Samir Aslan did what any father would do. When Israeli soldiers broke into his home at Qalandiya refugee camp last week to arrest his son, he rushed to protect him. The 41-year-old Palestinian was shot and killed. His death received scant notice, so frequent are such incidents. A reported 224 Palestinians were killed last year in the occupied West Bank, which suffered almost daily army raids. 2023 is shaping up to be even worse.
The main reason is a new ultranationalist, hard-right religious coalition government in Jerusalem that includes racist, anti-Arab ministers determined to annex all the Palestinian territories. Yet the response to this alarming, destabilising development from Israel’s western allies has been strangely muted. A few have issued veiled warnings. None has imposed the sort of sanctions or boycotts levelled in the past on political extremists in other countries.
The coalition’s objectionable plans raise a broader, uncomfortable question for the US and Europe reaching beyond the too-familiar abuses and impunity of military occupation. In short, can Israel still be considered a reliable, law-abiding ally that shares a set of common values and standards with the western democracies? Maybe this is why governments are keeping stumm.
In critical respects, Israel under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s self-perpetuating leadership is a liability. It obstructs a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict and scorns the UN and international law. It refuses to back sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. It rubbishes the 2015 Iran nuclear deal while threatening war. It sells spyware and arms to authoritarian regimes that abuse human rights.
Worse still, perhaps, Netanyahu’s band of bigots is actively undermining Israel’s democratic institutions and civil rights, such as peaceful protest and LGBTQ rights. Many Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, passionately oppose the government. Senior politicians warn of “civil war”. Diplomats and generals are mutinying. But reckless, opportunistic Netanyahu doesn’t care.
Conventional imperatives for treating Israel differently from other countries read like this: Israel is the Middle East’s only genuine democracy – it must be supported. It is surrounded by hostile regimes seeking its destruction – it must be defended. Remembering the Holocaust, Europe and America owe the Jewish people an eternal debt – it must be honoured.
This ingrained thinking informs but does not excuse reluctance to confront the far-right zealots. Finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist party, who advocates annexation of the entire occupied West Bank, is now in charge of settlement construction. One of his first acts was to seize $40m in Palestinian Authority funds.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, co-leader of the Jewish Power party who was previously convicted for inciting racism, is the new national security minister. He began by ordering a police crackdown on Israeli anti-government protests, banning Palestinian flags, and paying a deliberately provocative visit to Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site.
Netanyahu’s coalition is moving quickly to tame the judiciary – the very same justice system that is prosecuting him for alleged corruption. Meanwhile, criticism grows risky. Zvika Fogel of Jewish Power last week accused opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz of “treason against the homeland”. Little wonder President Isaac Herzog felt the need to call for calm.
US president Joe Biden, a stalwart Israel ally, views upholding democratic values as the defining global struggle of the age. Netanyahu’s close association with democracy-destroying Donald Trump, enthusiastic endorsement of Brazil’s “wonderful” coup plotter, Jair Bolsonaro, and matey dealings with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán must have Biden puzzling whose side the six-term prime minister is really on. Progressive American Jewish leaders have similar concerns.
Biden is sending secretary of state Antony Blinken to Jerusalem to investigate what’s going on, while Netanyahu is due in Washington next month. That will be interesting. Yet so far, the US has eschewed overt criticism. A shamefully supine approach is also being pursued by EU countries – and Britain. Visiting Israel last week, a Foreign Office minister, Lord Ahmad, blithely declared bilateral ties had attained “new heights”.
The idea that Israel is besieged by hostile regimes was true once, but no longer. It has proved many times it can look after itself. The so-called Abraham Accords with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco reinforced an established trend towards coexistence, if not friendship, with the Arab world. Netanyahu hopes the Saudis will sign up next. Hateful anti-Israel ogres of yore – in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Libya – have all been vanquished, one way or another.
The big exception is Iran, which remains fiercely antagonistic. Sooner or later, Netanyahu will again threaten to attack Tehran’s nuclear facilities. War with Iran would inevitably draw in Europe and the US. Much though they abhor the regime, that remains contrary to their interests. They have successfully restrained Netanyahu – until now.
Likewise, an intifada-like explosion in the West Bank triggered by ministers’ attempts to regularise illegal settlements or collapse the Palestinian Authority, would be viewed as an avoidable disaster by the west. Yet there are signs an explosion is coming, evidenced by the recent violence and the rise of local Palestinian armed groups linked to Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
By endangering western public support for the state of Israel, undermining its democracy and confounding its alliances, Netanyahu and his hate-mongering cronies show themselves to be their country’s own worst enemies. While they divide and rule, the gulf with the west widens – and Israel weakens.
How ironic, after all the “blood and tears” shed since 1948 – to quote a former, courageous peace-making prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, speaking in 1993 – if the final, fatal blow were to be struck from within. Rabin, remember, was subsequently murdered. His killer? A fanatical rightwing Jewish ultranationalist.