Judicial overhaul delay lands on backs of Palestinians

Michael F. Brown

The Electronic Intifada  /  March 30, 2023

The Israeli compromise to delay its judicial overhaul was made on the backs of Palestinians. They are the ones who will pay the price of a “new” national guard.

The commotion about Israeli “democracy” was always about preserving democracy for Jews without addressing long-standing apartheid for Palestinians.

We can anticipate worse to come as Israeli politicians unite around reinvigorating anti-Palestinian policies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir both agreed on Monday that judicial change would go forward after a temporary pause.

Additionally, Ben-Gvir appears set to walk away with the new national guard he has been seeking, putting forward his plan this coming Sunday at a cabinet meeting.

Notably, the idea of a national guard was formally announced in June 2022 by then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett who headed a “historic diverse coalition government” – the term favored by ill-informed liberals in the US Congress – yet presided over apartheid all the same.

That unit is part of the Border Police and would be expanded under Ben-Gvir. One such unit envisioned by Ben-Gvir may already have been established in the city of Lydda, a city where roughly 30 percent of the population is Palestinian.

A euphoric Ben-Gvir tweeted Monday that “the reform will pass.”

“The national guard will be established. The budget I demanded for the Ministry of National Security will be passed in its entirety.”

Adalah, a group that advocates for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, noted earlier this year that a national guard would be comprised of Israel’s Border Police, army reservists and civilian volunteers. And the Israeli government’s “clear intention [is] to establish an independent armed force, the main purpose of which is violent action against Palestinians.”

For his part, Ben-Gvir says, “A national guard is a basic critical need for the state of Israel, without which we will not be able to protect the security of our citizens in order to fight terrorism, the phenomenon of protection, nationalist crime and restore governance to the cities of Israel.”

Rights groups are alarmed that the national guard will prove to be a private militia for the far-right minister.

Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer, however, thinks Netanyahu made an empty promise to Ben-Gvir. Time will tell, but as a desperate Netanyahu has caved repeatedly in the last three months to extreme right demands it does seem highly probable that Ben-Gvir will get his national guard.

Ben-Gvir – popular among many Israelis – has been convicted of both support for a terrorist group and racist incitement. A supporter of the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, he could well move to collapse the government if he doesn’t get his way on the national guard.

Netanyahu’s invitation

Notwithstanding all the anti-Palestinian hate Netanyahu has helped to stir in the last three months, the prime minister may be rewarded with a visit to the White House because of the judicial overhaul delay he negotiated at the expense of Palestinians.

“He obviously will be coming,” Tom Nides, the US ambassador to Israel, said. “I assume after Passover,” which ends on 13 April.

Later, however, a US National Security Council spokesperson claimed, “As Ambassador Nides said, there is no plan for Prime Minister Netanyahu to visit Washington. Israeli leaders have a long tradition of visiting Washington, and Prime Minister Netanyahu will likely visit at some point.”

President Joe Biden himself said Netanyahu would not be visiting “in the near term.”

Thomas Friedman in The New York Times called Netanyahu “an irrational actor” threatening “important American interests and values.” But Friedman reached this level of concern only because the prime minister endangered democracy for Israel’s Jewish citizens, not because he had carried out apartheid against Palestinians for all his years in office.

Biden expressed ongoing concern Tuesday. “Like many strong supporters of Israel I’m very concerned. I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road. I’ve sort of made that clear.”

But it hasn’t been made at all publicly clear that there would be any military aid ramifications for Israel.

In fact, Congresswoman Susan Wild stated earlier this month – in the midst of the consternation over the possible judicial shakeup – that she thought the Biden administration would not condition aid to Israel. “I believe the Biden administration has either signaled or actually said that they will not condition aid to Israel on what happens with the judicial system there. I think that’s the current Biden administration position on it.”

To be sure, Biden will not touch that aid. Words are only apt to delay Netanyahu for a time and then only on judicial matters, not on his life’s work of entrenching apartheid for Palestinians.

Former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas writes in Haaretz that one of the matters most troubling Biden was “Netanyahu’s decision Monday to buy time with his ultranationalist partners by awarding them with a militia, no less, to operate extrajudicially. The United States has seen such militias in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

This would be a striking new level of concern from the White House, but it is one I have not seen publicly voiced.

In any event, within hours of Biden’s comments, Netanyahu was pushing back.

“Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”

Republican Senator Ted Cruz – a staunch anti-Palestinian demagogue, anti-leftist fabulist and pro-Likud extremist – reliably has Netanyahu’s back.

Progressive pushback

According to Alex Kane in Jewish Currents, some of the most progressive members of the US House and Senate are pushing back in a new letter to Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

Congressman Jamaal Bowman and Senator Bernie Sanders are leading the effort. Reportedly, other House signers so far are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Summer Lee, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar, Betty McCollum, André Carson and Ayanna Pressley.

They write that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir make this “the most far-right, illiberal government in Israel’s history. True to their records, these figures are pushing repressive, anti-democratic policies and escalating violence towards the Palestinian population.”

Acknowledging failed diplomatic efforts from the Biden administration, they state that “good faith entreaties have had no effect” and add that “none of the agreements reached this week will lessen the systemic violence against Palestinians, including annexation of Palestinian land.”

This language is far more vigorous in defense of Palestinian rights than has generally been seen in Washington where most of the concern has been focused on distress over Israeli “democracy” and how a judicial overhaul would affect it.

They conclude with a call that the Biden administration “ensure US taxpayer funds do not support projects in illegal settlements” and “determine whether US-origin defense articles have been used in violation of existing US laws.”

Additionally, “we call on your administration to ensure that all future foreign assistance to Israel, including weapons and equipment, is not used in support of gross violations of human rights, including by strengthening end-use monitoring and financial tracking. We ask that you respond with a detailed plan as to how the administration plans to achieve that goal.”

Israel lobby group AIPAC, termed a “hate group” by Congresswoman McCollum, pushed back against the letter and some of its signers.

AIPAC did not include Congresswoman Tlaib in its attack as J Street retracted its endorsement of the congresswoman when she announced support for equal rights in one state.

Despite a bit more vigor in his words than usual, Biden lacks the courage to take the steps proposed by the letter writers even in the face of the Israeli government’s obvious racism.

Decades of apartheid policies haven’t moved Democrats to condition or cease US military aid. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that the flagrantly racist rhetoric of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition allies also fails to rouse the Biden administration to action.

The Biden administration is making clear that it is willing to challenge Netanyahu to protect democracy for Jews living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, but unwilling to extend the same courtesy to Palestinians in the exact same geographic location.

Equal rights in one state isn’t yet politically feasible in Washington. But backing and funding an apartheid state, as has been the case for decades, is not just feasible but strongly advocated by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Michael F. Brown is an independent journalist