Israeli Vertigo

The Jewish state, once considered a model country, is now embroiled in an extremist dimension. Next to Netanyahu are radical ultranationalists who have had the upper hand for decades by breaking state laws

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has hit out at Benjamin Netanyahu. For the Israeli prime minister, a charge with war crimes and crimes against humanity is very much like a preliminary verdict. Historical, if not judicial. The arrest warrant requested for him, as well as for Hamas leaders, puts him in a position even closer to the point of no return. At first, hundreds of thousands of Israelis protested his policies, starting with his attempt to subjugate the judiciary. Then, after the October 7 Hamas attack, it was the international community that froze in the face of the violence, with which the Israeli state, not the terrorist group that Hamas is, carried out a systematic retaliation against Palestinians, especially civilians.

The stance of the Netanyahu-led government has caused more and more countries to raise the issue of genocide risk for the Palestinian people at the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ). Dozens of nations, one by one, from Colombia to Turkey to the entire 51-nation bloc of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, have joined South Africa in this condemnation. That was followed in recent days by Spain, Ireland, and Norway joining the 140 countries that have decided to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state. With growing isolation internationally, Netanyahu also had to acknowledge the irritation of the US administration. Starting with Biden, who, under pressure from his party, ultimately decided to endorse limiting military supplies to Israel. After the Gaza massacre, which has sparked unprecedented protests at American universities over the past half-century, the White House fears “a humanitarian catastrophe” that an Israeli army attack on Rafah would cause among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, especially women and children, who have been reduced to the status of the damned of the earth.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu intends to move forward. He ignores and almost ridicules a president like Biden, who is as concerned today about the impact of continued asymmetric warfare on his campaign as he was yesterday about guarantees of unconditional support for Israel. And even in this dramatic passage, he is ready to defend the challenged leader, calling the Hague court’s decision “outrageous.” This is why the Prime Minister of the Jewish state feels he is above criticism and accusations, since he is convinced that he is on the right side of History. A History he helped shape during his four decades on the Israeli political scene, leading the government six times with the benevolent protection of Washington. A story that prompts his own political opponent, Benny Gantz, to counter-charge the Hague Criminal Court in defense of what seems unjustifiable to the rest of the world: “The State of Israel is on the right path in the war after a massacre by a terrorist organization against its citizens. Israel is fighting in the most moral way in history, respecting international law and having an independent and strong judiciary.” Almost a call for solidarity from those who may run to lead Israel in the next election.

How to explain this? What happened to Israel? The New York Times asked this question last week, after years of watching this trend, which then turned into the drift the once model country has fallen in. The title and summary of the investigation speaks volumes: “Impunity: how extremists took over Israel. After 50 years of failure to stop violence and terrorism against Palestinians by Jewish ultra-nationalists, lawlessness has become law,” it is conducted by investigative journalists who have been delving into Israeli political reality for years.

The conclusions they reached are sensational and disturbing. We have half a century of illegal behavior, largely unpunished, that has brought a radical form of ultra-nationalism to the center of Israeli politics. The essence of it all is the subversion of the settlers compared to the laws of the state itself. The police, the army, even the legendary Shin Bet have surrendered in front of the power of a radical movement based on religion, capable of building around its actions a network of complicity and protection more powerful than the entities of the state. It could be defined “deep state,” which acted as support for the subversion of leaders seeking to derail any negotiations, expel Palestinians from disputed territories, and render rulers involved in peace processes powerless. To be a prototype for the assassination of those who signed the Oslo Accords, such as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Ronen Bergmann and Mark Mazzetti’s investigation resulted from interviews with approximately hundreds of current and former Israeli government officials, including four former prime ministers, tracing the network of those responsible for the current situation in Israel. From the founders of movements who supported the creation of a “Greater Israel” at home or in the USA, to the authors of mosque massacres, to the generals, judges, rabbis, and politicians who defended and supported them. The “impunity” that gave the name to this tragic page of modern history has affected recurring characters in Israel’s darkest moments. Fanatics are arrested, tried, and convicted of very serious crimes, up to and including murder. “Some of these people are now running Israel. In 2022, just 18 months after losing the post of prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu regained power by forming an alliance with the far-right leaders of both the Religious Zionism Party and the Jewish Power Party.”

They are talking about Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir: the first is the current Minister of National Security, the latter is the Minister of Finance. As the New York Times reminds us, when Netanyahu formed the most right-wing government in Israeli history, he published a list of goals and priorities, including a clear statement that the nationalist ideology of his new allies would be the guiding light for the executive branch: “The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the land of Israel.” October 7, 2023 and the thirst for revenge it caused was still far away.

Senior correspondant

Alessandro Cassieri