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Israel is fighting right and left radicals to keep its sovereignty

[additional-authors]
December 28, 2015

There is no comparison between Israel’s right-wing extremists, some of them murderous, whom the government is currently trying to contain, and Israel’s left-wing radical organizations — Breaking the Silence is the one now under the spotlight — that the government is also trying to contain. There is no comparison between people who threaten to act violently against innocent Palestinians — and dance with a photo of a slain baby — and people whose declared aim is to stop the violence (and pull Israel out of the West Bank).

There is no comparison. That is why Israel is currently engaged in a fierce battle against its right-wing extremists — one that includes arrests and harsh interrogations — while its battle against its left-wing radicals includes merely legislative and procedural measures.

There is no comparison, and yet I will still make a comparison. Because these two battles in which Israel is engaged do have something in common. Both are battles to preserve Israel’s sovereignty. Both are battles to preserve Israel’s democratically elected government’s power to rule the country. Both are battles against attempts to rob the Israeli public of its authority to carve out Israel’s route.

Beginning with the right, here is what we know:

There is a small faction of people who are radicalized, violent and defiant of Israel’s authority. Some of these people may have been involved in the abhorrent murder of a Palestinian family in Duma. Others may have been involved in other violent crimes. All of this is currently under investigation by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security forces.

Israel takes these investigations seriously. It takes the threat of Jewish terrorism seriously. Hence the outcry on the far right over the investigative tactics used in this case. Right-wing extremists are claiming that the detainees are tortured. But they are not tortured. They are harshly investigated. They are investigated neither like “Jews” nor like “Arabs” — but rather as terrorist ticking bombs. That is because the Shin Bet believes that they are ticking bombs.

Some of Israel’s right-wing political leaders were courageous and determined in their rejection of the allegations made against the Shin Bet and against the investigation. Notably so, Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home. In recent days, the security around Bennett  has increased because of his insistence on backing the investigation. He was unequivocal, and so were his colleagues Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Likud’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (unfortunately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was late and meeker in offering his support for the investigation).

Of course, no one should get a medal for doing the obvious: That is, backing Israel’s security forces as they fight against terrorism. Yet, on the other hand, amid the habit of many of Israel’s critics to assume the collective guilt of Israel’s right wing whenever a case of extremism is exposed, highlighting the unequivocal statements from Bennett, Shaked, Ya’alon and others has value.

There are differences in nuance between the statements of these respective leaders. Notably, Ya’alon seems more willing to acknowledge negligence and carelessness among right-wingers in dealing with the extremists. He encourages “soul searching” among his right-wing friends.

“When you blink on the question of the rule of law, through illegal construction, through attacks on me, for example, including by ministers and Knesset members, and when you raise your voice or hand on the Supreme Court — then young teenagers who see things as black-and-white realize that maybe it’s OK to throw stones and bags of urine on police officers and soldiers and puncture tires of police vehicles,” Ya’alon said.  

The ministers of the Jewish Home Party — Bennett and Shaked — understand these words as an attack on their party and their leadership. They see it as exploitation of the situation for political benefit.

Ya’alon was angered and hurt by previous statements made against him by Bennett. And, clearly, he sees a link between the attacks on him and this carelessness in dealing with the radical wing of the right. In Ya’alon’s view, leaders who haphazardly claim the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operates with its hands tied behind its back, or that the government is not trying hard enough to prevent Palestinian terrorism, leaders who let other members of their party brutally attack High Court justices, or do not stand firm against illegal construction of West Bank settlements — these people, without intention, might contribute to the atmosphere in which Jewish terrorism grows.

Ya’alon is right to identify some of these actions as highly problematic. He is right to call for soul searching within the right-wing camp. But he should not use the current circumstances to settle the score in his political fight against Bennett. They are — on this issue — on the same side. They are — on this issue — on the same side as the vast majority of Israelis who want a sovereign Israeli government to make policy and who object to attempts of radical groups to make their own laws.

Moving leftward, what happens is much less dramatic, yet still significant. On Dec. 27, Israel’s ministerial committee on legislation approved a proposed legislation that will force nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that get most of their funding from foreign governments to declare this fact when they operate in Israel. Called the “transparency bill,” this legislation is a step aimed at curbing foreign intervention in Israel’s business.

The argument for this bill (there are several versions of it, but the one most likely to become law is a relatively moderate suggestion by Shaked) is simple: When a foreign government is trying to impact Israel’s actions from within by funding groups that oppose Israel’s policies and lobby against Israel’s actions — within Israel and overseas — that should be transparent to all people who have contacts with these groups.

On Israel’s left, and in Europe, there is anger over this proposed legislation, and there are the usual cries that this is yet further proof that Israel’s democracy is doomed. The left claims that right-wing groups also get a lot of support from philanthropists abroad (Sheldon Adelson is frequently mentioned). They claim that this is a bill aimed not at having more transparency, but rather at decreasing the power among NGOs on the left.

An honest observer should acknowledge the fact that some of these claims have merit. Private foreign philanthropic support of certain political goals of both left and right can also be problematic. And, indeed, it is not a coincidence that a right-wing government is more determined to act against the mechanisms that fuel the radical left rather than against the mechanisms that fuel the radical right.

On the other hand, the government has a case when it says that foreign-governmental philanthropy is not like private philanthropy. It also has a case when it says foreign philanthropy that aids left-wing groups is used to delegitimize Israel’s policies and actions, and to even criminalize them, and that it contributes to one of the most troubling trends against which Israel has to fight — the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Take, for example, the most notable case that has recently been making Israelis (both right and center) uncomfortable — the case of Breaking the Silence.

Breaking the Silence does two things that are highly unpopular among Israelis: It goes against the IDF — an esteemed institution — and its reports put ammunition into the hands of some of Israel’s worst enemies. It poses as a group working to make sure that Israel’s level of moral conduct will remain high, but it is also a group working toward a political goal — to make Israel evacuate the West Bank.

Of course, the occupation is problematic, and maintaining a high standard of moral behavior is essential for Israel. But the attempt to force Israel’s hand in the political discussion over the future of the West Bank is a political maneuver — in this case, a political maneuver funded by European governments. Breaking the Silence gets grants from foreign governments to publish damaging stories about the IDF, and it operates abroad with an intensity that makes even its supporters highly uncomfortable. Its accusations that the IDF acts immorally as an occupying power then serve the political goal of these European governments: to delegitimize IDF presence in the West Bank.

Breaking the Silence also refuses to cooperate with Israel’s justice system, yet another building block in the campaign for the delegitimization of Israel. It signals to the world that Israel is so terrible that not even its prosecutorial and judicial systems can be trusted. Israel — for good reason — has little patience for such allegations, direct or indirect. It has little patience for foreign governments that give money to organizations whose goal is to tie Israel’s hands and curb its policies. It has little patience for this attempt to infringe on its sovereignty to make its own decisions.

Hence the comparison: A comparison between right-wing and left-wing radicals and Israel’s battles against them. A comparison that is inappropriate in many ways. The terrorism of the radical right is much worse than the naïve belligerence of the radical left.

Then again, both operate against an essential feature of any state: its sovereignty and its right to make its own decisions through democratic means. That is why the harsh interrogations of right-wing extremists are justified and necessary. That is why the legislation to curb foreign intervention in Israel’s decision-making process is also justified and necessary.

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