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Israel’s New Government is Precisely What You’ve Heard

A couple of days before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his third stint as prime minister last week, his new double-hatted finance minister and minister in the Defense Ministry Bezalel Smotrich penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal purporting to explain the new government’s motivations. Entitled “Israel’s New Government Isn’t What You’ve Heard,” Smotrich’s aim was to disabuse Americans of the notion that the new Israeli government is out to fundamentally transform the state and its institutions in ways that may look nefarious from this side of the ocean.

In fact, according to Smotrich, the intention of the new government is not to scare Americans, but to emulate them by pursuing a classically liberal agenda of freedom of conscience, free markets, individual rights, and checks and balances directly drawn from the liberal American model. For years, Israelis have told Americans that we have unrealistic expectations that they conform to our democratic model and liberal practices, and lo and behold the paragon of religious nationalist Israeli politics is apparently now on our side!

Yet before anyone anoints Smotrich as a modern-day Israeli combination of John Locke and Oliver Wendell Holmes, a bit of perspective is in order. Smotrich’s tendentious op-ed is indeed an Israeli message to Americans, but it is an old one rather than a new one. It continues the dubious Israeli Sallah Shabati tradition of assuming that most Americans don’t know enough to challenge Israeli claims that stretch the truth to absurd proportions. Smotrich has hit upon a clever trick of appealing to notions of American exceptionalism and pretending that Israel wants to be like us, understanding that the key to getting Americans to begin defending unprecedented Israeli behavior will be to do the very thing that Israelis admonish Americans for doing by creating false equivalencies between here and there. In this case, however, Smotrich either does not understand the American system, is deliberately misrepresenting his own plans and policies, or both.

Take the paragraph on religion and state. Smotrich locates the new government’s plans in a fundamental American axiom of religious freedom, writing that the only thing being sought is to prevent religious Israelis from being punished for their beliefs without coercing secular Israelis into having to abide by religious dictates. This sounds compelling, and Smotrich claims it is no different than recent U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence on religious freedom. Naturally, Smotrich elides that, unlike the U.S. with its separation of church and state, Israel’s system is one where state and religion are deliberately intertwined, and thus the government is able to impose all manner of religious strictures in ways that make any comparison to American legal principles absurd.

But where he truly misleads is in his description of what the government wants to do. The new coalition is not interested in preventing religious Israelis from being punished for their beliefs; it is interested in preventing this for only some religious Israelis. If you are a religious Israeli who believes, for instance, that you have the right to take a Torah scroll to the women’s section of the Western Wall, you are out of luck. The new coalition is also not interested in legislating greater freedom of religious expression without coercing secular Israelis, unless your version of non-coercion includes building neighborhoods that can exclude non-Haredi and non-Orthodox Jews by law or forcing secular Israelis to sit in even more endless traffic jams because no state-funded public works projects can be operational on Saturdays.

But where Smotrich’s op-ed is at its most dissembling is in its discussion of Palestinians and the West Bank. The main problem is not, as Smotrich writes, that “a feckless military government lacks the civil-service orientation required for governing civil life.” The problem is that temporary military occupations lack the orientation required to sustain themselves for over half a century, and that keeping 85% of the population living there in a situation of permanent statelessness and with no path to citizenship and political rights does not meet any conceivable definition of civil life.

Smotrich knows full well that Israel will not, as he claims, develop the area for the benefit of all, particularly when the very next paragraph is devoted to complaints about a Palestinian takeover of Area C, which is the 60% of the West Bank over which he has jurisdiction in his new position in the Defense Ministry. Saying that you intend to promote Jewish rights and development while curtailing the same for Palestinians will not comport with American sensibilities, and thus Smotrich prepares a word salad of “efficient service” and “individual rights” without saying that he intends this only for Israelis but also without explicitly saying that he intends to apply these standards equally to Israelis and Palestinians.

There is, however, one spot where Smotrich is blatantly dishonest, which is in his pledge that his proposed set of reforms “doesn’t entail changing the political or legal status of the area.” Say what you will about U.S. policies around the globe, but whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan, or Guantanamo, the U.S. is clear that it will not annex the extra-territorial spots that it militarily occupies, and it governs them under military administration. Smotrich understands that if he is arguing that Israel is simply trying to emulate the U.S., he has to talk about rights and benefits rather than about annexation and sovereignty.

But this is where his stretching the bounds of credulity actually breaks them. The coalition agreement between Likud and Smotrich’s Religious Zionism calls for Israeli settlement outposts that are illegal under Israeli law to be retroactively legalized, which certainly qualifies as changing the legal status of areas in the West Bank. It calls for applying sovereignty to Judea and Samaria, which certainly qualifies as changing both the political and legal status of the West Bank. It calls for repealing the 2005 disengagement law that made it illegal for Israelis to enter four evacuated settlements in the northern West Bank—one of which, Homesh, the new government this week announced its intention to legalize immediately despite the fact that it was built on private Palestinian land—which again qualifies as changing the legal status of areas in the West Bank.

Perhaps Smotrich justifies this line because he genuinely views the West Bank as territory that already rightly and legally belongs to Israel, and thus these moves would not change any political or legal status. But by any reasonable and objective definition, he is outright lying, and thinks that he is doing it in a way that is savvy enough to fool all of us gullible English speakers, who don’t know any better.

Smotrich has no intention of “bringing Israel more closely in line with the liberal American model,” as he writes, but is looking to craft a new and distinctly Israeli model. It is a model that prioritizes Jewish supremacy, religious observance, and Greater Israel territorial maximalism. As an Israeli minister elected by the Israeli people, he can pursue whatever policies he pleases, but nobody should mistake them as an effort to bring Israel in line with the American political and legal tradition. That he does not want to admit that when addressing American audiences, and instead believes that he needs to dress up his wolf in sheep’s clothing, says more about him than it does about us.

This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.