larger settlements.

“Neither Lieberman nor Bennett have gone as far as Netanyahu has now in suggesting that the evacuation of any settlement is ethnic cleansing,” Jamal said. “That will strengthen him with his power base on the right.”

Risky strategy

Nonetheless, this new condition – that Jewish colonies be treated as untouchable – is diplomatically a high-risk strategy.

If, as Netanyahu claims, “societies that demand ethnic cleansing don’t pursue peace”, what does that say about Israel, a state founded on the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948?

Chemi Shalev, an analyst with the Haaretz daily, noted: “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.”

As a counter-video hurriedly produced by the Palestinian Authority pointed out, Israel’s founding fathers spoke out repeatedly in favour of ethnic cleansing.

Extending Netanyahu’s logic, another commentator in Haaretz observed that, if Jews had an inviolable right to live on Palestinian land, why should Palestinians expelled in 1948 not have an equivalent right to live in their former homes now inside Israel, in cities like Haifa and Jaffa?

Ongoing expulsions

Netanyahu’s claim not only shines an embarrassing light on Israel’s past crimes. Palestinians are currently being driven off their land to allow for the expansion of Jewish-only settlements, with Israel demolishing Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and in West Bank communities, in the Hebron Hills and Jordan Valley.

It is doing the same to Palestinian citizens inside Israel. The homes of 1,000 Bedouin residents of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev are about to be demolished so that an exclusively Jewish town – also called Hiran – can be built in their place.

In short, ethnic cleansing – of the kind defined by international law – is very much an ongoing project by Israel.

Then there is the matter of the United States, Israel’s patron. Netanyahu chose to issue his video in English, indicating that it was intended for a foreign as much as a domestic audience.

White House ‘livid’

Publicly, the Obama administration called Netanyahu’s comments “inappropriate and unhelpful”. Behind the scenes the White House was variously reported to be “seething” and “livid”.

That was entirely predictable. In the video, Netanyahu states that “some otherwise enlightened countries even promote this outrage [of ethnic cleansing of Jews]”.

It is hard not to read this as an attack on Washington. US President Barack Obama spent his first term trying unsuccessfully to force Netanyahu to freeze settlement expansion, and has regularly called the settlements an impediment to peace. Last month, US officials were reported to have warned of a “harsh response” if Israel demolished Palestinian homes in the West Bank village of Susiya to make way for settler homes.

So why did Netanyahu choose this provocative course?

The video was certainly not a mistake. It is part of a strategy planned by Netanyahu’s foreign media spokesman, David Keyes. He was appointed in March after coming to prominence for controversial pro-Israel stunts on social media.

Netanyahu has issued eight such videos under Keyes’s direction, many of which have gone viral and are highly popular among his supporters, both in Israel and the US.

Reading US mood

The inspiration for the latest video appears to be Frank Luntz, a high-profile consultant to the Republican party and pro-Israel causes. Famously, he developed a document in 2009 advising Israel’s supporters on how best to make their case. Netanyahu’s ethnic cleansing claim is set out almost word for word at the top of page 62 as the most effective argument with American audiences.

The Trump campaign’s apparent endorsement of the Netanyahu video suggests that the Israeli prime minister may be reading the political climate in the US correctly.

Jamal said that Netanyahu and his advisers intended to severely limit the terms of any future peace process. “Now anyone who demands the evacuation of settlements risks being accused of anti-Semitism,” he said.

Jeff Halper, a founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, agreed that Netanyahu’s goal was to reframe the international community’s assumptions.

“Netanyahu is telling them that there are no more occupied territories and no more settlers,” he told Al Jazeera. “He’s saying, ‘Israel won, and it is time to get used to the reality of a single state’. This is the new normal and he wants the language and thinking of the international community to reflect that.”

• First published in Al Jazeera

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.