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A Vote to Maintain Apartheid? Israel’s Netanyahu Set to Win 5th Term After Vow to Annex West Bank

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be on the verge of securing a record fifth term in office as votes continue to be counted in Tuesday’s election. Last night, Netanyahu and his top challenger, ex-military chief Benny Gantz, both claimed victory in the tight race. With most of the votes counted, Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s newly formed Blue and White party have both secured 35 seats in the Knesset, but Netanyahu has a clearer path to forming a coalition government with the help of his right-wing allies. Tuesday’s election came just days after Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to annex Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank in defiance of international law, and more than a week after Netanyahu thanked President Trump for recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights. Netanyahu ran for re-election despite facing possible criminal indictments in three corruption cases. We speak with Israeli journalist Haggai Matar and Palestinian attorney Diana Buttu.

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be on the verge of securing a record fifth term in office as votes continue to be counted from Tuesday’s election in Israel. Last night, Netanyahu and his top challenger, ex-military chief Benny Gantz, both claimed victory in the tight race. With most of the votes counted, Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s newly formed Blue and White party both secured 35 seats in the Knesset, but Netanyahu has a clearer path to forming a coalition government with the help of his right-wing allies. On Tuesday night, Netanyahu addressed supporters, who repeatedly chanted “Bibi, king of Israel.”

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] It is a night of colossal victory. Colossal. I am very moved that the people of Israel put their trust in me again, for the fifth time—a greater trust, even. I intend to quickly finish the work in order to form a national stable government.

AMY GOODMAN: Tuesday’s election came just days after Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to annex Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank in defiance of international law, and a week after Netanyahu thanked President Trump for recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights. Netanyahu ran for re-election despite facing possible criminal indictments in three corruption cases. Netanyahu’s chief rival was Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff of Israel Defense Forces. On Tuesday, he, too, claimed victory.

BENNY GANTZ: It’s a historic event, actually, never happened in Israel before. And we’ll take it from here. It’s just the first night. We’ll see the real results. I’m sure and confident that we can do it. We will continue. Thank you very much.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Many Palestinians living in Israel boycotted Tuesday’s election. Netayahu’s Likud party was also accused of voter intimidation after placing 1,200 hidden cameras at polling stations in Arab neighborhoods inside Israel. Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat spoke earlier today about the impact of the election.

SAEB EREKAT: I think we have just witnessed a clear-cut vote by the Israelis to maintain the status quo, as far as we, Palestinians, are concerned. This was a vote to maintain the status quo, to maintain apartheid. I think in the new elections, from the exit polls, I think there are only 18 seats in the 120-seat Knesset that support the two-state solution on the 1967 lines.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Haggai Matar is an Israeli journalist, activist and union organizer. He’s the executive director of 972–Advancement of Citizen Journalism, the nonprofit that publishes +972 Magazine. He joins us from Tel Aviv. And in the Israeli city of Haifa, we’re joined by Palestinian attorney Diana Buttu. She was a—she is a former adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and has served as a legal adviser to the Palestinians in negotiations with Israel. She’s a Palestinian citizen of Israel.

Welcome, both, to Democracy Now! Haggai Matar, let’s begin with you. Explain the significance of these elections. Although we don’t know the final result at this point, it does look like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has won a record fifth term.

HAGGAI MATAR: You’re right, Amy. And thank you very much for having me. I think we can very clearly say that Netanyahu will be the next prime minister and will have his fifth term come in. This, actually, as Saeb Erekat said, the vote we have seen is a vote for the status quo, not only on the Palestinian issue, but generally. This has been a vote wherein Israelis have, in mass, said that they want to keep things just as they are. If you look at Jewish Israelis, then it’s a very, very clear, wide vote to keep things as they are on all different political, social, economical fronts in Israel.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yet, the number of seats that the Likud won is still relatively small. How do you account for the fractious nature of Israeli politics, with so many different parties, always requiring a coalition to govern?

HAGGAI MATAR: So, first of all, Netanyahu actually got more votes this time and more seats in Knesset than he did the last time, which I think is very considerable, especially considering that he’s facing several very serious criminal charges for political corruption. To be able to get actually more seats in Knesset than he did, with these criminal charges, is quite an accomplishment. At the same time, we need to understand that the other parties that will be joining his coalition government have all stated in advance that they will join him. So, a vote, for example, for the religious parties in Israel, for the extreme-right settler parties and others was actually, for voters, a vote to support Netanyahu via his allies.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see this as a referendum on Netanyahu’s 10-year rule? And also, the significance of these last two moves he made in the last week, one with Trump in the United States right before Netanyahu flew back to Israel, Trump announcing the acceptance of, recognizing the sovereignty of Israel over the occupied Golan Heights, and then the last announcement, the day before the election, that Israel would annex the West Bank settlements, what that means?

HAGGAI MATAR: Definitely. So, we can also add to that the moving of the American Embassy to Jerusalem last year. It seems like a long time ago, but I think it’s all very relevant, because what all these measures are doing and saying is that there’s an old kind of balance that we used to talk about in Israeli politics, wherein Israel, the one thing—the two things that Israel can get from moving towards peace, moving toward ending the occupation, are, one, safety and security, and, two, international recognition and legitimacy, for all sorts of things that Israel wants.

Basically what—sorry—Trump has been doing to support Netanyahu is offering sorts of legitimacy to Israel without any conditions—so, moving the embassy to Jerusalem without conditioning a partition of the city; recognizing the annexation of the Golan Heights, basically giving up on any sort of negotiations, in this case with the Syrians; basically, giving Netanyahu a green light to annex part of the West Bank, as well, because you don’t need Palestinians to agree to this, because, there you go, you have international legitimacy even without any negotiations.

So, with that, and at the same time with Netanyahu succeeding to offer Israelis safety and security, a very, very low mortality rate as part of the conflict, as part of the occupation and siege, unlike Palestinians that are being killed en masse by Israel, Israelis are not really being killed as much. So, for Israelis, this is actually a rational choice, to support a status quo where there’s international recognition, there’s safety and security and an economy that’s generally blooming. Why not continue with Netanyahu?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we’re also joined by Diana Buttu, a Palestinian attorney, has been an adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas in negotiations with Israel. Your reaction to the elections and also to what appears to be historically low turnout by the Palestinian citizens of Israel, what the significance of that is?

DIANA BUTTU: In terms of the reaction vis-à-vis the outcome that we’ve seen, this was, in effect—for Palestinians at least, this was an election in which you either choose Trump or you choose Trump. The positions that both Likud took and Benny Gantz took were virtually indistinguishable, particularly when it came to Palestinians. They bragged about how much they were going to beat up on Palestinians, and then took their voters as a result. So, it’s not at all surprising that we see this outcome, given that we really had two candidates that were quite mirroring one another when it came to this election.

In terms of the voter turnout, there were a number of factors in terms of low Palestinian voter turnout. One was the fact that a number of people have ideologically chosen to boycott. And then others was because there was a level of voter intimidation and people also believing that their MKs, their members of Knesset, were unable to deliver.

The big problem, however, is that we’ve seen a rise in fascism in Israel, and instead of people boycotting, we were hoping to see that people would have come out in greater numbers to try to at least push back against that tide. As it stands right now, although the vote—the ballots have not been completely counted, we really only have about 15 out of 120 members of Knesset who believe in equality and who believe in an end to the occupation. And that’s a very sad indication of where Israel is.

AMY GOODMAN: Diana Buttu, can you explain who can vote in the Israeli elections and who can’t? And also respond to these 1,200 cameras being put in the election booths, the polling places of—in Arab neighborhoods.

DIANA BUTTU: Yes, definitely. In terms of who can vote, it’s only citizens of Israel who are allowed to vote. And so, of that citizenry, about 16% of the people who are eligible to vote are Palestinians who are citizens of Israel. But then you look at the vast remainder of people that Israel controls, whether it’s people who live in the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip or in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem. You’re looking at close to 6 million individuals who are ineligible to vote in Israeli elections, and yet are being governed by Israel.

In terms of the cameras, this is not only a violation of Israeli law, but it was something that the Israeli prime minister brazenly is supporting and had came out and said, “Yes, we shouldn’t be worried about this. There should be cameras in all polling stations.” The reason this, of course, is so alarming is the fact that this leads to voter intimidation. There are a number of Palestinians who are working either as teachers, in other ministries, and who, seeing that there is a camera in place, feel, rightfully so, that their votes are being monitored, whether they show up to the polls or who it is that they’re going to be voting for. And so, this type of voter intimidation is the type of action that Netanyahu has done, not only when it came to this election, but in previous elections, where he tried to claim that Arabs were, quote, “voting in droves.” He is ideologically opposed to Palestinian freedom, ideologically opposed to Palestinians having equality, and will do anything that it takes to try to intimidate and to try to make sure that there is perpetual control over Palestinian lives.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion. We’re speaking with Diana Buttu in Haifa, Palestinian attorney, and Haggai Matar, an Israeli journalist with 972, activist and union organizer. He’s speaking to us from Tel Aviv. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Take a Stand” by Stephan Said. And a shoutout to the students from Guttman Community College who are visiting Democracy Now! today, watching the live broadcast. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guests, Palestinian attorney Diana Buttu, joining us from Haifa, and Haggai Matar, an Israeli journalist, activist and union organizer, with the 972. He is joining us from Tel Aviv.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask Haggai Matar, given the reality that it looks likely that Netanyahu will be able to set up a governing coalition, what about the corruption—the multiple corruption investigations circling around him and the possibility of how that may affect his ability to govern? Could you talk about that?

HAGGAI MATAR: Sure. That’s actually one of—that’s actually the main question facing Netanyahu right now, because he will be forming a new coalition government. The question that Israelis are talking about today is: Will he be able to form what is called an indictment coalition? An indictment coalition means a coalition that would support Netanyahu through an indictment and actually pass legislation that would either prevent presenting criminal charges against a sitting prime minister or allow him to continue ruling while facing charges. So, that is the main challenge for Netanyahu right now. If he fails to do that, he probably has less than one year before he actually has to face criminal charges and go to trial, and probably step down. But that’s the main question we’re looking at.

If he does have to step down, we have already heard certain indications from the centrist party that came in at the same level as Likud party, the Gantz party, basically saying that they would be willing to go into national unity without Netanyahu, kind of implying that they would be willing to cooperate with Likud if Netanyahu steps down. So that’s something that might happen, but we might also be looking at another general elections within a year.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And unlike the United States, a sitting national leader can be brought to trial?

HAGGAI MATAR: Yes, he can.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to the controversy around some of the campaign ads leading up to the election. Netanyahu’s main rival, former General Benny Gantz, released a video showing a counter marking a rising death toll of Palestinians superimposed over a video of a funeral. A second campaign ad promised that, if elected, Gantz would bomb Gaza “back to the Stone Age.”

Meanwhile, a member of parliament seeking re-election came under fire over a campaign advertisement depicting him shooting and killing a Palestinian colleague. In the ad, Oren Hazan, a lawmaker with the ruling Likud party who represents a Jewish-only West Bank settlement, is depicted as a character in the Clint Eastwood film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Hazan’s face is superimposed over a character who shoots and kills Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Zahalka has called for police to arrest Hazan over the ad.

Another political ad features right-wing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in a spoof of a perfume ad. The name of the perfume is written on the bottle: “Fascism.” Shaked sprays it on and says, “Smells like democracy to me.”

Haggai, if you could respond first? And then we’ll get Diana Buttu.

HAGGAI MATAR: Yes. Well, I think, for most of the ads you mentioned, the common thread that we see there—and this, unfortunately, has been a repeating thread, theme in Israeli politics—is basically an inner-Jewish discussion about: How do we treat Palestinians? That’s kind of the question to be decided. How much force do we use against Palestinians to keep them down? Because we’re not going to give up on the occupation. We’re not going to give up on the siege. So, just how much violence are we willing to use to maintain the status quo?

And what we’ve been seeing with Gantz, kind of the main runner-up against Netanyahu, is that even he, as a former general, is saying, “Look, I am not less violent than Netanyahu. I am not less willing to use brute force against Palestinians and kill Palestinians in mass and go on military operations. I’ve done that before, and I can do it again.”

With Ayelet Shaked, we see basically a statement that, “Yes, I’m happy to curtail the power of the judiciary. I want the government to rule without the checks and balances of the courts. That’s something that I want. And I call it democracy. Do you agree?” Luckily, by the way, they probably—her party is probably not going to make it into the new Knesset.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Diana Buttu, I wanted to ask you, there’s a lot of attention focused on—internationally, on what happens with Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank, very little about the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Could you talk, especially in the light of this increasing fascist tendencies within Israel, about what life is like for Palestinian citizens of Israel?

DIANA BUTTU: Yes, definitely. One of the things that we saw in this last parliamentary session, the last Knesset, was that a lot of the attention, a lot of the focus, was directed directly at Palestinian citizens of Israel—while bombing Gaza, at the same time trying to go after Palestinian citizens of Israel. So, one thing that this Knesset did was they passed the—what they call the Jewish nation-state law, which is actually a law that enshrines Jewish supremacy and that formalizes apartheid. This is something that they did in order to send a message to Palestinians in Israel that they are not equals and they will not be equals. And, in fact, Netanyahu made—during the election campaign, made it clear, when he said that Israel is the nation-state for the Jewish people only.

And so, this level of incitement against Palestinians in Israel, whether it’s against the Palestinians who are members of Knesset or in a day-to-day life, has been one in which we’re increasingly seeing more and more laws that are designed to discriminate directly against Palestinians, with less and less restrictions being placed on the government. In fact, we now see that the Israeli High Court, the equivalent of the Supreme Court in the United States, has rubber-stamped virtually all of these racist laws and allowed it so that Israel is able to continue its apartheid practices.

In effect, what it means for Palestinians is not only are we second-class citizens, but we are actually treated as a fifth column, with some members of Knesset, including one who has made it past the threshold and who will be once again elected in, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who once called for the beheading of Palestinian citizens of Israel and, during this election campaign, called for the instatement of the death penalty for Palestinians who are political prisoners. This is the flavor that we’re living in. It is fascism.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the reaction on the streets of Bethlehem to hear how some Palestinians are reacting to the election results.

WAJEH AWAD: [translated] It’s natural. The Zionist regime is an occupier, an aggressive regime. Netanyahu or any other person will not make change for us as Palestinian people. The result, if it was right-wing parties or left-wing parties, they have the same mission against us, which is killing and displacement.

MUATH ABU AKAR: [translated] It was obvious from the beginning. Netanyahu’s campaign was strong because it was about the Palestinians’ blood, the settlement expanding and the sanctions on the Palestinians. It was obvious.

AMY GOODMAN: Those are residents of Bethlehem. Tuesday’s election came just days after Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed to annex Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank in defiance of international law. Let’s turn to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was asked about U.S. policy on the West Bank as polls were closing in Israel Tuesday. He was questioned by Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Is it still the policy of the United States to oppose Israel’s unilateral annexation of any or all of the West Bank?

SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: Here’s what I can say. I’ll give the same answer I gave to Senator Durbin. We are—we are in the process of laying down our vision for how to resolve a problem that is now decades on—

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: So, Mr. Secretary, if I could—if I could ask you. I asked about unilateral acts, right? Annexation. So, that, by itself, indicates no agreement with the Palestinians. So, my question is—


SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: It sounds like you’ve already abandoned what has been a bipartisan foreign policy of opposing the annexation of any or part of the West Bank by Israel. Is that what you’re telling us today?

SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: I think we—I think we’ve seen—I think it was Senator Durbin that critiqued our decision on the Golan, where he would characterize that, right?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: I’m not asking you about the Golan—


SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: —right now.


SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: I’m asking you about the West Bank.

SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: Yeah. And I’m telling you, you will see our proposal when we’re ready to roll it out.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: The polls are—the polls are closing right now—right now—in Israel. And things could move very quickly. And as you know, the prime minister, as a candidate, said he would annex all or part of the West Bank. He said settlements, and then he said including outposts. And today you cannot tell us what U.S. policy is on this issue.

SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: Yeah, again, I think I’ve answered the question as I’m going to answer the question.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo being questioned by Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland yesterday. Diana Buttu in Haifa, if you can respond to what he was asking? And also, just talk about the threat to annex the settlements in the West Bank and the occupied Golan Heights.

DIANA BUTTU: Yes. You know, this is the part that’s the most alarming. One of the fundamental, basic principles of international law is that you can’t acquire territory by force. You can’t steal another country’s land or another people’s land. And what the Israelis have been doing for decades, and what now the Trump administration is giving a green light to, is that very principle of turning international law on its head and allowing states to actually take more and more land.

And what it’s doing is it’s sending the message, not just in the Palestinian context, but around the world, that might is right and that it doesn’t matter what international law is, it doesn’t matter what international legal order is. What matters is how strong you are. And the more that you exert your force, exert your power, the more land you take, in the end, you will be given a green light to do so, and you will be rewarded for doing so.

And this is what was particularly troublesome about this election, was that, going back to some of the ads, this wasn’t a referendum or even a questioning about whether Israel is interested in peace and what it wants to do vis-à-vis the Palestinians in terms of whether there should be Palestinian freedom or equality. Instead, it was a question of how much they can beat up on Palestinians, how much more Palestinian land they can take, and whether they can be rewarded for it. And as Netanyahu was doing throughout the entire election campaign, he kept pointing to President Trump and saying that “Here is my friend. Here is the man who has given us everything that we want.” And in effect, he’s right. Trump has given him every single thing that he wants.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Haggai Matar, what about this exchange with Pompeo yesterday? And also, to what degree, as you’ve been following closely over the years, are most Israelis now supportive of the whole idea of annexing the West Bank?

HAGGAI MATAR: I think that, if asked, most Israelis would still oppose a full-on annexation of the entire West Bank, especially assuming that such annexation of the entire West Bank, including the main Palestinian cities now in Area A and B, would mean giving those Palestinians citizenship. That kind of a vision of a one-state solution, where this is one state and everybody has citizenship, is something that most Israelis will definitely object to.

However, I think we should note that annexation is actually not a new practice. And my estimation is that what we’ll be seeing now is just a continued process of slow, gradual annexation, not a one-off, not like tomorrow morning Netanyahu builds his government and says, “From now on, the West Bank is annexed.” That’s not what we’ll be seeing. We’ll be seeing more and more laws, just like the ones we’ve seen in the previous government, that are passed to gradually annex, kind of make the West Bank slightly more subordinate to the Israeli legal system, make settlers a little more closer to Israeli citizens in all sorts of ways. So, it will be a gradual process, and in no point will anybody stop and say, “Wait a second, we’ve annexed the West Bank.”

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I wanted to ask Diana Buttu. There is now a hunger strike that’s begun in jails by Palestinians who are imprisoned. You have the U.N. report that’s come out saying that what’s happened in Gaza, the Israeli military response to the Right of Return marches that have been going on for a year, where well over 200 Palestinians have been killed—it looks something like 20,000 people, at least, have been injured, thousands of them shot by Israeli military. What does this all mean, the Israeli election, for this?

DIANA BUTTU: In effect, it’s giving Netanyahu yet another green light to continue to do what he has done against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, against Palestinians in the West Bank, against Palestinian prisoners, against Palestinians everywhere. The fact that we haven’t seen an international response against Israel has, in effect, said to—has allowed Netanyahu to turn around and say, “This isn’t costing me anything.”

And this is the part that is so very troublesome, Amy, is that when you look at the number of Palestinians who have been injured in direct fire by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip, we’re talking about more people who were injured in the year of 2018, through these Great Return marches, than were injured during the entire bombing campaign, the nearly 60-day bombing campaign, in 2014. What Israel has done, effectively, is that it’s managed to fend off any international criticism. And I’m hoping, now that we are seeing that this government is going to take shape with people who are very openly supporting not only annexation, but war crimes, that we will see a stronger international response. But at this point I’m not holding my breath, because we’ve seen this now for more than 50 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Diana Buttu, we want to thank you for being with us, Palestinian attorney, joining us from Haifa, Israel—

DIANA BUTTU: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: —served as legal adviser to the Palestinians in negotiations with Israel, previously adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. And Haggai Matar, Israeli journalist, activist and union organizer, executive director of 972–Advancement of Citizen Journalism, the nonprofit that publishes +972 Magazine.

When we come back, Henry Reichman joins us, about his new book, The Future of Academic Freedom. Stay with us.

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