What Netanyahu means when he talks about ‘ethnic cleansing’

PM has made clear for years that he rejects a two-state solution that completely separates Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, he envisions a deal allowing settlers to stay put. He probably didn’t think his latest video on the issue would spark a diplomatic spat

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A Jewish settler argues with a female soldier during the disengagement from the Gaza Strip on August 17, 2005. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/ Flash90)
A Jewish settler argues with a female soldier during the disengagement from the Gaza Strip on August 17, 2005. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/ Flash90)

By Sunday afternoon, the video in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posits that dismantling Jewish West Bank settlements in the framework of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is akin to “ethnic cleansing” had garnered nearly a million views, 14,000 likes, numerous condemnations from Israeli politicians and a stinging rebuke from the American government.

“Ethnic cleansing for peace is absurd. It’s about time somebody said it. I just did,” Netanyahu said at the end of the two-minute clip. But Netanyahu did not invent this controversial comparison on Friday afternoon, when the clip appeared on his social media accounts. He has made the argument, in various mutations, throughout his political career. In the 2000 edition of his book “A Durable Peace,” written before his watershed Bar-Ilan speech conditionally accepting the two-state solution, he flatly rejected the notion of a “hostile, Judenrein Palestinian state.” Even if the entire world supports it, the campaign for a West Bank free of Jews is based “not on justice but on injustice,” he argued at the time.

In January 2014, after he had accepted, in principle, the idea of a Palestinian state, he told CTV, Canada’s leading television network, that Israel’s Arab minority has full rights and is not asked to change their religion. “Now in the Palestinian state,” he added, “the way it’s being contemplated, they’re saying: Well, no Jew can live there, it has to be Jew free — ethnic cleansing. Well, what is that? There are Arabs who live here, but they can’t contemplate Jews living there.”

Ten months later, in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation,” he sought to rebut Washington’s consistent critique of Israel’s settlement expansions using the same logic. “It’s against the American values. And it doesn’t bode well for peace,” he said. “The idea that we’d have this ethnic purification as a condition for peace, I think it’s anti-peace.”

The Prime Minister’s Office again cited ostensible ethnic cleansing of Jewish settlers just last month. Responding to criticism by a senior United Nations official, Netanyahu’s foreign media adviser, David Keyes — who is behind Netanyahu’s viral videos — argued that it is not the presence of Jews in the West Bank but the Palestinian refusal to recognize a Jewish state in any borders that is the true barrier to peace.

PMO spokesperson David Keyes (GPO)
PMO spokesperson David Keyes (GPO)

“The claim that it is illegal for Jews to build in Jerusalem is as absurd as saying Americans can’t build in Washington or the French can’t build in Paris,” Keyes said. “The Palestinian demand to ethnically cleanse their future state of Jews is outrageous and should be condemned by the United Nations instead of being embraced by it.”

Amid the widespread criticism Netanyahu’s latest video elicited, many are wondering about his motives. Ethnic cleansing is widely considered a crime against humanity; the clip can thus be seen as a premeditated slap in the face of the Americans and indeed the entire international community for demanding that Israel agree to such a practice, some pundits said.

Others blamed the polls. Over the weekend, a second survey within a week showed Netanyahu’s Likud trailing the centrist Yesh Atid, indicating that for the first time since 2012, Likud would no longer be the country’s biggest party if elections were held today. Several analysts argued that Netanyahu provoked the ethnic cleansing drama to deflect criticism over his handling of last week’s train crisis and galvanize his right-wing supporters, relations with the US and the rest of the world be damned.

But the fact that Netanyahu and his aides have made the “ethnic cleansing” talking point before appears to discredit this theory. It is more likely that Netanyahu and Keyes — who, before he entered the Prime Minister’s Office, was known for his unorthodox style of political activism — released the clip as just one more of their ongoing series of hasbara (pro-Israel advocacy) videos, not expecting it would lead to such outrage.

In the middle of talks about US military aid, and ahead of Obama’s post-presidential-election lame duck period — when the president could choose to support anti-Israel actions at the UN — Netanyahu would probably not have deliberately picked an unnecessary fight with the administration

The point of these videos, which recently included Netanyahu’s claim to care more about Palestinians than do their own leaders, is to make Israel’s case directly to the masses via social media, thus circumventing the ostensibly biased mainstream media. In the middle of crucially important negotiations about US military aid, and ahead of Barack Obama’s post-presidential-election lame duck period — during which the president could choose to support anti-Israel actions at the UN — Netanyahu would probably not have deliberately picked an unnecessary fight with the administration.

That is not to say that the episode does not contain any valuable insights into Netanyahu’s thinking, especially at a time of increased talk about a meeting between him and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Moscow to restart the peace process.

“I think what makes peace impossible is intolerance of others. Societies that respect all people are the ones that pursue peace. Societies that demand ethnic cleansing don’t pursue peace,” Netanyahu says in the video, making plain that he does not think the Palestinians are ready for serious negotiations.

At the very least, Netanyahu’s message serves as a reminder of how he views a possible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: His talk of “ethnic cleansing” in the context of possible withdrawals underlines his utter rejection of a wide-scale evacuation of settlers.

“I envision a Middle East where young Arabs and young Jews learn together, work together, live together side by side in peace,” he says in the clip, hinting that he does not believe in a two-state solution that completely separates Israelis and Palestinians, but rather in some kind of arrangement in which many of the hundreds of thousands of Jews currently living in the West Bank will remain in their homes, even if they are located on territory belonging to a Palestinian state.

Can settlement evacuations be called ethnic cleansings?

Notwithstanding the emotions Netanyahu’s use of the term “ethnic cleansing” evoked this weekend, and the fact that Palestinian activists often use it to describe Israel’s actions in 1948, is the description factually sound?

There is no clear legal definition of “ethnic cleansing.” The Cambridge Dictionary describes it as “the organized, often violent attempt by a particular cultural or racial group to completely remove from a country or area all members of a different group.”

A commission of experts examining the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s — when the term was invented — established ethnic cleansing as a “purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”

On the face of it, the forced evacuation of Jewish settlers from the West Bank for the benefit of Palestinian Arabs appears to fit the bill. Palestinian leaders have been adamant that “not a single Israeli” will be accepted in their future state.

On the other hand, proponents of an Israeli withdrawal are not calling for the violent removal of settlers by Palestinians, but rather for a coordinated evacuation of settlements in the framework of a peace agreement.

As previous Israeli withdrawals from Sinai and Gaza have shown, a proportion of ideologically and religiously motivated activists would likely have to be evacuated by force — though hardly by “terror-inspiring means.”

File: Young settlers cry and pray on the roof during the disengagement in Neve Dkalim on August 17, 2005. (Nati shohat Flash90)
Settlers cry and pray during the Disengagement in Neve Dekalim, August 17, 2005. (Nati shohat Flash90)

A number of settlers might be expected to defy government-issued eviction orders and some could even attempt to sabotage the planned evacuation, but the international community’s vision of a peaceful implementation of a two-state solution has little in common with historical cases of ethnic cleansing, which are always bloodbaths.

Speaking of previous Israeli withdrawals, immediately after the prime minister published the video calling them ethnic cleansing, pundits pointed out that his very own party forcibly uprooted Israelis more than once — in 1982 from Sinai and in 2005 from Gaza. One of the Likud MKs who voted for Ariel Sharon’s 2005 Disengagement plan, albeit reluctantly, was Benjamin Netanyahu.

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