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 Netanyahu government’s authoritarian legislative agenda, and the methods deployed to achieve it, represent the inevitable and inescapable culmination of Israel’s seventy-five years of oppression and repression of another people, and particularly its systematic eradication of the rule of law in the Arab territories it has ruled since 1967. Some additionally suggest that the Israeli far right’s primary motivation in promoting the legislative program 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 Israeli protest movement that erupted this January.
The idea that Israel is experiencing blowback in its domestic politics from its policies toward the Palestinians does have some basis in reality. To state the obvious, a Jewish supremacist regime necessarily empowers Jewish supremacists. Coupled with expansionist policies whose realization requires systematic violence and the permanent subjugation and dehumanization of another people this regime has, unsurprisingly, over time increasingly elevated its most extremist and messianic leaders to the pinnacles 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 neutralized.
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 Israel’s methods of rule vis-à-vis the Palestinians, is to fundamentally misunderstand both the nature of this crisis and Palestinian reality. To state the obvious, the right of Israeli Jews to conduct disruptive mass demonstrations at regular intervals throughout the country has not been criminalized, and those participating have, when confronted, encountered police forces using batons, water cannon, and the power of arrest rather than military units using snipers who shoot to maim and kill. Whatever one may think of the Netanyahu government and its plans for Israel’s judiciary, this is a government that was constituted on the basis of an election, and an agenda that 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. It’s a rather far cry from a foreign military government installed by a colonial regime imposing extraterritorial legislation by force of arms.
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 Israel’s parliament adopted a Basic Law defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people rather than of the citizens of the state.
Rather, Israel’s failure to adopt a constitution primarily reflects its founders’ unwillingness to take a position on the vexed question of religion and state, and thus avoid polarization between the rabbinical establishment and secular elites. Regarding those to be governed, the “Who is a Jew?” debates always figured more prominently than the rights of Palestinians, the denial of which has consistently been a matter of broad Israeli consensus.
Similarly, the current crisis is first and foremost an internal dispute among Israel’s Jewish population and their elites about the governance of their ethnocracy and 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. This is also why most protest organizers have actively fought to exclude the rights of Palestinians – including of those who are Israeli citizens – from their movement.
Such sentiments seem to also permeate Western governments, which are more exercised 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 defense of a judiciary that is institutionally guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The West’s priority and sole interest in the matter, in other words, 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 a significant part of the West’s own making. For decades, and increasingly in recent years, it has ensured for Israel’s leaders total impunity for their actions. 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. Israel’s leaders have, through endless repetition, been desensitized 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 lesser extent by Israelis as well.
[An edited version of this article was originally published as “Impunity Comes Home to Roost” on the Al Jazeera website.]