Many civil wars: the extremist Israeli government has roiled relations with Biden and US Jews and highlighted the occupation of Palestine

H. Scott Prosterman

Informed Comment  /  April 3, 2023

Oakland, Ca. – Some 450,000 Israeli protesters massed again this weekend against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to dis-empower the Israeli judiciary, so he can pick the judges for his own corruption trials, declining to be mollified by his promises to find a compromise. Netanyahu’s attack on the judges is also too much for the US government and American Jewish communities to bear. Netanyahu’s move to undermine the Israeli judiciary and empower extreme Right elements has alienated most Democrats. In response, President Joe Biden has shown courage not seen since President Barack Obama left office, pointedly rebuking the prime minister and declining to give him the seal of approval that comes with a White House invitation. Finally, an American president said “no,” after Trump, the Bushes and Reagan had all empowered the worst elements of Israel’s far right-wing and enabled the current crisis.

Democrats to his left are asking, “Joe, what took you so long?” In contrast, Ted Cruz and Republicans are spinning Biden’s stance as a betrayal of Israel.

As with all criminals, Netanyahu thinks the courts are too powerful. Not many are elected prime minister and even fewer are re-elected following criminal charges. Will the parallels between Netanyahu and Donald Trump never cease? Not as long as the two remain in the public eye, and out of jail. When Netanyahu colluded with his Republican allies for an invitation to speak before a joint session of Congress in 2015, he openly defied Obama, going behind his back. That, as well as his more recent sucking up to Trump violated the unwritten rule between the two nations; that no Israeli government or party should favor one American political party over another. So, the withdrawn invitation from the Biden White House has been long overdue.

The American Jewish community is also  in a “state of crisis and a state of flux,” according to Rabbi Alissa Wise of Jewish Voice for Peace. The new Israeli government is composed of people with the “January 6” mentality. Addressing President Biden, she said, “You’re not helping Jews by helping Israeli apartheid; you’re actually hurting Jews.”  Among things she finds objectionable is the stated goal of Israeli Finance Minister Bezelal Smotrich to initiate a formal ethnic cleansing in the town of Huwwara, and other Palestinian areas. He and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir have led the effort in the new government to terrorize and marginalize Palestinians out of existence and history.

Borrowing from the Trump playbook, right-wing Israelis argue that Biden is reacting to “fake news,” while Congressional Republicans, who constantly exploit their supposed political loyalty to Israel, accuse Biden of “abandoning an ally.” But the appointments of Smotrich and Ben-vir’s as cabinet ministers, make it as though Trump had been re-elected, and appointed Proud Boys leaders to sensitive security positions. Ben-Gvir exemplifies Israel’s political identity crisis, saying that Israel is “not another star on the American flag. We are a democracy, and I expect the U.S. president to understand that.” Such condescension reflects the arrogance of an ill-mannered client state.  Right-wing Jews and Evangelical Christians depend on a narrow interpretation of Biblical myth to provide a supposed divine warrant for Israel to annex Palestine. That is the basis for the ideology of unlawful settlement expansion in Occupied Palestine, and also for the rising, right-wing Christian Nationalism in the US.

Netanyahu’s decision to delay the legislative overhaul doesn’t bring comfort to his critics, nor has it quelled the massive street protests mounted against him. T’ruah director Rabbi Jill Jacobs said, “We are not accepting pathetic attempts at compromise. We are standing our ground and we are not going to stop protesting” until the legislation is halted for good.” Netanyahu has placed the bar for discourse so low that any compromise will be a victory for their agenda. By delaying proceedings, Netanyahu is positioning himself to withdraw the most draconian elements of the judicial overhaul, while leaving plenty of damage; namely, allowing the Knesset power to reverse by a simple majority any court decision it doesn’t like.  

Netanyahu fired his Defense minister Yoav Gallant in March over his objection to the judicial coup, and elevated Ben-Gvir to create a private National Guard with no oversight (independent of the police and Israeli Defense Forces [IDF]), devoted to terrorizing Palestinians. Ben-Gvir threatened to quit his post if Netanyahu withdrew his proposal to essentially de-certify the Supreme Court, so it was never off the table. This leaves the prime minister in an untenable position between Israel’s greatest historical ally and his extremist coalition partners.

Though the judicial system’s destruction is off the table only until the Knesset or parliament returns from Passover recess, it is expected to be taken up again at that time. Ben Gvir sounds confident, saying, “The reform will pass. The National Guard will be established. The budget that I demanded for the National Security Ministry will pass in full. Nobody will scare us. Nobody will succeed in changing the decision of the people.” Former Israel Police Chief Moshe Karadi said Ben-Gvir’s model would be a private militia to prosecute his political agenda, staffed by recruits from the notoriously violent “Hilltop Youth” of settler extremists. He said of Ben-Gvir, “He’s dismantling Israeli democracy … and turning Israel into a dictatorship.”

In Israel, the revolution is being televised. Demonstrators include a broad spectrum of diplomats, union leaders and workers (who on some occasions effectively closed the airports), teachers, students, and most dramatically some reservists who threatened to not report for duty. Numerous elite Israeli soldiers and airmen have declared an intent to not serve if Netanyahu’s plans go forward. Israel is truly “a nation torn asunder.”

The massive demos are not simply about mouthing anti-establishment rants. Rather, they’ve been about preserving establishmentarian democracy. The demonstrators are not “leftists” or radicals as Netanyahu claims, but include some of his former government partners, who’ve abandoned his agenda.  Tom Friedman characterized it as, “a revolt of the political center against the fringe.”   

Unfortunately, the millions who have demonstrated against the gutting of Israeli democracy have shown little interest in achieving democracy for the five million stateless Palestinians under the Israeli military.

It is not enough that the fascist elements in Netanyahu’s government have provoked Israeli on Israeli violence. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir have enabled Jewish settlers/squatters to inflict mob violence on Palestinian towns, though Smotrich said that’s the job of the Israeli government, and not the squatters.  Both men were considered among the most violent fringe elements of Israeli politics, but Netanyahu co-opted them into the government so he could form a majority. Alongside the disturbances in Israel proper, the prospect of another Palestinian uprising or intifada is now being raised by observers of this sad scene.

Israel and Palestine inhabit one land with two profoundly incommensurate narratives of history.  For most Jews, Israel was born out of the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust. The Nazis murdered more than 6,000,000 Jews (among millions of other minorities), destroyed synagogues and yeshivas, burned libraries and massacred millions of innocents. Israel emerged as a safe haven after a millennium of European pogroms that culminated in the Holocaust.  All but the most blinkered can now see, however, that Israel itself routinely violates the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions put in place to prevent a recrudescence of fascism — one of the most tragic ironies in history.

The other narrative, equally true, is that of the Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed and subjugated by a confident and relentless settler colonialism. Fictionalizing history is a tactic used for marginalizing minorities worldwide: American Indians have had their historical land rights claims undermined by colonialist domination of American History. A vital part of the occupation narrative has been to deny the validity of Palestinian history, and interpret them out of existence with false narratives. Juan Cole eloquently summarized that dynamic recently. This phony POV has been integrated into the Israeli settler mindset through decades of politicized education. The American official discourse on Israel and Palestine has for years worn the fig leaf of a peace process.  Smotrich and Ben-Gvir tore it off and left their violent intentions naked. This outbreak of brutal frankness about the squatters’ brutal intentions toward the Palestinians has further alarmed Washington.

Netanyahu has fractured the nation into tribal factionalism. Descendants of the Sons of Jacob had some ugly civil wars in Biblical times. Now all the civil tribes are aligned against him. Is this a holy Civil War for the soul of Judaism? No, but it is a battle for the soul of Israel. The advent of the 1967 War brought a false narrative, that the health and survival of Judaism was dependent on the survival of Israel; as if Judaism would perish unless Israel thrived. Now, the triad of Netanyahu-Smotrich-Ben-Gvir is alienating masses of American Jews as never before, and has succeeded in casting a distinct chill over the relationship of Israel with Joe Biden, one of the most pro-Israeli presidents ever.

H. Scott Prosterman is a writer and communications consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area, and holds an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan