The Moral Responsibility That Rivlin Accepts and Netanyahu Denies

After a Palestinian baby is burned, Netanyahu lies about Israeli incitement - including his own.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Netanyahu and President Rivlin attend a memorial ceremony near Jerusalem, May 7, 2015.
Netanyahu and President Rivlin attend a memorial ceremony near Jerusalem, May 7, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

What’s the difference between Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu? Rivlin can feel shame. “I visited the family in Tel Hashomer hospital,” said Rivlin after Jews burned Palestinian infant Ali Dawabsheh to death last week in the West Bank. “I visited, silently, ashamed.”

Rivlin then acknowledged that, “an atmosphere has been created here that has allowed leniency toward what is naively called ‘weeds’. Every society has extremist fringes, but today we have to ask: what is it in the public atmosphere which allows extremism and extremists to walk in confidence, in broad daylight?” In other words, Rivlin acknowledged that he is implicated in Dawabsheh’s death, that in Rabbi Heschel’s famous words, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Netanyahu did almost exactly the opposite. Yes, he called the murders “terrorism.” But in the very next sentence, he boasted that, “The State of Israel takes a strong line against terrorism regardless of who the perpetrators are.” That’s a lie. When Palestinians murdered members of the Jewish Fogel family in 2011, the Israel Defense Forces quarantined the entire city of Nablus and reportedly interrogated every man in the nearby village of Awarta. When Israel caught the murderers, it approved the demolition of their homes.

Israel never responds to Jewish terrorism that way. In the past, in fact, it has barely responded at all. According to the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, Palestinians filed 150 complaints against settlers with the Judea and Samaria (West Bank) police between 2013 and 2014. Only two even resulted in indictments.

After that first self-congratulatory lie, Netanyahu soon told another. “What distinguishes us from our neighbors,” he declared, “is that we denounce and condemn murderers in our midst and pursue them until the end, while they name public squares after child murderers.”

Evidently Netanyahu is unfamiliar with David Raziel, a member of the Irgun who in 1938 placed a bomb in Haifa’s Arab market, killing 21 and injuring more than 50. There are streets named for Raziel in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Ramat Hasharon, Tirat Karmel, Tiberias, Ramla, Beersheva, Kefar Sava and Haifa itself. Raziel’s face also adorns an Israeli postage stamp. In the same year Raziel committed his act of terrorism, another Irgun member, Shlomo Ben-Yosef, threw a hand grenade at an Arab bus travelling between Tiberias and Rosh Pina, hoping to make it crash. There are streets named for Ben-Yosef in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bnai Brak, Be’er Yaakov and Ramat Gan.He’s on a postage stamp too.

I’m not saying this to excuse Palestinians who celebrate murder. Venerating terrorists who intentionally kill Israelis, as Palestinian leaders too often do, is always wrong. Promoting hatred of Jews, as Palestinian leaders too often do, is always wrong.

But there’s something sickening about Netanyahu applauding his government for not inciting acts of violence when Israelis have just burned a Palestinian baby to death.

Not only sickening, but factually wrong. According to a poll of Jewish Israeli teenagers in June, forty-five percent said they would not study in class with an Arab. Forty-eight percent of those who identified as “right-wing” expressed sympathy for “price tag” attacks against Palestinians.

Does Netanyahu really believe his government did nothing to “incite” these hateful views? Is it mere coincidence that Israel’s justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, last year posted an article on Facebook saying Israel was at war with “the Palestinian people” and calling Palestinian children “little snakes.” Or that in 2013, Israel’s current education minister, Naftali Bennett, boasted that “I have killed lots of Arabs in my life – and there is no problem with that.”

Or that Israel’s current deputy defense minister, Eli Ben Dahan, said Palestinians “are like animals, they aren’t human.”

Or that in March, Israel’s then foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman said “we need to pick up an ax and cut off” the heads of Palestinian citizens who are disloyal to Israel.

And is it any coincidence that Netanyahu himself, in his heftiest book, A Durable Peace, favorably quotes Winston Churchill as saying that “Left to themselves, the Arabs of Palestine would not in a thousand years have taken steps toward the irrigation and electrification of Palestine.” Or that he favorably quotes former British Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen as saying that “The Arab is a poor fighter, though an [sic] adept at looting, sabotage and murder.” Or that as finance minister in 2007, Netanyahu boasted that his social welfare cuts had reduced the birthrate among Israel’s Palestinian citizens. Or that this year he helped secure reelection by warning that “Arab voters are coming out in droves.”

A year ago, Rivlin called racism “a terrible evil and a disgrace to Israeli life.” That evil manifested itself last week in a small Palestinian town in the West Bank but the disgrace starts at the very top.

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