Trump as a catalyst for the Israeli far-right

Trump as a catalyst for the Israeli far-right

Comment: Within a week of Trump's election, expansionist efforts in Israel were already being ramped up to legalise unauthorised settlements, writes Sophia Akram
6 min read
01 Dec, 2016
A placard in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, November 15, 2016 [AFP]

It feels like Donald Trump's presidency has woken up a tribe.

Not just Republicans and those on the right of the political aisle in the US, but also an extremely far-right clan otherwise known as the "alt-right", who have gained increased fervour to unleash themselves on the world.

This catalyst is not limited to America, but has empowered fringe groups globally.

Because after all, we're not talking about a small country no one cares about. This is a superpower that impacts various regional dynamics the world over. This is no less true in the Middle East and it's no secret that Israel received the news of Trump's presidency with keen anticipation.

This is because the new, right wing agenda of President-elect Trump has ushered in the words the right-wing government of Israel wants to hear. Supporting Jerusalem as Israel's capital, slamming the Iran deal and promising to be Israel's closest friend.

But this news hasn't come as music to the ears of just the conservative national government, it has also empowered those who used to hover on the margins of Israeli society. The settler movement for instance, that had already started effervescing during Netanyahu's government - the most right-wing government Israel has seen - is one such example.

Ramped up settlement expansion

Within a week of the election results, it seemed that expansionist efforts were already being ramped up. A bill was voted in by parliament on 13th November that would essentially allow unauthorised settlements to be made legal.

This includes informal outposts and places where armed settlers have forcibly taken over Palestinian homes. Currently, such outposts are considered illegal by international law, including the US. But it seemed the Likud Party is looking to move beyond consensus, and further impose settler domination on the occupied territories of Palestine.

By doing so Netanyahu has moved leaps and bounds away from a once difficult and bureaucratic process that governed settlement building. A process, which helped curb the number of settlements built in the knowledge that all settlements on occupied land were deemed illegal by the international community.

While the settler project has previously been derided as a more radical segment of Israel's society, it is now gaining a foothold within the Knesset

But settler leaders often ignored the formality of law and remained protected by Israeli Army. For the most part they were unofficially allowed by officials simply turning a blind eye. Not long into his term, Netanyahu started legalising those that were built on state land. And those built on private Palestinian land were evacuated by order of the court.

But this new bill has a serious chance of becoming law. It must go through three readings in parliament and be ratified by the Supreme Court. And while the settler project has previously been derided as a more radical segment of Israel's society, it is now gaining a foothold within the Knesset.

A prime example can be seen in The Temple Institute - a "research organisation" whose main focus is "towards the beginning of the actual rebuilding of the Holy Temple". Prophecy sees this done on the site of Al-Aqsa, the third holiest site in Islam, but the site has been designated for Muslims through a long standing policy. Links between the institute and the government have been well documented, including the funding of the organisation.

Read more: Trump exposes divide between pro-Israel groups and American Jews

But its power gains explain how settlement building has reached such levels, and has relegated the West Bank to not so much a piece of land for Palestinians, but a number of small islands in between Jewish settlements.

Settlers in the West Bank currently number 550,000 as compared to the 2.8 million Palestinians who reside there. In 2013, the Israeli Housing Minister believed these numbers would rise to around 800,000 by 2019.

This increase in settlements and the settler population has for some been used as justification to redefine the 1948 borders, and ambiguous wording in a letter sent by George W Bush in 2004, has been interpreted as such.

Others do not go so far. They see his letter as justification for existing settlements to remain with further construction being allowed within them, while putting a halt to any further settlement activity. They would thus like to see the full annexation of Area C.

Israel may be getting ahead of itself if it envisages a free for all takeover of Palestinian land, and a complete drop of the two-state solution

But the Obama Administration never conceded to this interpretation of the letter, when Bush said that the reality on the ground had indeed changed. 

Already, the Education Minister Naftali Bennett has rushed to meet with Trump's people to argue the case for scrapping the two-state solution. And Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, while conscious of not overstepping the mark into increased settlement activity, wants to see construction within current settlements increase.

And the Republican platform for Trump's administration is in steadfast support of that. As is the powerful US-based Jewish lobby group, AIPAC. It has carefully re-worded its mission, dropping the endorsement of a two-state solution.

The settler movement has managed to rise in power despite the Obama administration's criticism of illegal settlement building, and its role as a blockade to the peace process, strongly aided by the Likud party. And despite international condemnation, the US - even under Obama - has not faltered in rewarding it with increasing military aid.

Apartheid state

While the settlements expand in the West Bank, the suppression of Palestinians is continuing in Israel. Another bill voted on in the Knesset at the same time as the rogue settlement bill, looked to limit the volume of the call to prayer from public address systems.

This was denounced by the Palestinian Authority, and the independent think tank, the Israel Democracy Institute, who said it would be yet another way in which Arab Israelis experience discrimination.

There are currently 50 - and counting - laws that seek to discriminate against Arabs living in Israel, affecting all facets of their daily life. This legislation degrades their existence within their own country, to that of a second-class citizen.

A game still being played out

Israel may be getting ahead of itself if it envisages a free for all takeover of Palestinian land, and a complete drop of the two-state solution. While Trump has curried favour with the Israelis, he has said since then that he cannot appear to be pro-Israel, despite the US legacy and election promises. Each side as he said, "would have to give up something".

At the same time, Trump is planning to exercise the US veto at the Security Council, and has previously condemned the UN's imposition of a peace agreement onto the parties, stating that the bond between the two countries - the US and Israel - is unbreakable.

Trump will clearly want a friend in Israel. And the feeling within Israel is perhaps one of increasing momentum, as having one of the most right-wing administrations governing the free-world has empowered its far-right elements.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.