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The Globe and Mail

Israel’s right-left split on Palestinian rights

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has made little progress in reigniting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The more time he spends in the region, the more he realizes how far apart the two sides are. Meantime, the Israeli right is taking advantage of its political strength and trying to reshape public discourse on fundamental issues such as human rights … of Palestinians. The effort is surprising and somewhat disingenuous.

The strength of Yair Lapid's centrist Yesh Atid party notwithstanding, his right-wing coalition partner, Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party, holds key ministries with significant budgets that can finance settlement activity. Since this is assured, Mr. Bennett says he can live with negotiations as long as they don't lead to an agreement.

Meantime, within the NGO sector, activists intent on maintaining Israel's hold on the West Bank are developing a new human-rights agenda. They want to challenge the left's "monopoly" on human rights that they view as promoting political agendas damaging to Israel. And they say that defending Palestinian rights is a responsibility that crosses left-right lines.

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Behind this apparently appealing claim, a huge gap separates Israeli human-rights groups and the new Blue and White Human Rights Association launched under the auspices of the Jerusalem-based Institute for Zionist Strategies. Israel's veteran human-rights community argues that, as long as the territories are occupied, settlements violate international law and Palestinians are denied basic human rights by definition. Their defence of Palestinian rights thus goes hand in hand with opposition to the occupation. They understand that, if the occupation doesn't end, Palestinians will eventually demand the right to vote. If Israel won't grant it, it won't stay a democracy.

The new human-rights advocates on the right may themselves have an agenda. They don't acknowledge the occupation, assume continued Israeli control of the West Bank, define defence of basic rights as the responsibility of the sovereign power – and ignore the question of the right to vote. The Institute for Zionist Strategies says it refrains from dealing with the question of Israel's borders while promoting a "national liberal" agenda. Yet, the issues of borders and the nature of Israeli democracy are key for anyone engaged in Israel's future.

The human-rights landscape has long been a battleground of ideas reflecting the debate on the future of the occupied territories and Israel's responsibility for their residents. There's no shortage of extreme examples. A decade ago, radical settlers led by Orit Struk (a leader in Hebron and now a Knesset member in Mr. Bennett's party) established a human-rights group on the settlers' behalf, claiming their rights were ignored by rights advocates working in the territories. On the left, in turn, some critics of human-rights organizations claim that, by working on the ground to alleviate conditions for Palestinians, they facilitate the occupation.

But what's happening now is different. The right is working hard to "mainstream" its commitment to the West Bank. Since most Israelis are indifferent to the Palestinian issue and support the government's domestic focus, the right not only argues there's no partner but offers new language that satisfies the Israeli centre's desire for basic decency without compromising security.

The new effort also has an international dimension. The settler community has been targeting governments and international NGOs in an effort to diminish criticism that, by their very presence, settlements deny Palestinian human rights and affect Israel's democratic principles. Protecting Palestinians at checkpoints, improving their access to health care and monitoring soldiers' actions all help to strengthen Israel's legitimacy as a democracy. But the right won't commit to giving Palestinians the vote if Israel holds on to much of the territories in the long term. And that leaves a gaping hole in any definition of democracy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged this when he said Wednesday that Israel could not become a binational state.

The Israeli left's weakness leaves an open field for ideas on the centre-right. But Tuesday's stabbing death of an Israeli West Bank settler by a Palestinian and the subsequent rock-throwing attack on a Palestinian school bus by settlers are stark reminders of how difficult it is, for either side, to have it both ways.

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