News and analysis from Palestine, Israel and beyond.

Settlement Withdrawal And “Ethnic Cleansing”

Earlier today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office tweeted out a short video in which Netanyahu confronts the claim, made regularly by the United States and the rest of international community, that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are an obstacle to a Palestinian state. Netanyahu rejects this, which is not surprising, but he goes even farther, condemning the idea of settlement withdrawal as “ethnic cleansing”:

[T]he Palestinian leadership actually demands a Palestinian state with one precondition: No Jews. There’s a phrase for that. It’s called ethnic cleansing.

Americans for Peace Now has an excellent takedown of this canard, which surfaced back in 2009 in a messaging study written by Republican pollster Frank Luntz (who also happens to be the former boss of current Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer) for the pro-Israel PR shop The Israel Project on how to defend the settlements to the U.S. public. After criticism, the term was dropped. It has now been taken up again by Netanyahu.

Every peace plan since the 1990’s has been premised on the withdrawal of a certain number of settlements, for the plain reason that without such a withdrawal a Palestinian state would be economically unviable (which is, of course, the reason for building the settlements in the first place.) By casting settlement withdrawal in these terms, Netanyahu basically is accusing Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, and all of the officials who have worked on these issues, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of promoting ethnic cleansing.

Regarding Netanyahu’s claim about Palestinian demands, Palestinian leaders have made clear that Jews can be citizens of a future Palestinian state, but that they will not accept the presence of enclaves of Israeli settlers peppered throughout that state (as, of course, no state would):

“Any person, be he Jewish, Christian or Buddhist, will have the right to apply for Palestinian citizenship,” [PLO Executive Committee member Hanan] Ashrawi told The Times of Israel. “Our basic law prohibits discrimination based on race or ethnicity.”

She added, however, that Palestinians would not accept “ex-territorial Jewish enclaves,” where residents will maintain their Israeli citizenship status. Abbas, she said, had no problem with Jews within the Palestinian state, including in the international security force deployed in the Jordan Valley.

In addition to cynically invoking memories of the Jewish people’s past oppression and expulsion (which could clearly be considered a form of incitement), Netanyahu’s use of “ethnic cleansing” is particularly offensive given that Israeli policies of home demolition, land confiscation, and expulsion — which the U.S. and its partners have criticized with increasing alarm — are far more deserving of it. The fact that Netanyahu made this message in English suggests, among other things, an effort to rebut those steadily escalating criticisms, and lay the groundwork for opposition from his American supporters in the event that the U.S. attempts to do anything about it.