Opinion: Netanyahu and his extremist allies are endangering Israel’s long-term security

Editor’s Note: Richard J. Davis was the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Carter administration and former assistant Watergate special prosecutor. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

President Joe Biden appropriately spoke out forcefully about the need to combat the surge in antisemitism in the US, the importance of supporting Israel’s security and not forgetting the brutality of the October 7 terrorist attack by Hamas during his speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s annual Days of Remembrance ceremony at the Capitol on Tuesday.

“My commitment to the safety of the Jewish people, the security of Israel, and its right to exist as an independent Jewish state is ironclad. Even when we disagree,” he said.

Richard J. Davis - Courtesy Richard Davis
Richard J. Davis - Courtesy Richard Davis

But if we are to fight against antisemitism, promote the long-term security of Israel and remember the horrors of the October 7 Hamas attack we must also recognize and speak out against a dangerous failure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government.

That failure is his inability to understand one of the basic requirements to establish long-term security for any society: those living there need to believe they have a stake in that society and can enjoy its benefits. If they do, they will want it to be as safe and secure as possible. If, however, many believe that they have no stake in a society and that they have no real hope of sharing in its success, then turning to violence to create a place in which they believe they can meaningfully participate is far more likely.

If Netanyahu understood this principle, his government would not include dangerous extremists and would not pursue policies involving the significant expansion of West Bank settlements and the recognition of illegal settlements which deny Palestinians hope for a better future. We also would not have to deal with the reality that efforts to support the long-term security of Israel, combat the scourge of antisemitism and address Gaza protests on campuses both in the US and abroad have been made more difficult by the extremism of the Netanyahu government.

Netanyahu, an outspoken critic of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, has spent his years as prime minister promoting the expansion of settlements within the West Bank and making it clear that Palestinians have no hope of anything like their own state.

According to the New York Times, he even went so far as to voice no objection to various Arab countries providing aid to Hamas as part of demonstrating that Israel had no realistic negotiating partner. But he reached a new low when in 2022 he brought into his government the most extreme anti-Palestinian participants in Israeli politics. Their inclusion sent the clear message to Palestinians that there is no hope of a better future for them in any Israeli-controlled-land.

Netanyahu invited Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir to join his government. The former was appointed finance minister and was given responsibility for West Bank settlements. He has, however, suggested during a debate on an immigration bill it was a mistake in 1948 not to expel all Arabs from Israel; has asserted that “there is no such thing as Palestinian people;” favors all of the West Bank being incorporated into Israel; and says he supports the voluntary moving of Palestinians out of Gaza.

Ben Gvir, who has been given a national security portfolio, is arguably even worse. He has been convicted of inciting racism against Arabs and was an alleged member of a terrorist group; has idolized the killing of Palestinians; publicly threatened then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before his assassination in 1995; and claimed that his right to travel in the West Bank was more important than the Palestinians’ right to travel. And, just late last month he reportedly questioned the Israeli Defense Forces why they were taking so many Palestinian prisoners instead of killing them (which would be a violation of international law).

After the October 7 terrorist attack, Netanyahu had an opportunity to remove Smotrich and Ben Gvir from their posts when the first offer from the opposition for a unity government involved their elimination from the cabinet. Seemingly focused on not disturbing his coalition and staying in power, Netanyahu refused. Consequently, his unity government today still gives a platform to these extremists. It also gives license to followers of these extremists to, as we have seen, attack Palestinians in the West Bank and even to attack a Jordanian aid convoy.

There is no doubt that a robust military response by Israel was justified. And there also is no doubt that Hamas’ embedding its fighters and military infrastructure within the civilian population has inevitably increased the dangers civilians face in Gaza. But as has been widely reported, the military tactics adopted by Netanyahu’s government have led to massive civilian casualtiesincluding of international aid workers. Its approach to assistance to Gaza has led to a historic humanitarian crisis.

At the same time, Israel has continued with significant expansion of settlements on the West Bank. The message being sent is clear. As far as the Netanyahu administration is concerned, Palestinian lives do not matter, and there is no reason for them to expect a better future. As a result, however much Hamas is weakened, a new generation of terrorists is being created. And the brutality of the October 7 terrorist attack by Hamas and the plight of the hostages are being drowned out.

So what should those organizations and individuals who believe in Israel and the need to fight antisemitism, whether it be on college campuses or elsewhere, do? For their own efforts to be credible they must not avoid legitimate criticism of Israel. They must condemn the participation of Smotrich and Ben Gvir in the Israeli government. They need, as the United States government is doing, to tell Israel there can be no more excuses. Israel must do what is necessary to expand and simplify the process of sending humanitarian aid to Gaza. They also need to be clear that Israel must change its military tactics to dramatically reduce civilian deaths. And, as challenging as it would be, they need to openly call for the end to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and for a path back towards a two-state solution.

Ignoring the extremism of the Netanyahu government and the horrible humanitarian disaster in Gaza only undermines the credibility of those seeking to defend Israel and fight antisemitism. Indeed, Netanyahu’s government and its actions risk adding fuel to the dangerous fire of antisemitism. And tragically, for all too many around the world, revulsion over what his government has become risks causing them to no longer support the legitimacy of Israel itself.

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