It's the Occupation, Stupid

In France's Fourth Republic, it was said that tourists in Paris made sure to take in the daily changing of the government. According to myth, a deputy who dozed in the National Assembly might wake up to be told that he'd been premier twice during his nap. The coalitions that rule countries with multiparty systems can be flimsy things. But outside the realm of myth, Israel's most recent coalition was particularly short-lived: It ruled for ten weeks, just seventy days, before collapsing this week.

By bringing Shaul Mofaz's centrist Kadima Party into his government in May, Netanyahu sought to avoid early elections. Among the big things that new friends Shaul and Bibi promised to do were ending the widely resented draft exemption for ultra-Orthodox men and jump-starting the peace process with the Palestinians. In other words, Netanyahu would show that he was really a moderate, and that he had been waiting for Kadima's support to rule as one.

The explicit reason that Kadima left the coalition on Tuesday was irresolvable differences on the draft issue. Turns out that Netanyahu is not any kind of moderate. He'd like to maintain a façade that he is willing to agree to a two-state arrangement, and that he'd sadly compromise on the West Bank eternally belonging to Israel, if only the Palestinians were willing to talk without setting preconditions. But the façade is crumbling.

Let's work up from a small, telling example. Near the Jordan River in the northern West Bank is a settlement called Givat Sla'it, established in 2001. It's what's known as an illegal outpost—illegal, that is, even according to the laws applied by Israel in the West Bank. The laws require cabinet approval for a new settlement, but approving new settlements after the 1993 Oslo Accord would have been an international embarrassment. Under the Bush administration's 2003 "road map" for peace, Israel committed itself to removing a number of outposts, including Givat Sla'it. Naturally, it's still there. This week Ha'aretz reported that the Defense Ministry has now "contracted an architect to resume construction" at the outpost. This is part of a trend: The Netanyahu government has stopped paying lip service to the idea that the outposts are an aberration. Instead, it's developing them.

A more glaring example: On Tuesday, a panel on higher education operating under Israel's Civil Administration in the West Bank approved transforming a college in the settlement of Ariel into a university. Israel's Council of Higher Education, a government agency, had already rejected the change, but since Ariel is in the West Bank, not inside Israel, the council was powerless. The presidents of all seven Israeli universities had issued a joint statement against creating a university in Ariel. They said the step would divert funds from their institutions, which have already been under-budgeted for a decade. (In a country whose economy is entirely dependent on brain industries, underfunding universities is a particularly sharp example of small-government madness.)

But Netanyahu's education minister, Gideon Sa'ar, and his finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, put their full weight behind the university in Ariel. Steinitz promised a budget for the upgrade. For the Netanyahu government, no sacrifice for the settlements is too great. Settlers want a university to show that they are part of Israel, so they will get one—even if the bureaucratic maneuvers are based on the fact that the West Bank isn't part of Israel.

This fits the spirit of the legal opinion on settlements Netanyahu recently received from a committee of three right-wing jurists appointed to study the subject. The committee adopted the view of its chair, former Supreme Court justice Edmond Levy, that the League of Nations mandate for Palestine in 1922 gave Jews the right everywhere in the country, including what's now the West Bank—and that the mandate is still law. Levy did not mention that he put this view forward in a 2005 case when he was on the Supreme Court, and ten other justices rejected it.

The Levy Committee concluded that the West Bank isn't under occupation. It did not deal with the small problem that Israel justifies many of its own actions in the West Bank on grounds that the land is under military occupation. The committee also concluded that since government agencies had helped set up the outposts, they were all legal—a nice way of de-rogueing a rogue op.

Netanyahu thanked the committee but has not officially adopted the report. Besides fearing international fallout, he may realize that his lawyers would be laughted out of Israeli courts with those arguments. But the report nicely sums up his government's policy: The West Bank is neither part of Israel nor occupied; the situation is not temporary but permanent; anything the government does is legal because the government did it.

In Israeli politics, that's an unreconstructed rightist view. Which brings us back to the coalition crisis. Ostensibly, the problem was conscription. Kadima wanted to impose financial penalties on ultra-Orthodox men who defer the draft for religious studies past age 22. The two ultra-Orthodox parties in parliament utterly rejected the plan, and Netanyahu's Likud proposed a much-softened version of the reform. Kadima's view is politically popular, and Kadima has nearly twice as many Knesset members as the ultra Orthodox parties combined. Sticking with Kadima would seem the obvious choice.

But Kadima is a party of reconstructed rightists. It consists mainly of ex-members of Netanyahu's Likud who have concluded that Israel will have to give up most of the West Bank. The ultra-Orthodox parties, on the other hand, have consistently supported the Likud's policies as long as they receive the concessions they want, including the draft exemption. Netanyahu could count on them now to be disinterested in peacemaking. As long as he did not break the decades-old deal with them, he can count on them to line up with him in parliament after the next election, too.

As Netanyahu saw it, coalitions come and go—but the occupation, under some other name, is forever. 

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