Many have learned over the last three months how Hamas and the Israeli right, and especially Benjamin Netanyahu, have a paradoxically symbiotic relationship. Arch-enemies and yet dependent on each other. It’s occurred to me in recent days how many of Israel’s fiercest critics have a comparable relationship with the many far-right extremists who make up Netanyahu’s current and, one hopes, final government. From the start of Israel’s current campaign in Gaza, various members of the current coalition have opined or hoped that the carnage and destruction might be an opportunity to depopulate Gaza.
This kind of rhetoric comes in two basic forms. One is the simple fact that Gaza is a warzone with immense destruction. And civilians generally flee warzones. We saw it in Yugoslavia. In Syria. We see it in Ukraine. That’s what happens in wars and warzones. Civilians flee. But of course this history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict makes it totally different. So you have members of the Israeli far right saying, with perfect disingenuousness, why not let these poor people flee? It’s a humanitarian gesture. It’s helping them! Others barely even bother with this pretense of voluntary departure. It’s just an opportunity to get Gazans to leave.
This isn’t the government’s policy. The government says it’s not its policy. And it’s not acting on this policy. But the fact that actual government ministers keep calling for it obviously gives immense credence to those who either fear or want to believe that it is.
If you read press commentary and social media conversations today, the Israel legal and foreign policy establishment is basically apoplectic at the two far-right kingpins in the government, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, because their comments will almost certainly be used against Israel in any international court proceedings regarding the current campaign.
You may have seen that yesterday the U.S. State Department took the fairly extraordinary step of denouncing the two men by name for their ongoing comments.
Of course, the key point is that the prime minister, the man who actually runs the government, at least nominally, who speaks for it, won’t can the two or even clearly denounce them. Why? Because they are critical to his remaining in power. In theory, the entry of Benny Gantz’s party as an emergency wartime coalition gives Netanyahu a big enough majority that he doesn’t need those guys. Some have actually noted this. He won’t offend them even though he no longer needs their votes. But that’s not quite right. If he loses them he is entirely dependent on Gantz and Eizenkot for his political life. And apart from the crisis of the war, they have no common interest with him at all.
It remains entirely about him.
Sen. Bernie Sanders put out a statement yesterday calling for no more funding for “Netanyahu’s illegal and immoral war against the Palestinian people.” But that’s simply not right. The war isn’t “his” war much as some of Israel’s would-be defenders might want it to be. The war has vast public support within Israeli society. As political support for Netanyahu collapsed in the aftermath of October 7th, the great bulk of that support migrated to Benny Gantz’s party (Blue and White, or the current coalition it’s running as part of, National Unity). Gantz is part of the emergency war cabinet. Indeed, as a former chief of staff he likely has more operational insight into the military conduct of the war than Netanyahu does. But this stuff, having a government buttressed by the most extreme elements in Israeli society, is entirely about Netanyahu and the way he has for years molded and manipulated the Israeli party system to perpetuate his rule.