Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior ministers in his government expressed shock and outrage over the torching last Friday of a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Duma by suspected Jewish extremists, in which an 18-month-old infant was burned alive and his parents and a 4-year-old sibling were left in a critical condition.
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News stories reported that Palestinian neighbors who saw the two masked arsonists expressed their disbelief at the sight of them “watching two burning people on the ground,” hearing a child still screaming inside, and "not caring."
That same day, IDF soldiers shot dead a Palestinian teenager who tried to climb the fence surrounding Gaza, a nearly daily occurrence that has become virtually routine for what Netanyahu insists is “the most moral army in the world.”
The juxtaposition of these two events gives the lie to the shock expressed by Netanyahu and his ministers at the incineration of the Palestinian family in Duma. For it is precisely because Netanyahu and his government have ordered the IDF to shoot-to-kill Palestinian teenagers climbing a fence – who do not pose a mortal danger to IDF sharpshooters at that point – instead of arresting them, that Jewish settlers and much of Israel's Jewish public consider Arab lives as disposable. I am not aware of a single instance of IDF killings of Jewish teenagers - or adults, for that matter - for illegally climbing a fence or trespassing on Palestinian territory in the West Bank.
The direct connection between the dehumanization of Arab lives that led to the outrage in Duma and the policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his fellow ministers should not surprise. For in what other democracy would a head of state dare appoint as the country’s justice minister an individual who posted approvingly on her Facebook page, as Ayelet Shaked did, an article by a fellow ideologue calling for the murder of Arab infants and their mothers in Gaza, whom he described as “snakes,” so they not breed future Arab terrorists?
The revulsion Netanyahu expressed over the outrages that the terrorist settlers call “price tag” attacks may be genuine. But it does not disguise his role in the dehumanization of Palestinians caused by his determination to keep millions of Palestinians under occupation, deprived of all dignity and rights, having convinced much of Israel’s Jewish public that his appetite for territory, disguised as a quest for security, justifies Israel’s permanent occupation and oppression. It is a policy that inevitably created the climate that breeds the atrocities we now see.
That said, the most hypocritical of disguises are not those of Netanyahu and the xenophobes and reactionaries in his government (whose promise of a two-state solution everyone except American and European diplomats knew was a lie all along), but the disguises of Isaac Herzog, the leader of Israel’s so-called opposition and head of Zionist Union (formerly the center-left Labor Party).
Nothing could be more deceptive than Herzog’s posturing as a liberal proponent of a two-state solution. His real stance on this subject is indistinguishable from that of Netanyahu’s. While he insists he favors a freeze on settlement construction, he wants to renew contentless peace talks with the Palestinians, as does Netanyahu. And, like Netanyahu, he explicitly precludes the possibility of these talks leading to a two-state agreement with the current Palestinian leadership.
Also like Netanyahu, Herzog’s overriding ambition is not a peace accord or ending the occupation, but sitting some day in the prime minister’s chair. This is why he has steered his party away from its original democratic and liberal moorings, toward the emerging illiberal Israeli political consensus shaped by Netanyahu, the settlers and the ultra religious-Zionist Naftali Bennett.
That, too, is why Herzog fully supports Netanyahu’s opposition to the international nuclear agreement with Iran, and why he supported not only Israel’s assault on Gaza last year but criticized Netanyahu for not having continued the slaughter and finished off Hamas. It is also why he and his party were nowhere to be seen when the Knesset recently set about passing legislation intended to shut down Israeli NGOs seeking to protect the rights of minorities in Israel and of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
That is why Herzog's liberal pretentions notwithstanding, his actual collaboration in the perpetuation of the occupation qualifies him as Netanyahu's partner in the dehumanization of the Palestinians and in the creation of the climate in which these outrages occur.
Responses to criticism of Israeli policy by its apologists are as predictable as they are indefensible. They point to worse outrages against Israelis committed by Palestinians. But those responses won’t wash, not as long as Israel remains a colonial occupier of another people – not only because there is no moral equivalence between occupiers and their victims, but because Israel’s founding was based on the premise that its standards would be set by its democratic and Jewish values, not by the values of its adversaries.
The writer, president of the U.S./Middle East Project, is a former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and formerly headed the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America.