Netanyahu government's hard right shift is 'a red light for all of us'

Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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Drew Christiansen

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In 1968, barely one year after Israel's illegal military occupation of the occupied Palestinian Territories commenced, Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published a remarkably prescient essay titled "The Territories." Next year that occupation of Palestinian lands, already the longest occupation in modern military history, will mark its fiftieth year.

In his essay, Leibowitz issued a dire warning of an existential threat to Israel; not from Arab countries, the Soviet Union or terrorism, but from within Israel itself, namely its new occupation of lands conquered in the 1967 war. Leibowitz urged Israel to withdraw from the territories before the occupation corrupted both Israel and the Palestinians, undermining the very foundation of the Israeli state.

Fast-forward 44 years to 2012. That year Professors Daniel Bar-Tal and Izhak Schnell of Tel Aviv University published "The Impacts of Lasting Occupation," a book that examines the effects of occupation on Israeli society that Leibowitz had warned about. 

The "consequences of occupation are evident in all aspects of Israeli life, including its political, social, legal, economic, cultural, and psychological spheres," Bar-Tal and Schnell write. They go on to demonstrate how the occupation has resulted, as Leibowitz predicted 44 years before, in the "deterioration of democracy and moral codes, threatened personal security, and limited economic growth in Israel."

In future years we may look back at May 2016 as the month in which the warnings and analysis of these authors translated into hard reality. For by forcing the resignation May 20 of Israeli Defense Minister General Moshe Ya'alon and the offering of his position to the ultranationalist and openly racist Avigdor Lieberman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sealed the ascent to power to some of the most retrograde forces in Israel today.

The chain of recent events that culminated in this reshuffling was triggered by the execution in Hebron on March 24 this year by an Israeli medic of a handcuffed and wounded Palestinian prisoner lying on the street. The execution was captured on high-quality video by a Palestinian and went viral after being passed on to human rights campaigners. 

The video's release also exposed a deep political rift in the Israeli political class that had been growing for some time between those who were pulling the country ever further to the radical right and those who were finally waking up to the mortal danger this posed to Israeli democracy and Jewish values.

Put on the spot by international condemnation, Netanyahu at first condemned the killing. After the initial brouhaha over the execution died down, however, Netanyahu and his cabinet began defending the murder by the Israeli army medic. Netanyahu even went so far as to call the medic's family to offer support. 

A multitude of Israeli politicians demanded amnesty for the medic; the right-wing rank-and-file embraced him as a hero. Their adulation of the perpetrator was too much, however, for the Israeli security establishment, who realized the corrosive effect this would have on the Israeli army. Leading national security figures with the full backing of Defense Minister Ya'alon responded publicly to the right-wing glorification of the execution.

On May 4, Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel, the Israeli army's Deputy Chief of Staff Major-General Yair Golan warned that the country was beginning to resemble 1930s Germany. "If there's something that frightens me about Holocaust remembrance," he told his audience, "it's the recognition of the revolting processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany, back then — 70, 80 and 90 years ago — and finding signs of them here among us today in 2016."

This was followed by the resignation on May 20 of Ya’alon. Ya’alon wrote on his Facebook page that his resignation was due to his "strong disagreement on moral and professional issues with the prime minister, a number of ministers and several MKs (members of the Israeli parliament)." 

Ya'alon added that he had "fought with all [his] might against manifestations of extremism, violence and racism in Israeli society, which are threatening its sturdiness and also trickling into the IDF, hurting it already."

On the same weekend, a third former chief of staff, defense minister and prime minister, Ehud Barak, also joined the chorus of condemnation. Charging that Israel had been "infected by the seeds of fascism," Barak said that Ya'alon's resignation "should be a red light for all of us regarding what's going on in the government," namely that "what has happened is a hostile takeover of the Israeli government by dangerous elements. And it's just the beginning." 

That these warnings were coming not from leftist Israeli parties but from decorated Israeli generals, is an indication of how serious this sharp lurch to the right is for Israel. 

The Israeli press described these events in apocalyptic terms. In Haaretz, easily Israel's most balanced newspaper, dire warnings were issued by its writers. Gideon Levy warned that "For the first time in Israeli history, fascism is a clear and possibly present danger," with Israel now "in the hands of someone who could destroy it." 

Zvi Bar'el's opinion titled "The First Jewish Military Coup" said that the Israeli army would "have to decide what constitutes the ultimate threat to the security and existence of the country: Is it thousands of missiles and Palestinian knife attackers or is it a government that is shaping the public into a monster threatening to devour Israeli democracy's fundamental values?" 

An equally incisive article also appeared in the May 22 edition of The New York Times by Ronen Bergman, a Times contributing writer and a senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs at Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. Bergman blamed the split between the political and security/military establishments on "two words: Benjamin Netanyahu." 

Bergman explained, "Many of the military and intelligence officers who have served under [Netanyahu] simply detest him." Their ill-feeling grows out of Netanyahu "belligerent solutions" to problems. Unlike the defense establishment which is "motivated only by national interest," Bergman opined, Israeli politicians led by Netanyahu are motivated by "ideology, religion or electoral considerations." 

Netanyahu has all along demonstrated that he will make a deal with the devil himself to stay in power. Instead of reining in the radical right, Netanyahu panders to it. 

When Israelis leaders like Generals Ya'alon, Golan and former Prime Minister Barak, also a former chief of staff, quite openly announce that the country long proud of being the "only democracy in the Middle East" has taken a decisive step toward political fascism, it is time for friends of Israel to take notice. It should no longer be possible to make excuses for the excesses of the occupation and Israeli self-defense. 

Furthermore, with Lieberman now in charge of the occupation, it is of the utmost importance that the world community hold Israel to strict account on its international responsibilities as an occupying state; and it must help the Palestinians achieve the rightful position as a sovereign people. President Obama's rumored initiative to promote Palestinian independence at the U.N. this fall has become more necessary than ever. 

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development at Georgetown University; Rafat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]

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