The National (Opinion)
December 14, 2009 - 1:00am

‘The IDF won’t determine where to fight us. We will choose the battlefield.” This taunt aimed at the Israeli army did not come from Hamas or Hizbollah, but it presents just as much danger to the state of Israel and to greater hopes for peace in the Middle East. It came from Yonatan Rachamin, a 25-year-old Israeli, and he is not alone in his intransigence.

Mr Rachamin’s radicalism runs deep within the powerful and restive Israeli Right, many of whom are now advocating what they call “the price-tag strategy”. Interfere with the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and Mr Rachamin and others have committed themselves to exacting a heavy price: on Palestinians, yes, but also on Israeli soldiers – and on the peace process – should they deem it necessary.

The first awful fruits of this strategy emerged in the vandalising of a mosque near Nablus on Friday. On the floor of the mosque that had been torched and its contents desecrated, a spray-painted manifesto was left behind: “Price tag – greetings from Effi,” it read.

The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defence minister, Ehud Barak, were quick to condemn the attack. But their condemnations are empty so long as they do not address the root causes and the degree of radicalism within the settler movement – and in some cases, within their governing coalition. When asked about Friday’s desecration of the mosque, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a spokesman for a member of the Israeli Knesset, would only comment: “Netanyahu must freeze these racist edicts to calm the atmosphere.”

What Mr Ben-Gvir labelled racist edicts were Mr Netanyahu’s half-hearted efforts to curtail settlement activity in the West Bank. Rather than comply with US and European demands that such activity cease, or even acknowledge that settlements violate international law, Mr Netanyahu agreed to a temporary “settlement freeze”. Even this reveals his semantic sleight of hand. How can Mr Netanyahu’s proposal be called a “freeze”, when he has allowed for the continued construction of settlements in East Jerusalem? Clearly he is trying to play both sides: to give an appearance of respecting international law and opinion, while attempting to appease right-wing Israelis. In his long political career, Mr Netanyahu has been a master of this double game. But if he values the pursuit of peace over parochial politics, he must now abandon it.

The Israeli people must determine the obligations that define their state. Does Israel commit to the values of a fanatical minority whose handiwork can be seen in a desecrated mosque? Or does Israel commit “to practice tolerance and live together in peace ... as good neighbours”. The latter aims are the obligations listed in the preamble to the United Nations Charter – the organisation that established the parameters for Israel’s existence but that the state of Israel has so often ignored. Mr Netanyahu also has a choice to make – the actions of some Israeli settlers are only making this choice clearer for him. But if history serves as a guide, it is difficult to believe that Mr Netanyahu will choose wisely.


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