Why didn’t human rights groups give Israel’s center-left a break? - analysis

What worries human rights groups and critics in the West the most is an Israeli center-left government that is inclusive of Arabs and which might actually come to an agreement with the Palestinians.

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid during the swearing-in ceremony for the new Israeli parliament on the 25th Knesset in Jerusalem, 15 November 2022. (photo credit: ABIR SULTAN/POOL/VIA REUTERS)
Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid during the swearing-in ceremony for the new Israeli parliament on the 25th Knesset in Jerusalem, 15 November 2022.
(photo credit: ABIR SULTAN/POOL/VIA REUTERS)

During Benjamin Netanyahu’s decade in power, before losing it to Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid’s coalition government, there was increasing criticism of Israel by human rights groups around the world. There was also a growing concern in some sectors of the West that Israel would never reach peace with the Palestinians and was becoming more authoritarian.

Bennett and Lapid’s government, then, should have been welcomed in the West and received more warmly by Western liberals and human rights groups. However, recent incidents, such as the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, and continuous accusations of “apartheid” show that Israel faces the same criticism regardless of its Center-Left actions.

The sense that Israel is back in the grip of the Far-Right and religious parties is now raising alarms again in the Diaspora, and may lead to tensions with countries that Israel has made progress with over the past year and a half.

This is because a plethora of countries will see in the incoming government some issues that could rock the boat of positive ties. For instance, the Abraham Accords countries may be concerned about the rhetoric of the far-right, or actions that could provoke tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Will Netanyahu and his new ministers be welcomed in Morocco or other countries linked to the Negev Summit, the way that Lapid’s government was received? This remains to be seen.

Regardless, human rights groups systematically described Israel as an apartheid state during the Lapid-Bennett era.

Israel's opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Israel's opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Some groups will be anti-Israel no matter what

In the past, it was sometimes assumed that Western criticism of Israel was primarily an anti-Netanyahu manifesto and that if Netanyahu or Israel’s Right left power, Israel would enjoy better relations globally.

For instance, some critics of Israel within the Obama administration seemed to oppose Netanyahu personally – he was lumped in with “authoritarian” leaders. An article at Middle East Monitor captures this critique well: “With the playbook at hand, to consolidate the slide into authoritarianism all it takes is for a demagogue like Donald Trump, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, India’s Narendra Modi and Saudi’s Mohammed Bin Salman.”

If Netanyahu is seen as an authoritarian, then one might assume that Lapid would have been welcomed as a breath of fresh air, and all these voices would have had renewed hope for Israel. Herein lies the paradox. The government that sought to bring change didn’t receive nearly as much support among critics in the West as had been expected.

Rather than give Israel a chance to improve things in the West Bank, reports by a number of human rights groups all argued that the land between the Jordan river and the sea was one entity and that this area was an apartheid state.

In March 2021, Israel held elections and it looked like Netanyahu would be pushed out of power. Human Rights Watch claimed in April 2021 that Israel had crossed a threshold: “About 6.8 million Jewish Israelis and 6.8 million Palestinians live today between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River, an area encompassing Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), the latter made up of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.”

Amnesty International carried out a similar analysis in February, 2022: “Our report reveals the true extent of Israel’s apartheid regime. Whether they live in Gaza, east Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, or Israel itself, Palestinians are treated as an inferior racial group and systematically are deprived of their rights.”

B’Tselem made similar claims on the eve of the latest elections: “Roughly 5.5 million Palestinian subjects live in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967: about 3.5 million in the West Bank (including roughly 350,000 in East Jerusalem) and some 2 million in the Gaza Strip. None of them are allowed to vote or run for Knesset, and they have no representation in the political institutions that dictate their lives.”

These reports came despite the fact that Israel’s government had an Arab party in the coalition, an unprecedented turn of events. It appears the more the more liberal and left leaning the government became, the less it changed the tagging of Israel as an apartheid state by these groups.

The new “apartheid” definition put forth by these organizations cancels 70 years of UN decisions including the 1947 partition plan,  and erases the Jewish and Arab states that were supposed to exist here. This is all about the “river to the sea,” the traditional chant of Palestinian nationalists.

This is the perplexing paradox that Israel is now in. What worries human rights groups and critics in the West the most is an Israeli Center-Left government that is inclusive of Arabs and which might actually come to an agreement with the Palestinians.

Since the critics have not embraced a one-state concept, anything that takes Israel back from annexation and improves Palestinian rights is a threat to the “apartheid” narrative. That is one reason why Lapid’s government actually came in for more criticism for its actions, not less. Netanyahu’s right-leaning government fits better with what the critics want Israel to be, so they can foist their negative views on the emerging right-wing coalition, for this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for their dislike of Israel.

This paradox was also clear when it came to the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh. Recent reports indicate that the US wants to continue to investigate the killing of the journalist, even though the US and Israel have already investigated the incident.

There is still lack of clarity regarding what the US investigation may entail, but Israel’s outgoing leadership has slammed the US decision. In this case, it’s clear that even an Israeli government that was working closely with the US and a defense minister who was from a centrist party was not able to placate the critics. This may indicate that no matter what Israel does it will face this kind of scrutiny and second-guessing of its institutions.

This is an irony and paradox as well, since Israel’s critics generally view Netanyahu and his incoming coalition partners as eroding the rule-of-law and institutions. However, if it were true that Israel was to be rewarded for having a centrist coalition that is transparent and into the rule-of-law, then it is expected that Israel would not be facing more investigations regarding the Abu Akleh killing.

Israel’s incoming government may be greeted with intense criticism in the West. This could involve new campaigns about areas like Masafar Yatta, scenes of confrontation near Hebron. However, it should be remembered that even during the Lapid era, when Israel had a more diverse coalition, the chorus of criticism did not diminish.

The anti-Israel agenda of some groups and commentators will not change regardless of who is in power in Jerusalem.