If there is one nation that gets a disproportionate percentage of the headlines, especially in light of its small size (under nine million, including in lands many see as ‘occupied’ – more on that later), it is Israel. The world’s only ‘Jewish’ state (more on this later) is known for its high tech success and its stalwartness in face of enemies on all sides. It is also known for its continued occupation of Palestinian land, land gained in war, and the growing influence of its Jewish extremist segment.
I cannot think of a country that is more divisive on the international stage than Israel. People love it or they hate it: there does not seem to be a lot of middle ground here (full disclosure: I see myself in that lonely middle). Israel has powerful friends (i.e. the US) and powerful enemies (i.e. just about the entire Islamic world) and has to be constantly on guard.
It has to be said, however, that Israel often shoots itself in the foot through its own actions. The re-election of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu this week is the latest example of such.
For many Mr. Netanyahu is a hero, a strong leader who has stood for his nation’s interests and protection during a long diplomatic and political career. To others he is a criminal – there are at least three major charges against him working their way through Israeli courts – and a Jewish extremist. Like most things about Israel, both are probably partly true.
But it is his recent stances that worry me. Not only did he promise to annex parts of the Occupied West Bank during the election campaign, a promise some dismissed as electioneering but which some on the religious far right have said they will hold him to, but he has overtly stated that Israel is a Jewish state. By implication this idea does not include those who are not Jewish, fully a quarter of the population. Am I the only one who sees this policy as racist?
The fact remains that the intolerant far right is gaining strength in Israel, in part through representatives in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament). Some in these parties can only be described as religious extremists. Put another way, the language and imagery used by these actors is the Jewish equivalent in many ways of the language used by Islamist jihadi extremists. You read that right: I am calling these individuals and groups extremist (NB I devote a lot more to this issue in my forthcoming book ‘God made me do it: how extremists use religion to condone violence‘).
If the new Netanyahu government follows through with its announced policies and plans it is hard to see how this will not lead to more violence, more unrest, and more terrorism. Palestinians, whether Muslim or Christian, although more the former than the latter, will see more of their land taken, more of their rights taken, more of their opportunities disappear. If grievance is truly a major driver of terrorism, which I believe to be true, I cannot imagine more attractive causes that will lead more and more to embrace violence and terrorism. When no other avenues are present desperate people do desperate things.
I know that Israel is, and always will be, located in a dangerous part of the world and that many of its enemies will always remain so. In this light it has the right to protect itself, as do all sovereign states. Actions that it has every duty to take include intelligence collection, arrests and military operations, all with a view to keeping its citizens safe. But by electing extremists such as Mr. Netanyahu Israel’s citizens are making things worse. The Prime Minister has chosen to align himself with other extremists, including Jewish extremists, whose vision of Israel is eerily similar to the apartheid system in South Africa. That these people think that all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, based on biblical texts, is part of Israel and must be obtained/defended with force, puts them squarely in the box of religious terrorists. This view may be unpopular with some but it is accurate.
Israelis are obviously free to choose their own leader and they have done just that. Who am I to tell them who to want as prime minister? At the same time, choices have consequences. The choice of Mr. Netanyahu to remain the head of government will lead to more terrorism. Of that there is little doubt. You heard it here first.