On September 22 Benjamin Netanyahu stepped onto the podium at the UN General Assembly in New York, and addressed a plenum that was half-empty – understandably so, since it was 9.15 am. Word has it that the PM considered this slot preferable to the time originally scheduled for his address – the evening of the previous day, which would have been late at night in Western Europe and the middle of the night in Israel and the Middle East generally. As it was, the prime minister’s speech appeared on Israeli TV screens at 4.15 pm on a Friday afternoon, far from an ideal viewing time. Yet there may well have been method in the apparent madness, for we later learned that his address had been screened live across Saudi Arabia – well after Friday prayers on a rest day, guaranteeing mass viewings.
Saudi Arabia featured strongly in Netanyahu’s speech as he dealt at length with the mounting expectation of a normalization deal with Israel. He was, in fact, echoing the optimistic comments made only two days earlier by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in a rare interview with Fox News. He told his interviewer that the prospects of normalized relations with Israel were getting closer by the day.
Not surprisingly, however, MBS reiterated the qualification that has always accompanied the Saudi position on normalization. Calling the potential accord “the biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War,” he said it would all depend on agreements aimed at “giving the Palestinians their needs”.
This is one of several issues notably absent from Netanyahu’s address. He included a list of the steps the Palestinians would need to take in order to achieve a genuine peace (such as stopping the spread of Jew-hatred, and reconciling themselves to the right of the Jewish people to have a state of their own in their historic homeland). What he failed to do was to open the world’s eyes to the realities behind the universally-supported nostrum of a two-state solution.
He did not mention the word Hamas once. Yet up to half the Palestinian population lives in the Gaza Strip under the pernicious governance of the Hamas organization. How could the two-state solution – the concept of a sovereign Palestine living alongside a sovereign Israel – be a practical possibility when Hamas, and those Palestinians outside Gaza who subscribe to its philosophy, regard the whole area “from the river to the sea” (that is, from the Jordan to the Mediterranean) as Arab territory to which Israel has no right? The prime purpose of Hamas, its very raison d’être,is to eradicate Israel altogether and ensure that no Jews remain in the area.
The 2002 Arab Peace Plan, to which Saudi Arabia still subscribes, was conceived before Hamas was of any major significance, and well before it had seized control of Gaza and virtually kidnapped a great mass of the Palestinian people. Netanyahu did not ask the world why so little thought has been given to the practical hurdles in the path of achieving its much advocated two-state solution. Since Hamas would never be a signatory to such a deal, Gaza would be excluded from the arrangement. What sort of sovereign Palestine could it be, shorn of half the Palestinian population? In short, Netanyahu could have provided world opinion with some home truths, among them that the prerequisite to achieving a genuine two-state solution is the disempowerment of Hamas.
Another word that did not pass Netanyahu’s lips was “apartheid” – the charge used to tar Israel by bodies like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and a whole host of anti-Israel groups and individuals. He could have provided the world with a brief lesson on the total lack of ethnic, racial or religious discrimination of any kind within the sovereign state of Israel – and demonstrated with facts and figures the increasingly successful integration of Israel’s Arab population into the social, political and judicial structure of the state.
Netanyahu might also have called for some understanding of the complex administrative nightmare bequeathed to Israel by the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, that failed attempt to resolve the Israel-Palestine issue. Although most of the 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank are governed, either wholly or largely, by the Palestinian Authority in Areas A and B set up in the Oslo Accords, the situation for the 300,000 living in Area C under military law is far from satisfactory. It is nothing approaching apartheid, but the whole situation does require resolution, and could be resolved within the terms of the normalization package currently being negotiated with Saudi Arabia.
Another matter to which Netanyahu made no reference at all is the one Israeli issue that has been dominating the world’s headlines for the past months – the matter of judicial review, and the fears aroused, both within Israel and beyond, that restricting the power of the Supreme Court to hold the whole governmental structure to account could lay the road open to a possible dictatorship.
Most people now realize that the clash of public opinion in Israel has arisen largely because, over time, the distinction between the legislative and the judicial roles within the system of governance has become increasingly blurred. The judiciary has over time been forced, in addition to its main functions, to assume the role that belongs to the second chamber in a bi-cameral legislature – to scrutinize proposed new law and suggest improvements.
Both the US and the UK have bi-cameral legislative systems, but even so powerful voices have been declaring for some time that the judiciary has been exceeding its proper function by venturing too far into the political arena. Last year the USA Politico journal remarked: “The Supreme Court has usurped the power of the elected branches to interpret the Constitution,,,It has accomplished this power grab through unfounded assertions of judicial supremacy.“ Or, as Britain’s prestigious Prospect magazine put it a while ago: “The judiciary has made a slow march to the heart of politics.“
So there seems to be room for modest reform of Israel’s system by devising a better balance between the democratic mandate handed to members of the Knesset by the electorate, and the powers of the judiciary to defend groups and individuals against gross infringements of their democratic rights. Netanyahu might well have seized the opportunity of his address on the world stage to defuse this matter among the others.