Washington has enabled Israeli extremism

Israeli police face off against Palestinians in East Jerusalem after the funeral of teenager Mohammed Sinokrot (Ahmad Gharabli - AFP)

Khaled Elgindy

Foreign Policy  /  May 6, 2021

Failure to condemn anti-Palestinian violence will only further it.

Two weeks ago, Jerusalem was rocked by violence as bands of Jewish Israeli extremists rampaged through Palestinian neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem chanting “death to Arabs.” Making their way through the city, mobs hurled rocks at Palestinian homes and assaulted passers-by suspected of being Arabs or leftists, even stopping cars along the main north-south road that divides Israeli West Jerusalem from occupied East Jerusalem to check whether drivers were Jews or Arabs, usually subjecting the latter to an impromptu beating.

The unrest began on April 13—around the start of Ramadan—when Israeli authorities blocked off the steps to the Old City’s iconic Damascus Gate in Palestinian East Jerusalem. The seemingly arbitrary move sparked several days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces. The closure had struck a particular nerve with Palestinians in East Jerusalem, who have been subjected to years of marginalization and denationalization at the hands of Israel’s government and have few spaces left in a city where systematic eradication of Palestinian national, civic, and cultural institutions has become government policy.

The police crackdown was, unsurprisingly, one-sided—resulting in the arrests and beatings of numerous Palestinian youths while Jewish attackers went largely unpunished. Israeli Minister of Public Security Amir Ohana—a member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party—condemned attacks by Palestinians on Jews but made no mention of Jewish Israeli extremists attacking Palestinians in Jerusalem. The scenes were reminiscent of the wave of attacks earlier this year by extremist Jewish Israeli settlers on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, during which Israeli soldiers often stood idly by.

Washington’s response to the violence was notably muted. As Jewish Israeli extremists attacked Palestinians in Jerusalem, the U.S. State Department issued a generic statement that smacked of both sides-ism, rejecting the “rhetoric of extremist protestors chanting hateful and violent slogans” and calling for calm—but failing to identify the extremists or their targets. It was equally striking that hardly a single member of Congress could muster even a generic condemnation of violence perpetrated by Jewish Israeli extremists, particularly given how traditionally vocal they are whenever violence emanates from Palestinians. But none of it was surprising. Indeed, Washington remains firmly in denial about the growing trend of extremism in Israeli politics and society—a reality that has both enabled and fuelled it.

The chief instigators of the extremist mob in Jerusalem were members of Lehava—a Jewish supremacist organization that has become increasingly active in the last decade. Egged on by extremist Knesset members Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) Party and Religious Zionism Party, respectively, the Lehava mob took to the streets to, in their words, “restore Jewish dignity” by attacking Arabs and leftist Jews.

Both Lehava and Otzma Yehudit take their inspiration from the teachings of Meir Kahane, the Brooklyn-born extremist rabbi turned Israeli politician who, among other things, had called for the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel. Prior to his assassination in 1990, Kahane’s political party—known as Kach—and its various offshoots were banned in Israel for inciting racism and designated by the U.S. State Department as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs).

The worst may be yet to come. Jewish Israeli extremists are planning their annual Jerusalem Day provocation at Al-Aqsa Mosque this Sunday, on Laylat al-Qadr—the holiest night of the Muslim calendar. As many as 25,000 marchers are expected to show up at the holy site, where large numbers of Palestinian Muslim worshipers usually gather in the final days of Ramadan.

Israeli politics have been steadily shifting to the right for many years, a trend that is becoming more evident with each round of elections. Were it not for the polarizing influence of Netanyahu himself, the current Knesset would have a solid right-wing majority of at least 72 out of 120 seats. The fact that Israel has been in perpetual election mode for the last two years—as Netanyahu fights for his political life—has only intensified the right’s hold over Israeli politics.

Both in Washington and Israel, conventional wisdom holds the Israeli left was decimated by the intense violence of the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising that lasted from 2000 to early 2005. But the Israeli right’s rise has been a long time in the making.

Since Netanyahu returned to power in 2009 after a stint as prime minister in the 1990s, successive Israeli governments have moved steadily to the right as the embattled Israeli prime minister becomes more and more reliant on the growing influence of far-right and pro-settlement parties to maintain his ruling coalition. Indeed, it was Netanyahu himself who brokered deals that brought once-banned Kahanists back into parliament in 2019 and 2021. Extremists who were once relegated to the margins of Israeli politics are now in positions of power in the Knesset and the cabinet.

Israeli public opinion follows similar trends. A 2016 Pew Research Center poll found 48 percent of Israeli Jews agree with the statement “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” Support was especially high among Orthodox (71 percent) and ultra-Orthodox (59 percent) populations. This growing illiberalism is also reflected in the passage of the 2018 nation-state law, a quasi-constitutional measure stipulating the right to self-determination in Israel belongs solely to Jews—consolidating the status of 1.2 million Palestinian citizens of Israel as second-class citizens to say nothing of the 4.5 million Palestinians who live under Israeli rule in the occupied territories with no civil or political rights at all.

Violence in Jerusalem is only the latest reminder that these politics have real-life consequences. Under Netanyahu, Israel’s settlement population has ballooned from 490,000 people to more than 700,000 people in the past 12 years. Successive right-wing governments committed to the dream of “Greater Israel” are rapidly foreclosing chances of a negotiated two-state solution and consolidating the one-state reality that exists between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea—a prospect of permanent Israeli rule over 5 million stateless and disenfranchised Palestinians that has led Israeli and international human rights groups to conclude that Israel is guilty of apartheid.

Meanwhile, projects once deemed redlines, such as so-called “doomsday” settlements in Jerusalem and the removal of whole communities in Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank, are now moving forward in earnest. This week, some 87 Palestinians from 18 families are being violently forced out of their homes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, sparking yet another round of violence that is once again being exploited by Israeli extremists. While European and British officials have condemned the imminent evictions, the Biden administration has been conspicuously silent.

Such actions might have triggered at least a mild rebuke by U.S. officials in the pre-Trump past, but the White House is effectively giving the evictions a green light by staying on the side-lines. Indeed, the United States has long been central to the growth of Israel’s pro-settlement and anti-Palestinian right.

Both Kahane and the movement he spawned were born and bred in the United States as was Kahane’s most notorious disciple, Baruch Goldstein—the Brooklyn-born physician who in 1994 massacred 29 Palestinians praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, Palestine, and whose photo is prominently displayed in Ben-Gvir’s home. Today, Lehava—whose funding remains shrouded in mystery—is similarly connected to support networks in the United States. Yet despite the strong personal, institutional, and financial links between Otzma Yehudit and Lehava and the Kahanist movement, both groups have thus far evaded any serious scrutiny by U.S. law enforcement.

Although Israeli political trends have always been reflected in domestic U.S. politics, the growing synergy between the Israeli and U.S. hard right is especially strong. At no point was this more evident than during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which worked hard to do away with international norms and reinforce the permanency of both Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its settlements there.

Former U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, for example—a principle architect of Trump’s policies—made no secret of his support for Israeli settlements, including in the most sensitive areas of East Jerusalem. Nor did he hide his ideological affinity for radical settlers. The previous administration’s willingness to consider the disenfranchisement of some 250,000 Palestinian citizens in villages adjacent to the West Bank as part of Trump’s proposed peace plan—a long-standing demand of Israel’s far-right aimed at reducing the Arab demographic footprint in the country—was equally disturbing.

Congress has also played a role in legitimizing extremist Israeli voices, both by failing to condemn or hold them to account—as they routinely do for Palestinians, for example—and by actively welcoming settler leaders to Capitol Hill. The fact that Kach-linked extremists take part in Israeli elections—and get elected to the Knesset—without eliciting a response from anyone on Capitol Hill directly legitimizes Israeli extremists and their views.

Even when they are not directly involved in policymaking, radical voices—whether in Israeli or U.S. politics—are still able to shape policy and policy discourse by shifting the political and diplomatic goal posts. Issues that were a matter of bipartisan consensus during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, for instance—like ending Israel’s occupation and affirming the centrality of the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations—are now seen by many as highly contentious or even beyond the pale.

These trends could explain Biden’s relative silence and reluctance to tackle the Israel-Palestine issue. There are now increased political costs associated with taking positions once deemed uncontroversial. Even the Biden administration’s recent decision to reinstate the United States’ fairly modest and heavily scrutinized aid package to Palestinians—a minuscule fraction of U.S. money earmarked for Israel—set off a firestorm of outrage and hyperbole from congressional Republicans.

As Israel’s top benefactor, the United States could and should do far more to combat growing extremism in Israel. Possible actions could include simple public condemnation to initiating law enforcement investigations into Israeli extremist groups and their support networks in the United States. If necessary, Washington could formally designate groups like Lehava and its affiliates as FTOs and work to ensure they are not benefiting from tax exempt status domestically.

The most important thing Washington could do, however, would be to stop giving Israeli leaders a pass. Washington’s reluctance to hold Israel accountable for any excesses—whether in terms of human rights abuses against Palestinians, continued settlement expansion, home demolitions, evictions, or other violations—while continuing to shield Israel from the costs and consequences of its own actions in the international arena has fuelled the sense of impunity and triumphalism of Israeli leaders and the far-right extremists they have empowered.

As much as violent Israeli settlers could attack Palestinians without fear of punishment, the lack of any meaningful constraints or consequences on Israeli behaviour has encouraged Israeli leaders to stake out increasingly extreme and maximalist positions. For any of this to change, however, U.S. officials on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will need to do some serious soul-searching about their own role in fanning those flames.

Khaled Elgindy is a senior fellow and director of the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute and the author of the book, Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, From Balfour to Trump