This week Israelis will go back to the polls in the country’s first ever “do-over” election, and many Democrats are hoping to see the long reign of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu end. In a recent campaign video, Senator Bernie Sanders emphasized, “Anti-Netanyahu ≠ Anti-Semitism.” Following the Trump/Netanyahu decision to block Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from visiting Palestine/Israel last month, Senator Brian Schatz ridiculed Netanyahu’s anti-Muslim “belligerence,” equating him to Trump, while making the analogy that just as the United States is not synonymous with Trump, so is Netanyahu not representative of all of Israel.
Indeed, egregious human rights violations permeate Netanyahu’s ten-year stint as prime minister. At his direction, Israel launched two major assaults on the Gaza Strip, committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Netanyahu resumed punitive home demolitions against the families of Palestinians suspected of violent crimes, a practice roundly condemned as collective punishment. In this current electoral campaign, Netanyahu is again openly calling for the illegal annexation of West Bank settlements, which is a war crime.
In Democrats’ minds, focusing on Netanyahu as the problem shields them against cynical charges of anti-Semitism from the right wing. However, this rhetorical approach will not serve the human rights movement long term. Whatever the election results, the United States will still be supplying Israel with $3.8 billion in annual aid, and we will therefore have a legal responsibility to ensure that U.S. taxpayer funds do not contribute to Israeli human rights violations under any prime minister. What is needed is a principled opposition to the occupation centered on how the Israeli military routinely violates international law generally and the rights of a protected population in particular.
Focusing the public’s critical gaze on Netanyahu also obscures how every Israeli government in the country’s history has dispossessed, disenfranchised, and discriminated against Palestinians. From the beginning, the socialist Zionists who founded the country in 1948 committed ethnic cleansing. The Israeli military forcibly displaced thousands in order to create a unified, ethnically homogenous territory for Jews only. Then the Israeli government barred 750,000 Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes, damning them to squalid refugee camps in which many of their grandchildren still live today.
In the 1980s, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his Defense Minister Ariel Sharon initiated the illegal invasion and bloody occupation of Lebanon. Israeli jets indiscriminately bombed densely-populated urban neighborhoods in Beirut, while backing the fascist Phalange party in its pursuit of sectarian supremacy. Contrary to how it is typically remembered, the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre did not deviate from the overall Israeli war plan: Israel generally pursued a strategy of targeting innocent civilians so that the civilians would exert pressure on the PLO to surrender—what Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once called the “rational prospect.”
If a non-state actor carried out such premeditated attacks on innocents, everyone would condemn them as terrorism; but because it was a U.S.-aligned state actor doing the killing, this label did not get applied.
During and after the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, “dovish” governments in Israel accelerated the illegal settlement project in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza. While Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin negotiated the accords with Yasser Arafat, the Rabin government was also breaking ground on the new illegal East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa. They strategically situated Har Homa between the growing Palestinian city of Bethlehem and the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher, thereby preempting their eventual unification into a single residential bloc.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (1999-2000), who has recently returned to Israeli politics after a long hiatus, himself boosted the settlement enterprise during his brief stint as head of state. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, the annual rate of new West Bank settlement construction was actually higher under Barak than it has been in any year since, including during the Sharon and Netanyahu governments.
So while Netanyahu has an abominable human rights record, always singling him out for critique does a disservice to the Palestinians who have suffered under left-wing as well as right-wing Israeli governments. Netanyahu will not reign forever, and the ascent of a new prime minister will probably not mitigate the daily nightmare for Palestinians living under military rule.
By contrast, if we can further entrench in the minds of U.S. citizens a principled opposition to the occupation as such, we stand a chance at ending this multigenerational horrorshow once and for all.