Opinion

Under Netanyahu, Israel Is Barreling Toward Autocracy

A power-hungry government normalizing violent settlers and racists declares we human right defenders are the terrorists. The threat. The criminals, to be carried off in handcuffs

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a news conference in Vilnius, Lithuania. Aug. 24, 2018.
Mindaugas Kulbis,AP

On Friday, when the IDF detained Avner Gvaryahu and Achiya Schatz from Breaking the Silence and their legal advisor, attorney Michael Sfard, it was easy to see where the political lines were drawn.

Those who support democracy, equal rights, and an end to occupation, like Breaking the Silence, human rights attorneys, the New Israel Fund? We’re on one side. The Israeli government is firmly on the other.

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It’s true: we are ideologically opposed. And, speaking at least from our side of the line, we actually believe in what we say we stand for: Free speech. Democratic governance. Equal rights and equitable opportunities. An end to the occupation. Human rights for all people, including Palestinians. We fight for these principles. We are willing to sit in jail cells for them.

But while we fight for our values, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for something else: Power.

Avner, Achiya and Michael weren’t detained and taken away from the South Hebron Hills in a military jeep because the prime minister disagrees with them – though of course he does. They were detained for the same reason the settler terrorists who violently attacked peaceful Taayush activists last weekend weren’t arrested, though IDF soldiers witnessed the entire episode, which landed four Taayush activists in hospital. Politics. Elections. The environment most suited for another Netanyahu victory.

Autocrats in power think about power. Netanyahu knows that elections are (still) about people and the choice they make when they go to the polls. But those choices are informed by the political atmosphere, by beliefs and assumptions – and those are malleable over time. The entire Netanyahu administration is all pointed toward cultivating the environment necessary for people to make the choice at the polls that will keep him in power.

The prime minister and his advisors have made an assessment about where power lies, and for them, that is with the settlement movement, regardless of how much ire they raise among American Jews and some Israelis. They’ve decided they need those factions to maintain and consolidate Netanyahu’s power - and that has always been the primary objective, like it is for populist autocrats like him the world over. 

Breaking the Silence's Avner Gvaryahu being detained by Border Police on August 31, 2018.
Nasser Nawaja

So the Netanyahu government normalizes violent settler extremists. They regularly pay lipservice to radical, racist, semi-militia groups like the infamous La Familia, a fan group for Jerusalem’s soccer team Beitar which uses violent means to spread their racist ideology through their affiliate hate group Lehava.

At the same time, they have decided that non-violent, law-abiding citizens and Palestinians are the terrorists. The criminals. We are the ones carried off in handcuffs. We are the threat.

This is a particularly insidious piece of psychological warfare. By persecuting nonviolent activists who represent both ideological and political opposition as enemies of the state, Netanyahu is attempting to position human rights defenders and settler terrorists as equally extreme – albeit from different "sides."

He’s creating, in the eyes of the Israeli public, a false parallelism between people committed to nonviolent means in the struggle for human rights and those who beat them with iron pipes for photographing their illegally-constructed outposts. And he’s right there to normalize the wrong side – chanting "Yalla yalla Beitar."

Hagai Aharon / Jini

Consider how the situation would be different if those who actually break the law and use violence regularly to further their aims were the ones carted off in handcuffs. Consider even an equivalent tour to the West Bank, but led by a right-wing NGO, accompanied by their legal advisor and several prominent right-wing MKs.

It is impossible to imagine border police rolling up in their jeeps next to that tour bus, demanding to talk to those leaders – harassing them, identifying their attorney and then detaining them, roughly shoving them into the back of a jeep.

It’s impossible to imagine this, because we all know it would never happen in the State of Israel.

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We often think about this double standard and the increasing efforts to silence and intimidate human rights defenders in terms of the impact it has on us – on the work, on the movement, and on the opposition, as if we are the primary audience. We talk about a chilling effect.

But we are not the primary audience for Netanyahu’s spin tactics to normalize settler violence and delegitimize human rights defenders. His audience is Netanyahu’s own base, and above all else, the Israeli electorate.

Netanyahu and his administration don’t care that we disagree with them. I’m not even sure he cares about his own purported ideology. He cares about remaining in power, and everything he does as prime minister is geared toward growing and consolidating that power to a point barreling quickly toward autocracy.

We find ourselves in Netanyahu’s crosshairs because we threaten his power. This is not ideological sparring only – it is political sparring.

In Maya Zinshtein’s 2016 documentary Forever Pure about Beitar Jerusalem and its ideological and political dynamics, President Reuven Rivlin, a Likudnik with a long political career, looks at the camera at one point and says simply, "Politicians know that the road to elections goes through Teddy Stadium."

Soldiers and activists carrying left-wing Ta'ayush activist Amiel Vardi who was injured in the settler attack, August 25, 2018.
B'Tselem

So when we then see Prime Minister Netanyahu, on a podium there chanting "Yalla yalla Beitar," we know why he is there. It is the same reason why Michael, Avner and Achiya were detained on Friday. It is dangerous political pandering. It is Netanyahu’s populist power play.

Libby Lenkinski is the Vice President for Public Engagement at New Israel Fund