“You have made history,” Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, said to U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday as the two leaders, flanked by a discomfiting alliance of far-right politicians, ultra-Orthodox rabbis and evangelical preachers who have declared that Jews are doomed to burn in hell, officiated over the U.S. embassy’s move to the contested city of Jerusalem.
On Tuesday, the world learned just what sort of history had been made. May 15 is known to Palestinians as Nakba (“Catastrophe”) Day, to mark the 1948 expulsion of Arabs from newly created Israel. On this 70th anniversary, viewers around the world recoiled at a gruesome series of funerals, as Arabs buried some of the about 60 Gaza residents who were killed by Israeli Defence Forces bullets while the two leaders went about the business of congratulating one another.
For Mr. Netanyahu, this mixture of human tragedy and empty ceremony was the culmination of a Faustian political bargain, in which he has purchased political support for his right-wing coalition at the price of the world’s respect and his country’s peace and security.
If Monday horrified the world, Tuesday drove home the nature of this bargain, as both leaders were all but silent on the killings, and on the scores of other deaths, and thousands of injuries, inflicted by IDF soldiers on Palestinians protesting the embassy move over the past month (there were reports of more killings after the funerals on Tuesday).
Mr. Netanyahu has characterized the protesters as Hamas extremists. Few, beyond the White House and his own circle, seemed to see it that way. While the Palestinian Islamist party, recognized as a terrorist organization by most Western countries, was the initial organizing force behind the protests, even the IDF only claimed that 24 of the 60 they killed were “extremists,” based on uncorroborable evidence.
Between the embassy move itself (which most world leaders denounced as inappropriate and lethal to peace prospects) and the killings and their unrepentant response, you could watch even long-time defenders of Israel’s position back away.
Mr. Netanyahu’s tiny but effective circle of political support has dwindled, as this year has unfolded, into an ever-smaller cone of increasingly extreme and marginal voices. His efforts to resist corruption charges and his dangerous military skirmishes with Iran have alienated many, but the unconstrained mass killings have sent many more supporters fleeing
With Monday’s and Tuesday’s events, he has cemented his decision to embrace the U.S. Christian right, Saudi Arabia and the ultra-religious and far-right fringe within his own country – the only groups who appear willing to endorse him today – at the expense of most Jews, virtually all Arabs outside the Saudi royal family, most regional and international partners and his country’s best interests.
The Gaza killings drew condemnation from across mainstream Judaism. For example, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of North America’s largest Jewish congregation, the Union for Reform Judaism, declared his organization “alarmed, concerned and profoundly saddened by the growing number of Gazan dead and wounded.”
Representatives of most branches of Judaism – including Reform, Conservative and mainstream Orthodox rabbis – were excluded from the ceremony and were not seen on stage. Indeed, only ultra-Orthodox clerics were seen on stage. They were joined by a pair of U.S. evangelical preachers, whose prayers opened and closed the ceremony. Both have been on record describing Jews (along with Muslims and Hindus) as apostates who will burn in hell if they do not convert.
These evangelical Christians were Mr. Trump’s audience, and it was this audience that Mr. Netanyahu decided to embrace at the expense of Israel’s Jewish and Arab population. The great majority (80 per cent, by one survey) of U.S. Jews are opposed to the embassy move.
Indeed, actress Natalie Portman, an outspoken defender of Israel, expressed the views of many American and Israeli Jews last month when she rejected the Israeli version of the Pulitzer Prize, declaring that “the mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities [committed by the IDF at the Gaza border] is simply not in line with my Jewish values. Because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, inequality and abuse of power.”
And if Mr. Netanyahu’s unapologetic embrace of mass killing is horrifying an increasing majority of the Jewish population, he has demolished any hope of a political pact involving Israel’s Arab population.
Israeli Arabs, who make up more than a fifth of the country’s citizens, have become increasingly moderate and loyal to their country: A poll last year found that 65 per cent of Arab Israelis consider themselves “proud to be Israeli,” up from 50 per cent the previous year. A poll in February found that almost nine in 10 Israeli Arabs (87 per cent) believe that “there is a chance for coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel” (66 per cent of Israeli Jews believe this).
This is a double tragedy. By waging war against Palestinian citizens, by supporting and financing the widespread expansion of Jewish settlements across Palestinian territory and by embracing rejectionist politics that have driven Palestinians into the hands of Hamas, Mr. Netanyahu has ended any chance, in this generation, for a two-state solution.
But by rejecting and alienating his own Arab citizens, and by rejecting Jews who are not comfortable with his politically and religiously extreme fringe coalition, he has also done grave damage to any prospect of a united single state of Israel.
International Affairs Columnist
The Globe and Mail, May 15, 2018