From outlawing foreign funding for human rights NGOs to reviving the death penalty (for Palestinians), to population transfer and more, Benjamin Netanyahu is going a little wild. It probably isn’t unrelated to the multiple police investigations into him and his friends.
Benjamin Netanyahu has a few things in common with Donald Trump. The two men are known to obsess over loyalty, which invariably leads to nepotism and empowering immediate family members. They both are convinced there is constantly some sort of media conspiracy to topple them from their positions of power — and that they deserve that power. And the more embroiled they and their tight circles become in investigations of alleged improprieties, the crazier and more rash their behavior gets.
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Netanyahu and his closest cronies are currently at the center of at least three major scandals being seriously investigated by the fraud and corruption unit of the Israeli police. The investigations range from corruption in the purchase of nuclear-capable submarines, demanding and receiving extravagant gifts from various billionaires who may or may not have received political favors in return, trading legislation to all but guarantee the failure of a major newspaper in exchange for favorable coverage from its main competitor, and more.
In addition to denying all wrongdoing, the Israeli prime minister’s response has been to play to his base with more and more nationalist and radical propositions, statements and stunts, hoping to preempt anyone in his government flanking him from the right while he is vulnerable. To the rest of the world, Netanyahu’s behavior makes him out to be an increasingly unreliable populist politician who doesn’t care what anybody outside Israel thinks about him.
Part of that attitude, of course, comes from the cover he believes he gets from the even-wilder circus camped out on the shores of the Potomac at the moment, and the absence of anybody in Washington who is interested or capable of keeping him in line.
So here’s an incomplete list of the craziest things Benjamin Netanyahu has said and done so far this summer, in no particular order:
Ban foreign funding of left-wing and human rights NGOs in Israel
Anti-occupation and human rights organizations in Israel have been under attack for years, be it via smear campaigns and incitement or abusive legislation that manipulates existing transparency regulations to paint those organizations as foreign agents. Many of those legislative attempts were restrained in recent years by the Obama Administration, which put considerable pressure on the Israeli government over its anti-NGO legislation.
But all previous iterations of anti-NGO laws pale in comparison to what Netanyahu proposed last month: to ban all funding of Israeli NGOs from sources connected to foreign governments. The majority of human rights groups in Israel receive major parts of their budgets from European countries and even the United States. Banning that funding outright, as Netanyahu is proposing, could shut down — or shrivel down to unrecognizable levels — the entire community of human rights groups in Israel overnight.
Israel’s second execution? The last one was Adolf Eichmann
Technically the death penalty exists in Israeli law, but only for crimes against humanity and treason during wartime. Practically, there is no death penalty in Israel. Only one person has ever been handed a death sentence in the history of the country — Adolf Eichmann, one of the Nazi masterminds of the Holocaust. A pretty high bar, if there ever was one.
Of course, under Israeli military law, which is the law of the land for the millions of Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank, capital punishment is on the books for far lesser crimes than, say, planning and carrying out the genocide of millions of people. Over the years, a number of populist Israeli politicians have called for the death penalty to be used against Palestinians in the West Bank, usually after particularly gruesome acts of violence. The political leadership, however, usually ignores or shelves such calls until they die down. Not this time.
Following the gruesome murder of three members of an Israeli settler family several weeks ago, Netanyahu unequivocally advocated that Israel carry out its second-ever execution. “[I]f you want to know the government’s position and my position as prime minister –- in a case like this, of a [lowly] murderer like this -– he should be executed,” the prime minister said in a tweet. “He should simply not smile anymore.”
While rarely said explicitly, calls to utilize the death penalty under Israeli military law are almost universally understood to mean a death penalty for Palestinians only. Israeli citizens who live in the West Bank (settlers) are subject to a separate, civilian legal system, which means they face different punishments for the exact same crimes.
Population transfer for Arab citizens of Israel
Finding ways to reduce the number of Palestinians in Israel is far from a revolutionary endeavor. In order to maintain democratic cover for Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state the country’s Jewish leaders have always approached demographic dominance as a matter of national survival, thereby legitimizing almost any means to achieve it. The same idea led a succession of Israeli leaders, including right-wing hawks like Ariel Sharon, to support the two-state solution.
The idea of getting rid of Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens, one in five of all Israelis, is also not that novel in the contemporary Israeli political zeitgeist. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has for years advocated redrawing the borders in any two-state solution so that Arab-majority areas such as Wadi Ara become part of a future Palestinian state — not to equitably compensate Palestine for the land usurped by settlements, but rather to rid Israel of the demographic/democratic burden posed by its undesirable, non-Jewish citizens.
Yet while we have heard talk about mass population transfer in the past, hearing it from the Israeli prime minister is a whole different ball game. When the prime minister — who decides the country’s actual policy and positions in negotiations — declares his willingness to disenfranchise and strip the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of Israelis, we have to take it far more seriously than a savvy but ultimately marginal politician like Liberman’s campaign slogan.
A ‘third Nakba’
Speaking of population transfer and crazy things coming out of the Netanyahu camp, it would be remiss to ignore something the prime minister didn’t say. When senior government minister and Netanyahu ally Tzachi Hanegbi threatened the Palestinians with a “third Nakba,” an implicit threat to carry out mass expulsion and ethnic cleansing as a response to Palestinian protests and violence, one might have expected Netanyahu to make a statement.
Hanegbi has been known to be a Netanyahu proxy on a range of other issues, which makes the lack of a public rebuke or rejection all the more troubling. The prime minister’s silence speaks volumes, especially considering his obsession with Palestinian incitement.
The new Jerusalem: Palestinians out, Jews in
A recent Netanyahu-endorsed plan to exclude certain Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem (those on the Palestinian side of Israel’s separation wall) from Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries is a bold step toward removing Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents from the city, and the country. Most Palestinian Jerusalemites are not Israeli citizens but rather hold permanent residency, which is easily and regularly revoked. They are stateless. Israel annexed East Jerusalem but not the people who lived there, and now it wants to get rid of the parts of the city that it views as a threat to Jewish political dominance. The plan is part gerrymandering, part micro-two-state solution, and part mini-ethnic cleansing on a municipal level.
The second part of the plan would see those Israeli West Bank settlements that envelop Jerusalem brought into the municipality, which would effectively — although not officially — annex them to the area Israel already annexed after the 1967 war. The purpose of those settlement-suburbs, some of which like Ma’ale Adumim are full-on cities, has always been to stymie the north-south contiguity of any future Palestinian state. Once upon a time the White House would have thrown a fit over a plan like this. These days — nothing.
A hero’s welcome for a guard who killed his landlord
Compounding the tensions in late July between Israel and the entire Arab and Muslim world over changes to Al-Aqsa Mosque’s delicate “status quo” was a bizarre incident at the Israeli Embassy in Amman, which concluded with an even more bizarre media event back in Jerusalem a couple days later. The story, as far as we’ve been told, goes something like this: a Palestinian-Jordanian furniture delivery guy stabbed an Israeli security guard inside the Israeli embassy compound in Amman. The Israeli security guard shot him to death, also killing the owner of the apartment, a Jordanian doctor, in the process.
Israel insisted that because the guard enjoyed full diplomatic immunity, that he did not need to submit to questioning by the Jordanian police. Jordan refused to let him leave the country until he did. After a not-so-secret visit by the head of Israel’s Shin Bet, the Jordanian police were allowed to listen to the guard’s testimony without questioning him, and everyone was allowed to come home. The whole thing lasted about a day.
All was good and well until Netanyahu held an official reception for the guard in Jerusalem, treating him like a national hero released from the captivity of a vicious enemy. There was no mention of an Israeli investigation into what really transpired, not even with regards to the dead landlord, whom nobody has accused of taking part in any violence. Instead, an Israeli who killed his landlord on foreign soil was celebrated by the prime minister without any semblance of remorse for death of an innocent man.
Only days later, after Jordan publicly rebuked Netanyahu for his disrespect and demanded a proper investigation did the Israeli Foreign Ministry announce that it would look into the shooting. The idea that the Foreign Ministry does not automatically launch a full-blown investigation any time one of its employees kills a foreign national, or more likely that it wasn’t politically expedient to mention that automatic investigation, shows the absurdity of Netanyahu’s behavior. Of course, the entire incident gave Netanyahu brilliant political cover to implicitly suggest that his hand was forced by Jordan to make a concession on Al-Aqsa in order to get the embassy guard back.
Depriving the natives of hope
At the height of the violence and tensions surrounding Al-Aqsa Mosque, shortly after the gruesome murder of three members of the Solomon family in the Halamish settlement, Netanyahu made a reference that probably went unnoticed by most people. Noting the anniversary of the passing of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the man behind the brand of Revisionist Zionism to which Netanyahu subscribes, the prime minister said: “The Cabinet will make an important decision regarding the preservation of [Jabotinsky’s] heritage, one of the principles of which – as is well-known – is ‘The Iron Wall’.”
The Iron Wall is an idea drawn from several essays by Jabotinsky that start with the premise that: “The native populations, civilised or uncivilised, have always stubbornly resisted the colonists, irrespective of whether they were civilised or savage.” Because the native population will never accept a Jewish state on its land, there can be no “voluntary” agreement with the Palestinians, and the only way to get them to accept a Jewish presence is to “teach” them that they have no hope of expelling the colonizers. It is a worldview that sees systematic violence as the only means of achieving peace, and even equality.
It was not a message intended to calm what felt like one of the most potentially explosive moments between Israelis and Palestinians in years.
Like almost every other entry in this list, the Iron Wall statement was meant for internal consumption among Netanyahu’s constantly rightward-drifting base of political support. The more vulnerable the prime minister feels, be it from criminal investigations or the fear of looking weak vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the further and further off the deep end he goes, taking positions usually considered off-limits for somebody in any position of authority.