The moment Shabbat was over in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to ring in the new week by taking a swipe at the Israeli peace and human rights community. In another dramatic overreach, Netanyahu is showing the world that he has no plan to disentangle Israel from the almost-50-year-old, morally corrosive occupation.
- B'Tselem Urges UNSC to Take Action to End Israeli Occupation
- Netanyahu Slams Israeli Rights Group for UN Appearance
- U.S. Defends B'Tselem, Says 'Freedom of Expression' Must Be Protected
- Why I Spoke Against the Occupation at the UN
In a series of Facebook posts, he slammed B'Tselem and Americans for Peace Now for speaking to the UN Security Council about the urgent need to end the occupation. He attempted to spin their action as being somehow "anti-Israel," and he promised to pass legislation that would retaliate against B’Tselem and deny it the right to take part in the Israeli National Service program.
Netanyahu’s move is not surprising. But it is troubling in three respects:
First, Netanyahu has now made plain that he sees no difference between Israel and the Occupied Territories. Israelis know that there is nothing inherently anti-Israel about working to end the occupation, and so do supporters of Israel in the United States and around the world. To the contrary, finding a way to help Israel change direction – to stop investing more and more money, lives, and political capital in deepening the occupation – is profoundly pro-Israel. This is a position supported by virtually every one of Israel’s closest allies in the world, including the United States. Netanyahu’s bid to present Israeli human rights defenders as if they were some “unhinged” fifth column is a transparent effort to divert attention from his failure – and unwillingness – to address this pressing Israeli need.
Second, by promising to retaliate against B’Tselem by stripping them of their ability to engage gap-year volunteers through the National Service program, the prime minister is acting in a manner that is deeply at odds with democratic values.
Human rights groups are active in every democracy around the world. Their job is not to support or explain away government policies; it is to seek the truth and ask the tough questions: “What is being done in our name? Is this just? Is it who we want to be?” Human rights defenders working through civil society organizations are a kind of citizens’ check-and-balance on government overreach. If government leaders are embarrassed by what these human rights advocates uncover, their only correct recourse is to attempt to address and solve the underlying problems. Democratic regimes simply do not shoot the messenger. They do not retaliate against the whistle blowers.
The United States government agrees. When asked about Netanyahu’s action, State Department spokesperson John Kirby said that “we believe that a free and unfettered civil society is a critical component of democracy it is important that governments protect the freedoms of expression, and create an atmosphere where all voices can be heard.”
If Netanyahu doesn’t want Israeli human rights defenders reporting on the reality of occupation, he has one surefire way to deal with it: end the occupation. Promising vengeance against those who oppose his policies may be the type of thing we’d expect from a Putin, Erdogan or, yes, Trump-controlled government. It’s not a standard we can accept for a democratic society.
Third, Netanyahu’s posturing in this instance is a decision to stoke anger against B’Tselem and any Israeli who works to end the occupation. For years, other Israeli hardliners have been inciting against the Israeli human rights community. Now, the prime minister is leading the fray.
This rhetoric has consequences. Two years ago, B’Tselem and other human rights groups came to the New Israel Fund with urgent requests for funding to upgrade their safety protocols in response to increasingly serious security threats. They began employing extra measures to ensure the personal safety of their employees, outfitting their offices with card keys and taking extra steps to ensure their work could continue safely. We hoped it was a temporary situation that would soon pass, but unfortunately, we have had to continue that support. Netanyahu’s action this weekend ups the ante and creates fertile ground for more threats that Israel’s human rights community must now address.
I believe in the Israeli public. Israelis are no fools; I have confidence in them to understand what’s really going on here, to understand that Netanyahu has over-played his hand, and to reject what he’s trying to do. The mainstream Israeli media is already calling it what it is. Even Ben Caspit, a journalist who has been publicly critical of human rights groups and their funders –including the NIF – recognizes that the prime minister has crossed a dangerous line. In his column this weekend he warned that, “what Netanyahu is doing is questioning the legitimacy of these organizations, just as he questions the legitimacy of journalists who criticize him. That is incitement, and in the current mood, it is liable to be dangerous.”
This is not an easy moment to be an advocate for human rights in Israel. The reality of occupation is untenable. In exercising undemocratic control over millions of civilians and through the ongoing settlement enterprise, Israel is eroding its own democracy, violating its own founding values. Speaking those uncomfortable truths is painful. But it shouldn’t be life-threatening. Still, I know what Israel’s human rights champions are made of. They will not back away. And the New Israel Fund will not flinch either. We will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our Israeli partners to bring about the better future we need and deserve.
The occupation must end, and it must end soon. The more Netanyahu grasps at straws – the more he sells out Israel’s democracy and democratic freedom to protect his own ideological and political interests, the more he tries to intimidate and silence Israel’s human rights defenders – the more the ranks of those defenders will grow. They will not be intimidated. They will not be silenced.
Daniel Sokatch is the CEO of the New Israel Fund.