Just five months ago, senior Israeli officials and pundits were arguing that rather than attempting to solve the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off, Israel should just try to “shrink the conflict.”
While the previous government did little to achieve this objective, it’s clearer than ever that a reality in which the Israeli government works to shrink the conflict by deescalating tensions without addressing such fundamentals as self-determination for Palestinians alongside Israel is all but a pipe dream.
Netanyahu and his new coalition of far-right-wing allies have been in power for just over two months now — and we’re already seeing the direct opposite of what many had been calling for. With more than 64 Palestinians and 13 Israelis reported killed so far, we’re looking at the deadliest start of any year in more than two decades.
In fact, the new government is actively working to take actions and enact policies that can only expand and deepen the crisis. In the wake of the recent deadly settler pogrom carried out against the West Bank Palestinian town of Huwara, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called in a public interview for the town to be “wiped out” by the Israeli state.
Smotrich — a long-time settlement movement leader with a well-known history of inflammatory, racist, and homophobic comments — is not only the finance minister in the new administration, but he recently was handed significant authority over the settlements and “civilian affairs” in the West Bank via a newly minted position. The same man who called to demolish an entire village now holds power over authorizing settlement construction, the legalization of outposts — which are illegal even under Israeli law — and the approval of home demolitions. Creating the special new post of “coordinator of government activities in the territories and the civil administration” and giving it to Smotrich was both a concrete measure promoting the incitement and escalation of violence and at the same time a repudiation of the existing basis under international law for Israel’s ongoing presence in the West Bank. Israel’s exercise of authority cannot really be seen any longer as a “temporary military occupation” overseen by the IDF for defensive and security purposes if it is becoming an instrument of expanding Israel’s domestic civilian control over the subject population and benefitting the settlers. It has to be understood as naked annexation, even if not stated as such.
The fact that someone with such an extreme history is being given such strong powers over the occupied Palestinian territory is no accident. Rather, it shows that Netanyahu’s new government is working exactly as designed. As it works to overhaul Israel’s independent judiciary system, it is also pushing to entrench the occupation permanently and finalize plans for annexations, killing all hopes for a future Palestinian state.
We’ve seen a protest movement rising up in Israel over recent weeks, catalyzed by the government’s plans to destroy Israel’s Supreme Court. And we know that the attack on the judiciary is heavily motivated by the desire to remove obstacles to the aggressive settlement and annexation plans. The movement away from an independent court system removes all checks and balances when it comes to Israel’s ability to police itself for human rights violations. Those in power are working so that nothing stands in the way of their agenda.
It’s evident that the United States, as part of the international community, must take action to prevent this far-right government from making the problem worse. The day after Netanyahu and his new allies took power, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution requesting the International Court of Justice to reexamine the legal status of the occupation, citing just the kind of concerns that have become all the more important with the latest developments. While the United States opposed that resolution, the necessity for our country acting with the international community to set direct red lines with Netanyahu and his allies is still very much on the table.
The steps being taken toward annexation directly challenge the Biden administration to stand behind its own policy positions, spelled out as preventing any parties from taking unilateral actions that could further raise tensions and push the two-state solution further out of reach.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently reminded us that Joe Biden “is as pro-Israel in his gut as any president I have ever covered” and has long had “a mutually respectful relationship” with Netanyahu. Accordingly, his administration seems to prefer to resolve differences quietly, behind closed doors. However, this moment calls for far more than diplomatic backroom conversations. This is the time for the United States to take clear and strong action.
We know that the United States will always remain steadfast in maintaining its support for Israel’s security. That also means that the United States has both the right and an obligation to present some red lines to the annexationists to prevent the further deterioration of the Israeli-Palestinian situation into a complete maelstrom of turmoil. And our country’s leaders will have to connect violations of red lines with specific and tangible consequences for the annexationists. It is consistent with the values and interests of American Jews who support Israel as a democratic homeland for Jews and entirely appropriate to uphold the firm action required.
Mark Lurinsky of Montclair is recently retired from a career in public accounting. He is an activist in local politics and a member of the steering committee of J Street’s New Jersey chapter.