Should the world nudge Israel back to sanity?


Some Israelis certainly think so

Should the United States lower the boom on Israel’s new far-right government? Does the democratic world have the leverage, the will or even any right to try to save Israel from itself? Such is the dilemma now that new-old Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has assembled a cabinet brimming with fanatics, featuring convicted criminals and bubbling over with authoritarian ideas.

There are worse governments in the world—and even among democracies, if Poland and Hungary still count. But there has never been a specter like this in Israel, and that’s a big deal: the Jewish state remains a nuclear power, a top military ally of Washington, a leading trading partner of the European Union, a global tech superpower, and a particularly combustible spark in the Middle East tinderbox.

The change has happened because, perhaps for the first time ever, a right-wing Israeli leader is totally dependent on his far-right and religious allies, enabling full-on  extortion. That’s because Netanyahu cannot threaten an alternative coalition with moderates. Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is so mired in corruption scandals—he is currently on trial for charges including bribery—that they are boycotting him on principle, not over policy.

Let’s survey the wreckage that has resulted.

For starters, the new Netanyahu government plans to enrage the Palestinians by increasing settlement deep inside occupied territory, including legalizing hitherto rogue outposts. Officially in charge of this enterprise, via an unusual arrangement, is new Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, an ultranationalist famed for lamenting that his wife had to share a maternity post with Arabs and who has called himself a proud homophobe. The military has been warning of a new Palestinian uprising, and with zero chance of peace talks this increasingly looks inevitable.

If unrest should break out, the man in charge of dealing with much of it is new National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a gun-waving career brute and acolyte of Rabbi Meir Kahane (who advocated the expulsion of Arabs) and terrorist Baruch Goldstein (who killed 29 Palestinians in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994). Ben-Gvir, a key part of the incitement that preceded the 1995 assassination of the peacemaking Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, has several convictions (including for “support for terror”) and many indictments to his name, such that two years ago Netanyahu promised on national TV that the man would never serve in his cabinet.

But Ben-Gvir is a criminal waif compared to Arye Deri, head of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) religious party Shas. Deri, who already served significant time for bribery, recently was again convicted of tax evasion in a plea bargain in which he avoided jail by promising to leave politics. To appoint him to the powerful double posts of Interior Minister and Health Minister, Netanyahu had to pass special legislation two weeks ago. That law has been challenged before the Supreme Court, and the attorney general, a civil servant inherited from the previous liberal government, says she cannot defend the government in the upcoming hearings.

To get around this, enter new Justice Minister Yarin Levin, whose job is to dismantle judicial oversight in what has been a rather miraculous Middle Eastern democracy. This week he announced plans to enact an “override clause” which would enable a simple majority of parliament to override decisions of the Supreme Court. The court had been the last recourse for Palestinians, and since Israel has no formal constitution it is the sole defender of human and minority rights in the country. As a bonus, the government seeks to politicize the civil service and judicial appointments also, and has placed a leading proponent of gay conversion therapy in charge of extracurricular education.

The government also plans to double the lifelong salaries to Haredi adults who study in seminaries, formalize the non-conscription of Haredi men, continue the child allowances that enable the various ultra-orthodox sects to have seven children per family on average, and allow Haredi schools to not teach a core curriculum of math, science, and English (the previous government had started to make inroads to change this). If this setup continues, Start-Up Nation will vanish, and economic collapse is certain.

As readers might imagine, the many Israelis who oppose all this (which includes the vast majority of taxpayers) are in despair, with emotions ranging from catatonic to apoplectic. Talk of securing foreign passports to flee is popular, as are musings about a “tax revolt” (which seems unlikely for employees who face withholding). And while it is far from a mainstream view, many are losing faith in political discourse and yearn for the world to exact a price on their own country.

Direct interventions are problematic, because it is easy to argue that outsiders have no right, and also no deep understanding. They have a spotty record of effectiveness: scolding and UN condemnations are dismissed by all, and while economic sanctions worked with South Africa they’re sputtering with the likes of Russia and Iran.

On the other hand, Russia and Iran are dictatorships that don’t tend to take public opinion as seriously as places with elections. There’s not much of a track record for sanctions on democracies, and it probably depends on circumstances.

In Israel, the one-quarter who vote for far-right and religious parties are prepared to burn down the house; but the voters of Netanyahu’s Likud, another quarter, are different. Mostly lower-middle class, they love travelling freely to Europe, seeing the flag flying at international events (including the Eurovision Song festival), and seeing their standard of living rival and even surpass that of Italy and France. Poverty would not please them. It seems plausible that if they connect Israel’s actions to a genuinely painful lifestyle impact, some would be swayed.

We are left with the democracy argument: defenders of the government will point to the will of the people. But that spin also has some holes.

For starters, about exactly half the voters opposed this coalition; its victory results from peculiarities of the system which left an eighth of the opposition’s vote unrepresented, saddling parliament them with an Electoral College-level crisis of legitimacy.

But what is more damning is that a quarter of the effective population—the 3 million Palestinians of the West Bank—do not have the right to vote for the government that effectively rules over them, and that is Israel’s (the Palestinian Authority is increasingly a fiction with municipal powers at best).

After 55 years of occupation, with Israel dotting the West Bank with settlers, with the new leaders declaring the situation permanent, and with the government taking steps to dismantle real democracy, it starts to look like the entire edifice is breaking down.

There are no easy answers to this situation, and the world is in any case distracted with Ukraine. But if the Middle East blows up, the world will care. America has an interest in a stable Middle East—and indeed many Americans care about Israel.

What can the world do before things blow up? Many Israelis would say it is okay for the world to express its displeasure. Levers include American military aid, unrestricted travel and trade, the automatic U.S. veto on criticism of Israel at the U.N. Security Council, and even Europe’s hosting of Israel in its sports tournaments. It might not take much to tip the scales and change the picture.

President Biden may want to consider his options, and make a call to Netanyahu.

(This article appeared originally in Newsweek)




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