There are phrases that, as a student of history in the making, I never thought I would read, let alone write. Now, however, such a phrase is in full circulation and I feel no qualms about repeating it: Benjamin Netanyahu is a moderate politician! The "comeback kid" of Israeli politics certainly cuts a moderate figure in his new Cabinet. Some commentators even dub him "the only moderate" in that Cabinet.
Others see his return to power as a sign that, in the words of Alan Dershowitz, Israel is "a deeply divided state." Yet other commentators warn that the latest general election that ended with the victory of the right-wing parties has taken Israel "to the edge". "What has been built in 75 years may be dismantled in a very short time," says a writer who reminds us that she is a descendant of a Holocaust victim.
Israel's history as a recently revived state is full of "extremist" and "dangerous" figures that were transformed into paragons of moderation. The problem is that when it comes to Israel, the only yardstick for measuring moderation and extremism is a politician's stand on the "Palestinian issue".
Things become even more complicated when we remember that the "Palestinian issue" has never been properly defined. It has always been approached tangentially, first as a refugee problem with the "right of return" cliché as leitmotiv. That resulted in keeping a growing number of Palestinians in refugee camps in several countries without doing anything to resettle them. A straight return to what had become Israel was out of the question because for the right of return to operate you have to recognize the legitimacy of the state to which you wish to return. And that, of course, was out of the question as long as Arab states denied the very existence of Israel.
After decades, some genius pretended to have discovered the "two-state solution." That "solution", of course, had been offered by the United Nations and accepted by the Jews under the "extremist" David Ben Gurion in 1947, but rejected by neighboring Arab states. Its revival by Western powers, notably the United States, was an exercise in diplomatic wild goose chasing.
For decades now, almost everyone has paid lip service to that "solution" or even imagined "roadmaps" towards achieving it, without wondering whether the Israelis and the Palestinians actually want it. The fact is that repeated opinion polls and elections show that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians do not want the "two-state solution," I guess because it is not clear what it means. In Israel's new parliament (Knesset), only 10 out of 120 members say they support the formula. But even they don't say where one state would end and the other would begin.
With that gambit getting nowhere, the "Palestinian problem" was redefined as one of expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But even there, the curse of opacity continued. Supporters of settlements never said how far and wide they should be allowed while opponents never said how many of them should be dismantled. In any case, the dismantling of all settlements in Gaza never led to the peace expected.
As the theme of the settlements began to appear shopworn, a new version of the "Palestinian problem" was put into circulation: "Israeli Apartheid." But that, too, was never defined. In South Africa under Apartheid, black and colored citizens were not allowed to vote or get elected.
In Israel, non-Jewish citizens can and do. Palestinians in the West Bank do not have those rights because they are not Israeli citizens. And to become Israeli citizens, their land must be formally annexed by Israel.
Whichever way you dance around the "Palestinian problem," you cannot get out of the maze of contradictions.
A majority of Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank seem to understand that. Palestinians know that no Israeli coalition, whether of left or right or center, could offer them a deal they can accept. They also know that the "Palestinian issue" is often used by ambitious Israeli politicians to cover their nakedness in terms of credible policies.
In 2000, Ariel Sharon went to the Temple Mount with a large retinue as opening shot in an election which led to his premiership. Now the new Israeli Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben Gvir, stages a similar show as a downsized caricature of Sharon.
The fact that, like Sharon, Ben Gvir had visited the "holy place" on numerous occasions before entering the government is often overlooked. Ben Gvir and his outfit are more interested in milking the Israeli state's cow for this-worldly perks and handouts than offering credible policies to Israeli society at large.
Israel is not deeply divided. In fact, less than 11% of the electorate supported the so-called "extreme-right" bloc. The latest opinion polls show that only 31% of Israelis regard the "Palestinian issue" as their number-one concern. Opinion polls in the West Bank, too, show that bread-and-butter politics and cleaning corruption are the top concerns of Palestinians.
Fixation with the "Palestinian issue", a problem that contrary to Pollyannaish Cartesianism does not have a ready solution, has diverted from many here-and-now problems facing both Israelis and Palestinians.
A nation effervescent with creativity, Israel cannot be led to sclerosis by politicians like Ben Gvir or Bezalel Smotrich around the "Palestinian problem".
Life is richer than Ben Gvir's metaphysical conceits.
That problem might find a solution only if both Israelis and Palestinians are convinced that solving it is in their own interest. Whichever way one looks at it, that conviction isn't there yet. And even if, one day, that conviction materializes, there is no guarantee that those who have built whole carriers and national strategies around perpetuating it will allow a solution to be agreed and applied.
In the meantime, all we have is the status quo, and it is by pledging to maintain it that Netanyahu, warts and all, wins unlikely accolades as a moderate in a government of real or fake extremists.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.