Why didn’t human rights groups give Israel’s center-left a break? – analysis

Written by on November 16, 2022

Israel has a new incoming government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. During his decade in power, there was increasing critique of Israel by some human rights groups. There was also a growing concern in some sectors of the West that Israel would never come to an agreement with the Palestinians and that Israel was becoming more authoritarian.

The government of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett should have been welcomed in the West and received more warmly by Western liberals and human rights groups. However, recent cases such as the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh and accusations of “apartheid” appear to show that even if the center-left is in charge Israel faces the same critique regardless of its actions.  

The sense that Israel is back in the grip of the far-right and religious parties is now raising alarms again in the US, among the Diaspora, and will likely cause tensions with Europe and other countries that Israel has made progress with over the past year and a half. This is because there are a plethora of countries that will see in the incoming government some issues that could rock the boat of positive ties. For instance, the Abraham Accords countries may be concerned about the rhetoric of the far-right, or actions that could provoke tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Will Netanyahu and his new ministers be welcomed in Morocco or other countries linked to the Negev Summit, the way that Lapid’s government was received? This remains to be seen. 

However, we have evidence regarding one key issue: Human rights groups systematically described Israel as an apartheid state during the Lapid-Bennett era and there was actually an increasing chorus to make Israel out to be worse despite its center-left government. This illustrates that some of these groups are obsessively anti-Israel and that no matter what Israel does they will bash the country.

Israel’s opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Some groups will be anti-Israel no matter what

In the past, it was sometimes assumed that critique of Israel was primarily an anti-Netanyahu manifesto held by some critics in the West. Under this analysis, if Netanyahu or Israel’s Right left power, then Israel would enjoy better relations globally. For instance, some critics of Israel within the Obama administration often seemed to oppose Netanyahu personally. He was lumped in with “authoritarian” leaders. For instance, an article at Middle East Monitor captures this critique well, noting “with the playbook at hand to consolidate the slide into authoritarianism, all it takes is for a demagogue like Donald Trump, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, India’s Narendra Modi and Saudi’s Mohammed Bin Salman.” A recent column at the New York Times claimed that Biden’s success in the US mid-terms was a message to MBS, Netanyahu and Putin.  

If Netanyahu is seen as an authoritarian, then one might assume that Lapid would have been welcomed as a breath of fresh air, and all these voices would have had renewed hope for Israel. This is where there is a paradox. The government that sought to bring in change didn’t receive nearly as much support among critics in the West that one might have expected. 

Several human rights groups decided to define Israel as an “apartheid” state during the Lapid-Bennett government’s short era in office. Rather than giving Israel a chance to improve things in the West Bank, the reports all had the same agenda: They argued that all of the land between the Jordan river and the sea was one entity and that this area was an apartheid state. In March 2021, Israel held elections and it looked like Netanyahu would be pushed from power. Human Rights Watch claimed in April 2021 that Israel had crossed a threshold. “About 6.8 million Jewish Israelis and 6.8 million Palestinians live today between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River, an area encompassing Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), the latter made up of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.” 

Amnesty International carried out a report that basically uses the same analysis as HRW. “Our report reveals the true extent of Israel’s apartheid regime. Whether they live in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, or Israel itself, Palestinians are treated as an inferior racial group and systematically deprived of their rights,” they said in February 2022. B’Tselem also claimed on the eve of Israel’s recent elections that the country is apartheid. “Roughly 5.5 million Palestinian subjects live in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967: about 3.5 million in the West Bank (including roughly 350,000 in East Jerusalem) and some 2 million in the Gaza Strip. None of them are allowed to vote or run for Knesset, and they have no representation in the political institutions that dictate their lives,” the report said.  

These reports came despite the fact that Israel had an Arab party in the coalition, an unprecedented turn of events. However, it appears the more Israel had included Arabs in the coalition, the more liberal and left the government was, the more the human rights groups wanted to define Israel as “apartheid.” Their analysis was not predicated on Israel’s treatment of Arabs or Palestinians that live in Israel or under Israeli control in the West Bank. Rather the reports are all about including Gaza within the definition. This in essence means that the demand now is for Israel to annex Gaza and force Gazans to vote in Israeli elections, even if they don’t want to.

The new “apartheid” definition tears up 70 years of UN decisions and the 1947 partition plan and erases the Jewish and Arab states that were supposed to exist here. This is all about “river to the sea,” the traditional chant of far-right Palestinian nationalists.  

What this reveals is the paradox that Israel is now in. What worries human rights groups and critics in the West the most is an Israeli center-left government that is inclusive of Arabs and which might actually come to an agreement with the Palestinians. Since the critics have no embraced a one state concept, anything that takes Israel back from annexation and improves Palestinian rights, is a threat to the “apartheid” narrative. That appears to be one reason that Lapid’s government actually came in for more critique, not less. Netanyahu’s right-leaning government fits better with what the critics want Israel to be, so they can foist their negative views on the emerging right-wing coalition and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for their dislike of Israel. 

This paradox was also clear when it came to the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist. Recent reports indicate that the US wants to continue to investigate the killing of the journalist, even though the US and Israel have already investigated the incident. There is still lack of clarity regarding what the US investigation may entail, but Israel’s outgoing leadership has slammed the US decision. In this case, it’s clear that even an Israeli government that was working closely with the US and a defense minister who was from a centrist party was not able to placate the critics. This appears to mean that no matter what Israel does it will face this kind of scrutiny and second-guessing of its institutions.

This is an irony and paradox as well, since the critics generally view Netanyahu and his incoming coalition partners as eroding the rule-of-law and institutions. However, if it were true that Israel was to be rewarded for having a centrist coalition that is transparent and into the rule-of-law, then it is expected that Israel would not be facing more investigations regarding the Abu Akleh killing.  

Israel’s incoming government may be greeted with intense critique in the West. This may involve new campaigns about areas like Masafar Yatta, or other issues. However, it should be remembered that even during the Lapid era in government, when Israel had a more diverse coalition, the chorus of critique was not turned down. In the opposite, Israel received more criticism and sometimes more spotlight regarding clashes in the West Bank and claims that Israel still “occupies” Gaza and must force Gazans to vote in Israeli elections.  

The anti-Israel agenda of some groups and commentators will not change regardless of who is in power in Jerusalem. An inclusive Israeli government with Jews and Arabs is greeted with the same obsessive anti-Israel views as a Right leaning government. The paradox of the last year and a half finally shows that the anti-Israel agenda isn’t about Israel’s actions, it’s often just about bashing Israel. Even if there was a two-state solution these voices would still find a way to claim Israel was “occupying” in much the same way even after Israel withdrew from Lebanon, Hezbollah still invented new reasons to “resist” Israel. 

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