By Mouin Rabbani: Co-Editor of Jadaliyya
The contention that the roots of Israel’s current political crisis are to be found in its policies towards the Palestinian people is gaining currency. According to this perspective, the authoritarian legislative agenda of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and the methods deployed to achieve it, represent the inevitable and inescapable culmination of Israel’s 75 years of oppression and repression of the Palestinian people, and particularly its systematic eradication of the rule of law in the Arab territories it has occupied since 1967.
Some additionally suggest that Netanyahu and his far-right allies’ primary motivation for promoting the legislative programme is to acquire powers with which to more intensively dispossess the Palestinian people.
It is an admittedly appealing argument, especially for those making the point that Israel’s claim to be a “Jewish and democratic state” is in fact a confession of ethnocracy and for those seeking to promote the inclusion of Palestinian rights within the agenda of the movement protesting the government’s reform plan.
The idea that Israel is experiencing a blowback in its domestic politics from its policies towards the Palestinians does have some basis in reality. To state the obvious, a Jewish supremacist regime necessarily empowers Jewish supremacists.
This, coupled with expansionist policies which require systematic violence and the permanent subjugation and dehumanisation of the Palestinian people, has over time elevated the most extremist and messianic leaders to the pinnacle of power.
As in similar situations throughout history, such forces tend to view any obstacle to their objectives, including established institutions and dissenting members of their own community, as disloyal elements that need to be neutralised.
The above notwithstanding, to interpret Israel’s current crisis as an organic product of its policies towards the Palestinians, or as a domestic replication of Israeli methods of rule vis-à-vis the Palestinians, is to fundamentally misunderstand both the nature of this crisis and the Palestinian reality.
Clearly, mass demonstrations carried out by Israelis at regular intervals throughout the country have not been criminalised, and those participating have, when confronted, encountered police forces using batons and water cannon rather than military units with snipers who shoot to maim and kill.
Whatever one may think of Netanyahu and his plans for the Israeli judiciary, his government was constituted on the basis of an election and his agenda is being adopted by a parliament that the overwhelming majority of Israeli citizens embrace as the legitimate if not exclusive representation of their collective political will.
All this is a rather far cry from the Palestinian reality of being ruled by a foreign military government under a colonial regime imposing extraterritorial legislation by force.
The assertion that this crisis could have been averted if Israel had adopted a constitution may well be mistaken since constitutions, like judiciaries, can be revised and indeed replaced altogether.
More clearly nonsensical is the claim that Israel refrained from adopting one because it would otherwise have to declare its borders, and either enshrine equality for all its citizens or formally proclaim ethnocracy.
Constitutions do not delineate borders. And it is a matter of record that Israel’s 1948 declaration of statehood promised equality to those it was in the process of ethnically cleansing from their homeland, and that in 2018, the Knesset adopted a Basic Law defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people rather than of the citizens of the state.
Israel’s failure to adopt a constitution primarily reflects its founders’ unwillingness to take a position on the vexed question of religion and state, thus avoiding polarisation between the rabbinical establishment and secular elites. These two sides have clashed over the definition of Jewishness, but have displayed remarkable consensus on denying Palestinians their rights.
Similarly, the current crisis is first and foremost an internal dispute within Israel’s Jewish population and elites about the governance of their ethnocracy and the role of its institutions.
If advocates of the government’s agenda state that it will better enable them to dispossess the Palestinians and annex their lands, which indeed it will, this reflects marketing more than motivation. In Israel, apartheid sells better than authoritarianism, and “Nakba Now!” rates better than letting crooked politicians off the hook. The government would hardly garner the same level of support for its judicial agenda if it were to proclaim a key objective is to enable senior politicians like Netanyahu and Aryeh Deri to dodge accountability for corruption indictments.
The broad Israeli consensus on the dispossession of the Palestinians has also been apparent in the fact that most protest organisers have actively fought to exclude the rights of Palestinians – including of those who are Israeli citizens – from their movement.
Meanwhile, Western governments also seem more incensed by the institutional degradation of Israel’s ethnocracy than its existence or persistence. Criticisms, condemnations, and boycotts of Israel, its government, military, and economy, considered taboo if undertaken in response to its eradication of Palestinian rights and lives, are proudly announced and even encouraged in defence of a judiciary that is institutionally guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The priority of the West – and its sole interest in the matter – is the stability of its strategic ally. That’s how the “rules-based international order” works – rules and rights only enter the equation if violated by rivals and adversaries.
Yet this crisis is, in significant part, of the West’s own making. For decades, and increasingly in recent years, it has ensured total impunity for Israeli leaders. It is only natural that these leaders conduct themselves like spoiled toddlers, grabbing and smashing anything and everything within reach, and directing tantrums at their enablers in Washington and Brussels at the slightest hint of reservation about their course of action.
They have, through endless repetition, been desensitised by their Western sponsors to consideration of consequence. It no longer exists in their calculations, and they have as a result become incapable of inhibition.
It might additionally be observed that it is a little rich for the West to spend decades celebrating Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, losing no opportunity to strengthen it with acts of commission and omission, and then have a meltdown about the entirely predictable consequences of doing so – primarily because Israeli authoritarianism complicates their Middle Eastern policies in ways that support for apartheid never could.
It is in this sense that impunity has come home to roost. As always, the price will be paid within the region, mainly by Palestinians and, to a lesser extent, by Israelis as well.