by Naomi Dann
The announcement of the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister and the negotiations with his Yisrael Beiteinu party to join Israel’s governing coalition should indicate to the United States and to the international community that Israel is not a partner for peace. With this appointment, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled to the international community once again that his top priority is securing his own power and Israel’s dominance over Palestinians. Should the coalition deal be finalized—the most recent reports are that the negotiations have hit some snags—this will be the most right-wing governing coalition in Israel’s history. Regardless of the specifics of the final coalition, the most recent political shake-up has demonstrated once again that it will take significant pressure from the outside to make any progress towards a just and lasting peace in the region.
Lieberman’s appointment came as a surprise last week, as Israeli papers had been reporting that center-left opposition leader Isaac Herzog was in negotiations to join the government. Herzog reportedly had made a mandate for pursuing the peace process one of his conditions for joining the coalition, and the U.S. supported his inclusion. Some Israeli officials have not minced words in describing Lieberman’s appointment and the shift of the Israeli government even further to the right. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak said in a TV interview Friday that Israel has been “infected by the seeds of fascism,” and upon his resignation Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stated that “extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel.”
However, had Herzog and the Zionist Union joined the government or had Ya’alon remained in his position as defense minister, the prospects for peace or for greater respect for Palestinian rights would not have been much better. Ya’alon, a Likudnik who presided over the last two military assaults on Gaza, sees Palestinian lives as disposable and recently made the racist assertion that Palestinian society “seeks death.” Herzog is not much better. His recently announced unilateral peace plan would further entrench the segregation of Palestinians in an arrangement that sounds, as Israeli scholar Neve Gordon pointed out, “a lot like bantustans.”
Indeed, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians increasingly seems to fit the definition of apartheid: separate legal systems, institutionalized discrimination, segregation, and second class status based solely on identity. In addition to Lieberman’s role as defense minister, one of the concessions that Netanyahu made to bring Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, into the coalition was a shift to authorizing a mere majority of judges to apply the death penalty for terrorism cases. Since Palestinians convicted of terrorism are tried in military courts while Jewish Israelis who commit similar crimes are tried in civilian courts, this would effectively authorize the death penalty only for Palestinians. Actually, the death penalty for people accused of terrorism has already become de facto policy, without any semblance of due process: human rights organizations have documented numerous cases of extrajudicial killings since the spate of lone-wolf knife attacks began in October 2015. This proposed bill is just one more way that the legal system in Israel discriminates against non-Jews not only in implementation but also in the actual letter of the law.
As the fiftieth anniversary of military rule over a captive population approaches, the United States cannot continue to pretend that Israel is a democracy like any other. As this new governing coalition in Israel takes power, the Obama administration must seize the moment to speak out against these disturbing trends in Israel.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s reaction thus far has been the opposite. State Department spokesman John Kirby said Friday that the administration “looks forward” to working with the new Israeli defense minister. On Sunday, White House officials said that they do not anticipate that the change in defense ministers will affect the negotiations for the new Memorandum of Understanding regarding military aid to Israel. On the contrary, they repeated the promise that “The United States remains ready to sign an MOU with Israel that would constitute the largest single pledge of military assistance to any country in U.S. history.”
Instead of writing Israel another blank check to spend on military equipment with few strings attached, the Obama administration can take a number of small steps that have support from various constituencies, including some congressional lawmakers, human rights advocates, and a growing segment of progressive Democrats. This could include conditioning military assistance with human rights benchmarks, enforcing the tracking requirements proscribed by the Leahy Law, enforcing existing laws around labeling products produced in Israeli settlements, and appointing a special envoy to monitor and report on the rights of Palestinian youth.
As a negotiated agreement that could provide peace and security for both peoples becomes increasingly distant, it’s long past time for the United States to take a human rights-centered approach to the situation in Israel/Palestine. The recent shake-up in the Israeli government demonstrates that gentle admonitions and invitations to peace conferences will not be enough to change Israel’s course. Unless the United States in particular changes its policy toward Israel, the country will veer further in the direction of a permanent version of today’s one-state reality in which Israelis and Palestinians live in a separate and unequal apartheid system.
Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and newly appointed Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman