Netanyahu: A Bull in the Middle East China Shop

Photograph Source: Official U.S. Navy Page – CC BY 2.0

As I read the Guardian’s “Israel unveils controversial plans to overhaul judicial system,” January 4, 2023, which highlighted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s work in lessening the impact of Israel’s supreme court, I thought of how even atrophied dreams die hard. The article relates how Netanyahu’s far-right government is attempting to allow a cabinet minister to serve who has been convicted of tax offenses. As we’ve seen in the US, the right will chip away at each branch of government until there is no one in an official position to resist fascism. It’s as if the right-wing populist movements, the ultra-nationalist movements, and the white supremacist movements across the globe, and in the US, serve as a template for right-wing populism elsewhere. It’s a pandemic of a different sort.

Israel needs no script from other places to write its own version of its military hegemony in the Middle East and its refusal to grant human rights or the right of autonomy to the Palestinian people. It provides, both viciously and lethally, a system of apartheid to its bullied Palestinian victims. Democracy Now’s report “Diana Buttu and Gideon Levy: Israeli’s New Far-Right Gov’t Entrenches Apartheid System with US Support,” January 5, 2023, is an up-to-date primer on how Israel’s might continues to put the lives of Palestinians under its boot and how both the US and the vast majority of the rest of the West, including the EU, could give a damn about this human rights catastrophe. In the oil rich and strategically located Middle East, with far-right regimes in control of many countries, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is one of many outrages. Dare to speak out or act against the government in Saudi Arabia and imprisonment or death will be the result. When many Middle East regimes reconfigured their foreign policy, such as in the notorious example of Saudi Arabia, and aligned with Israel, the plight of the Palestinian people further deteriorated. The vicious war in Yemen is yet another example of the West, and especially the US, turning a blind eye to outrage and war crimes.

When Netanyahu’s government announced new Israeli settlements in the West Bank, a new low for Palestinian autonomy, if there ever was any autonomy, fell precipitously. With indictments of bribery and fraud against Netanyahu, even a slavish supporter of the prime minister might stand back momentarily and wonder just what is going on in the Israeli government and among most voters in Israel. The “I stand with Israel” banner on some Facebook homepage photographs tells much, as does the man/woman in the street interviews by Abby Martin showing a cross-section of Israeli hate against Palestinians (October 2017). No person of Jewish ancestry from the town where I grew up would have ever expressed that kind of ribald hate either publicly or privately. When Netanyahu’s minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, another far-right charlatan, declared open war on the most holy site of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity in Jerusalem, most who seem to be unaffected couldn’t give a damn (“Israel’s Ben-Gvir visits Al Aqsa mosque compound, Palestinians incensed,” Reuters, January 3, 2023).

As a child growing up in a small Jewish community in Rhode Island, I valued and cherished my Jewish heritage. The defining values of the community were fair play and compassion for others, no matter their religion. As foolish as it seems today, especially considering the Anti-Defamation League’s dedication to Zionism, we danced to records from that group about anti-racism and accepting people of all religions. We weren’t perfect as a community, but compassion was a driving force in our lives. Times have changed, though! By the time Israel fought three wars in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my community had already mostly disappeared. In the basement of our synagogue hung a framed map of Israel. An Israeli flag stood next to the ark of the covenant that held two Torahs, or holy scrolls, of the temple. That flag was flanked on the opposite side of the ark by the US flag. Anti-Semites have long accused Jews of having dual loyalties to Israel and the US, but no such loyalties existed among the people in our community. No one questioned Zionism in those days, as Israel was viewed as a refuge for Jews who survived the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. No one knew, or could or wanted to assess information about how masses of Arabs and Palestinians were exiled or killed in Palestine since the Balfour Declaration of 1917 granted Jews the right to settle in the Middle East. Britain walked the line as a superpower between that declaration and its interests in the Middle East, both of a strategic and fossil fuel nature. The freedom of any people in the Middle East would always take a back seat to strategic interests!

I remember our community’s celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim marking the retaking of Jerusalem in ancient times. We carried groggers, loud sound-making devices, and a small Israeli flag in the other hand. That holiday was observed to mark the refusal of a Jewish Biblical character to bow down to a minister from the Persian empire. That symbol was a driving force in my life: the importance of resistance as part of my Jewish heritage.

There was no discernible difference between the Jewish community’s support for Israel and our Jewish heritage and our place as part of US culture. But many Jews in the US moved away from unquestioned support for Israel as the decades wore on and the plight of the Palestinian people became apparent. Many critics will say that Palestinian radicalism by some drove much of US Jewish support for Israel, but that belies the growing number of Jews in the US who support a Palestinian state or full rights for Palestinians in Israel. How innocent Palestinian children could ever be considered radicals is beyond comprehension.

A poll published by the Pew Research Center in 2021, showed 63% of US Jews believed an amicable solution could be found between Israel and the Palestinian people. Include a divisive issue such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and results will not be as sanguine.

The BDS movement seems to rankle Israeli leaders more than most issues. I think there is some merit to the issue, but only to bring the plight of the Palestinian people to light and is not a movement that has achieved anything lasting. If, as a consumer, I refuse to purchase Hanukkah candles from Israel, what harm, other than symbolic, am I achieving? Conversely, military hardware is another issue altogether. Israel produces lots of military hardware and surveillance technology that could be a real economic thorn in the side of the security state that is contemporary Israel. Going after a big fish like military equipment would cause a violent reaction from the government of Israel.

US foreign aid to Israel is $3.3 billion in fiscal year 2022, with an additional $500 million for missile defense. Those figures don’t include weapons profits in either the US and Israel.

None of these critical issues seem to rise to the level of a serious assessment today for many and Netanyahu does as he pleases, with little censure from his paymasters in Washington, DC.

Iran and Syria are among the nations and wars there in which Israel has had a part. The list of wars in the Middle East is almost endless over many decades, but Israel has a special status as the only nuclear armed country in the region. Had Israel taken the high ground decades ago toward the Palestinian people, when it had the support of many nations following the Holocaust, and did the so-called right thing by recognizing a Palestinian state, its stature would have been enhanced throughout the region, but the opposite has happened.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).