During the campaigning period, Israel's election was widely portrayed as being about domestic social and economic issues rather than the conflict with the Palestinians. However, last-minute comments by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed that, as usual, electoral victory depends on who can talk and act toughest toward the Palestinians.
Netanyahu explicitly said there would be no Palestinian state under his watch, and warned that Israeli-Arabs were voting "in droves," allegedly helped by left-wing NGOs bussing them to polling stations. His Likud party widened the conspiracy with a message that "the threat is real: [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's] calls and American money are getting the Arab vote out."
As if these statements were not bad enough, Netanyahu's subsequent "apology" to Israeli-Arabs, and his attempt to wriggle out of his explicit rejection of a Palestinian state, have added further insult.
Israeli TV broadcast Netanyahu apologising to a small group of invited Arabs - not for what he said, but for the offence taken. It was the classic apology of the unapologetic: "I'm sorry you're so thin-skinned."
He said causing offence “was never my intention”. This is a technicality that does not make his intention any less reprehensible. He wanted to encourage right-wingers to vote to offset Arab turnout and keep him in power. "The rule of the right wing is in danger," he said. "Go to the polling stations! Vote Likud!" Offending Arabs may not have been his specific intention in this case, but it was an inevitable outcome. He knew it - he just did not care.
The rent-an-Arab audience applauded, stood and embraced Netanyahu as he claimed laughably to be "the prime minister of each and every one of you, of all Israeli citizens regardless of religion, race or gender," and that his governing record, "including massive investment in minority sectors, prove the exact opposite" of accusations of racism.
Netanyahu had portrayed the exercise of certain citizens' basic democratic rights as a threat specifically because of their ethnicity. If that is not racist, I do not know what is. Had this been said in another country about Jewish voters, Netanyahu would be on the next plane there to condemn anti-Semitism, proclaim himself spokesman of world Jewry, and urge Jews to emigrate to Israel.
He did not specify any initiatives that he had undertaken to integrate or enfranchise Arab citizens - hardly surprising because there is nothing to cite, and anything he did bring up could be easily refuted.
Further watering down the effect of his “apology”, Netanyahu - who had been claiming an international conspiracy against him, that knee-jerk accusation of Middle Eastern leaders - said "no element outside the state of Israel should intervene in our democratic processes.”
Except, of course, when it benefits him. Perhaps amnesia set in regarding his address in March to the US Congress prior to the Israeli election, at the invitation of the Republicans. That kind of foreign interference is very welcome, of course. And what about elements within Israel intervening in the democratic process - like, say, a prime minister portraying voters from a specific ethnic community as a threat?
This shameless photo-opportunity of an “apology” fooled few people besides the useful idiots he was addressing and those in Congress. It did, however, show that Netanyahu thinks the rest of us are idiots too.
Little wonder, then, that elected Arab politicians and community leaders - those who truly represent their community - flatly rejected the apology. "Sadly the racism of Netanyahu and his government did not start with this statement and it surely will not be its end," said the Joint Arab List, which is now the third-largest bloc in Israel's parliament. "Racist and exclusionary legislation are part of Netanyahu's work plan for the next Knesset... His 'apology' is just empty words intended to preserve his racist regime."
Furthermore, having clearly stated just prior to the election that he would not allow the creation of a Palestinian state, he then tried to wriggle his way out post-election by saying: “I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. But for that, circumstances have to change.”
For Netanyahu, there will always be circumstances in the way of a Palestinian state. He simply adds to the list as he sees fit, in a shallow attempt to give the impression that he supports a two-state solution, while stipulating conditions that make the creation and viability of such a state impossible.
International outrage at his explicit rejection of a Palestinian state was welcome, but somewhat odd given that his words and actions have long indicated the consistency of this stance. For example, last summer he said: "I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan."
David Horovitz, founding editor of the Times of Israel, responded: "That sentence, quite simply, spells the end to the notion of Netanyahu consenting to the establishment of a Palestinian state."
Furthermore, Israeli newspaper Haaretz, citing official figures, reported in December that the settler population has "surged" under Netanyahu by almost a quarter, "growing at more than twice the pace of Israel's overall population." Haaretz added: "The figures reflect Netanyahu's continued support for settlement construction."
One cannot support the creation of a state while enthusiastically colonising it with an armed foreign population numbering several hundred thousand, in settlements strategically located to hinder that state's territorial contiguity and economic viability, supported by a vast infrastructure that means these settlements control at least half the state's territory.
In short, you cannot have settlements and a Palestinian state, as much as Netanyahu and his predecessors would like the world to think otherwise. A choice must be made, and Israeli leaders have consistently chosen settlements, whatever the "circumstances".
It is heartening that so far at least, world leaders - including that of Israel's most important ally, the US - are not buying his retraction. "We take [Netanyahu] at his word when he said that [a Palestinian state] wouldn't happen during his prime ministership,” said US President Barack Obama.
Sadly, there will always be those who support Israel's position come what may. "If every politician were held to everything they say in a political campaign, obviously that would be a topic of long discussion," said US Senator John McCain, condemning Obama's reaction to Netanyahu's comments.
Making a mockery of democracy, McCain is suggesting that politicians should not be held accountable for what they say during election campaigns. That is the most important time to be held accountable.
- Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, Al Jazeera English, The National, and The Middle East magazine. In 2008, he received an award from the International Media Council "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting" on the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Benjamin Netanyahu said before the election that he will not negotiate a Palestinian state.