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Netanyahu and ultraconservatives jeopardise Israeli security.

Endangering Israeli security

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has fractured a long-standing pillar of Israeli foreign policy that dictated it always needed to ensure the backing of the United States. Fixing the pillar may prove easier said than done.

US President Joe Biden’s insistence that US support for Israel is “ironclad,” despite the conditioning of arms sales, is rooted as much in the president’s deep-seated commitment to Israel as it is a reminder of the risk to Israel of surrendering a principle that enabled Israel to do what it wanted.

To be sure, past US presidents, including Ronald Reagan, have put the US-Israeli relationship on the line to pressure Israeli leaders.

Mr. Netanyahu’s defiance of US insistence that it refrains from launching a full-blown offensive in Gaza, saying that 76 years ago when Israel declared independence, “We were alone. We had no weapons, there was an arms embargo on Israel… Today, we are much stronger… If we have to stand alone, we will stand alone,” echoes his predecessor, Menahem Begin, Israel’s first right-wing prime minister.

Responding in 1982 to the Reagan administration and then US Senator Joe Biden’s criticism of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and Israeli settlement policy, Mr. Begin thundered, “Don’t threaten us with cutting off your aid. I am not a Jew with trembling knees. I am a proud Jew with 3,700 years of proud history… We will stand by our principles. We will defend them. And when necessary, we will die for them, with or without your aid.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s problem is that America in the 2020s is not America of the 1980s.

While not irreversible, Mr. Biden’s pausing of the delivery to Israel of heavy payload 2000 and 500-pound bombs, and the threat to condition further arms sales, suggests that the days are gone in which Mr. Netanyahu could boast about US support.

Speaking on Israeli television in the 1980s when he first served as deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in Washington and then as ambassador to the United Nations, Mr. Netanyahu bragged, “We have the Senate, the Congress, and a record-strong Jewish lobby. We have a strong influence over the general support in America. America won’t force us into anything.”

Contrast that with Mr. Biden’s change of US policy in recent days, demands by Congressional Democratic Party members demanding a halt to US arms sales, nationwide pro-Palestinian protests at US university campuses, and opinion polls showing that more than half of Americans disapprove of Israel’s war conduct.

Moreover, Israel, long a master in dominating the narrative and catering to Western media’s needs, has lost the plot.

Not only has Israel severely restricted media access and gone as far as banning Al Jazeera from reporting from Israel, but it no longer seems able or willing to provide credible information and arguments.

To be sure, defending the policies of the most far-right, ultranationalist, and ultraconservative government in Israel’s history would be challenging under any circumstance.

Even so, Israeli government spokesman Avi Hyman demonstrated Israel’s loss of the plot in a lengthy interview on Piers Morgan Uncensored, the prominent British journalist’s popular YouTube talk show.

Interviewed against the backdrop of numerous allegations of violations of international law in Gaza and on the day of the reported discovery of yet another mass grave at a hospital in the Strip that Israeli forces attacked, Mr. Hyman was flustered and speechless when asked by Mr. Morgan how many Palestinian civilians had been killed in the seven-month-old war.

“We don’t have exact figures. As you know, it’s the fog of war,” Mr. Hyman answered, unable to explain why Israel had precise numbers of fighters it says it killed but not for the civilian casualty toll.

Mr. Hyman remained silent for painful seconds when Mr. Morgan challenged him by saying, “You literally have no idea how many civilians you killed… That’s complete nonsense. Why are you authorized to give me the number of terrorists you killed but not a number of civilians? I don’t understand… You want me to believe that you are incredibly careful about how many civilians you are killing, and you have an ‘amazing exemplary record,’ but you don’t how many civilians you are killing. So, how do I know you’ve been careful?”

Israel has consistently rejected the Gaza health ministry’s figure of more than 34,000 deaths and more than 75,000 wounded in the seven-month-old war without providing alternative numbers. Still, it asserts it killed 14,000 Palestinian fighters.

Analysts suggest that Mr. Netanyahu’s abandoning of a pillar of Israeli foreign policy amounts to submitting to blackmail by his ultra-nationalist and ultra-conservative coalition partners, who have threatened to collapse the government if the prime minister fails to launch an offensive in Rafah.

While that may be true, Mr. Netanyahu’s affinity with Israel’s far-right and religious ultra-conservatives may not be just an opportunistic move to save his political skin. His empathy for the religious ultraconservatives, despite being secular in outlook, dates back to the days when he felt confident about the US-Israeli relationship.

At the time, Mr. Netanyahu forged a relationship with the Brooklyn-based Lubavitch Hassidic Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, leader of one of the most influential movements in religious Jewry. Mr. Netanyahu described Mr. Schneerson, who died in 1994, as “the most influential Jew of our time.”

Mr. Schneerson fiercely opposed an Israeli withdrawal from territories it conquered in the 1967 Middle East war. He called the principle of withdrawal in exchange for peace with the Palestinians and Arab states, a fixture of Israeli policy abandoned by Mr. Netanyahu. an “illusion of peace.”

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly years after Mr. Schneerson’s death, Mr. Netanyahu quoted the rabbi as telling him, “You will be serving in a house of darkness, but remember that even in the darkest place, the light of a single candle can be seen far and wide.”

That advice may be guiding Mr. Netanyahu as much as his willingness to sacrifice Israel’s national security interests and the lives of Hamas-held hostages to pro-long his embattled political life.

Mr. Netanyahu’s invocation early in the war, echoed by Israeli politicians and military personnel fighting in Gaza, of the Biblical command to “attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” fits the mould of Mr. Schneerson’s thinking.

Although challenged by numerous rabbinical scholars over the centuries, Mr. Schneerson led ultra-conservative rabbis in the 1980s in popularizing and applying to Palestinians the concept of Amalek, the grandson of Esau and his descendants and anyone else who lived in their Canaanite territory.

The ultraconservatives view Amalek as the archetype of evil, symbolic of Israel and the Jews’ nemeses.

While Mr. Netanyahu may be a cat with nine lives who will grab any opportunity that serves his personal interests, Mr. Schneerson and his fellow ultra-conservatives offer the prime minister religious legitimization of policies that have deprived Israel of its moral standing and put at risk a key pillar of Israel’s ability to defend itself.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.

About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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