This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Britain's leader Theresa May to stop funding Breaking the Silence, an organization founded by serving officers in the Israeli army to speak out against the damage done to soldiers by forcing them to control the lives of Palestinians in the occupation. (Full disclosure: I work for the Moriah Fund, which has given annual grants to Breaking the Silence though the New Israel Fund for many years.) Netanyahu sees democratic dissent as more dangerous to Israel than a law justifying the theft of privately owned Palestinian land, a new low point in Israel legislative history.
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If Steve Bannon is Trump's puppet-master, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and the settler extremists he represents now fulfill that function for Netanyahu. Settlers see the destruction of Israeli democracy and the degradation of Judaism as a small price to pay in order to fulfill their fanatic and messianic vision. Our prime minister has made it clear that he will happily lead the country into the abyss so long as he does not have to give up his job or face the failure of his leadership.
The new law is disingenuously called the "Regularization Law" – which means land theft is now going to be a regular and legal practice when Israeli settlers do it to Palestinians. Privately owned Palestinian land that settlers grabbed, against Israeli law, will now be retroactively expropriated to Israel because Israel feels like expropriating it and because the Palestinians are too powerless to stop it. Palestinians will be offered compensation amounting to a maximum of 125 percent of the property’s value according to a committee that Israel will appoint.
This is so blatantly immoral and absurd, so against all Jewish values other than the idolatrous worship of Judea and Samaria, that it is hard to believe that 60 grown-ups passed it into law. Imagine squatters taking over your home, deploying an army to keep you out, and then offering to compensate you at a rate they determine. This (stinking) veneer of legalism and pseudo-generosity is meant to ease our conscience.
It doesn’t ease my conscience, but it does sound familiar. Jews have been defrauded of their property and their land through just such legal fiats for the last 800 years of the European Jewish diaspora.
The government’s top legal adviser, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, has already said that he will not support this law if and when an appeal goes to the High Court of Justice; he thinks it’s indefensible. Friends of Israel around the world, including the same Theresa May who has been hearing about Netanyahu’s obsession with Breaking the Silence, have already criticized the law.
Underlying this legislative low point is the fact that Netanyahu can’t tolerate television coverage of the evacuation of Amona – Jews being dragged out of their illegally constructed homes and synagogues by Jewish police. Such images, Netanyahu fears, will push settlers to vote for Naftali Bennett’s party, Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), instead of the Likud.
The Supreme Court will likely overturn this debased legislation, which our cowardly prime minister may be counting on. In all likelihood Netanyahu will then join the chorus attacking the courts for being overly activist.
I am concerned about the courts constantly being forced to negate the endless stream of indefensible legislation being generated by right-wing think tanks. The strategy is to get away with passing as much pro-settler legislation as possible in order to maintain the occupation indefinitely – since the right wing has no solution to offer to the Israeli Palestinian conflict – and when the court puts its foot down, to weaken the courts through populist attacks.
The latest spin trotted out by Jewish Home lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich is that the courts should not get involved in what should be political decisions, which is a fancy way of saying that Smotrich does not believe in the democratic system of checks and balances when it works against the settlement enterprise. And when people like Smotrich pit “the will of the people” against court decisions, he means the small group of extremist and messianic settlers, who now dictate the priorities of an Israeli government led by an embattled but visionless prime minister.
But the fact that Smotrich is media savvy, telegenic and always available for interviews reminds us why we have to speak out against the land-theft law and not wait for the courts to do our work for us. Right-wing governments cannot be permitted to destroy both the Jewish and democratic foundations of Israel in order to advance their narrow settlement agenda.
Liberals in America are in shock over the Trump victory, and justifiably fear the white, racist, anti-Semitic, isolationist chorus that Steve Bannon and U.S. President Trump have unleashed. But America is big and powerful, and its system of checks and balances is resilient.
Israeli democracy has been under assault for years by the pro-settlement camp, so perhaps we are less in a state of shock. But our system of checks and balances is also weaker and less well understood by our own populace. So we must speak out, and tell ourselves, our leaders and the world there is nothing regular about stealing other people’s land, that this not the way of the democratic and Jewish state we have been fighting for.
Don Futterman is the Israeli program director for the Moriah Fund, a private American Foundation, which works to strengthen democracy and civil society in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast.