Hard right hearts human rights on Knesset NGO inquiry

Some members of the hard right have harshly criticized the Knesset inquiry into human rights NGOs. They seem to believe that Israel can continue to rule the Palestinians while respecting their rights. This contradiction is enabled through sophisticated mechanisms of privatization, which may be a greater danger for Israel than fascism

Benny Begin, the son of late Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin, is a minister without portfolio in Netanyahu’s government. He is a member in good standing of Israel’s hard right, and has spent the last two decades strongly opposing any concession to the Palestinians. Remarkably, he is also one of the harshest critics of the Knesset’s decision to investigate organizations-it-doesn’t-like. After describing his assistance to Machsomwatch and Physicians for Human Rights Israel, NGOs which are extremely critical of the government’s violations of Palestinians’ human rights, he states:

… the problems that these organizations raise are important problems… the New Israel Fund is doing important work with weak groups in Israel, both Jewish and Arab. Government, by nature, all over the world, creates injustices…. And I think that from that perspective – we have not even discussed cases of abuse — they too sometime exist — these associations contribute to Israel’s democracy… Knesset members decided yesterday … ‘we don’t want to sleep, we want to go crazy.’ And I want to say that the Knesset’s decision yesterday raises a sign of danger: ‘It is dark here.’

Admittedly, Begin is somewhat of an odd bird (along with Knesset Chair Rivlin, a twin spirit – also from Likud); and most of the positions taken on this issue have lined pretty neatly along a left-right axis. Nonetheless, I think his view is representative of many Israeli officials, working in the IDF, the legal system or the Foreign Ministry. In order to explicate this view, I have prepared this crude table:

Values vs. Perception of reality: Israeli rule necessarily harms Palestinians Israeli rule does not necessarily harm Palestinians
Palestinians have rights Human Rights NGOs Benny Begin
Palestinians do not have rights Yisrael Beitenu +972 comments’ trolls J

Begin can support the continued rule of Palestinians by Israel, despite believing Palestinians have rights, because according to his analysis, this rule does not necessarily entail a violation of these rights. Yisrael Beitenu, and other supporters of a parliamentary inquiry into NGOs, hold the opposite position. They support the occupation, despite knowing that it harms Palestinians, because they think harming Palestinians is OK.

As you can see from the table, human rights NGOs have different values from their inquisitors, but both groups share a similar perception of the reality on the ground. On the other hand, the NGOs share Begin’s values, but sharply differ when it comes to understanding what is actually happening and possible. Ironically, Begin and the inquisitors can cohabitate in the same coalition, precisely because they have nothing in common. Their difference in values and their difference in perception cancel each other out.

Most participants in the Israeli public debate are much fuzzier, both in terms of their values and in terms of their analysis. But Begin’s position is quite close to that of many powerful people in the Israeli system. There is a word for this – and as Ofri Ilani correctly notes (Hebrew), that word is not Fascism. Fascism is the ideology of a centralized state and a unified nation, under a venerated and all-powerful leadership. This hardly fits Israel’s chaotic reality, where ministers can be shouted down on memorial services. Instead, the word we may be looking for is privatization.

Privatization usually denotes the sale of government assets to private hands. More broadly, it is the transfer of responsibility from publicly accountable institutions to individuals or private groups. Privatization occurs whenever the results of bad policy are blamed on its poor or malevolent execution by aberrant individuals or groups, either belonging to the state or officially outside it. Often, public officials present themselves as enforcers, rooting out the bad seeds, or even as victims, helpless to prevent the violations of their laws.

This has been the overarching ideology of the Israeli establishment for the last few decades, in almost every area of policy. It has certainly not skipped policy towards the Palestinians, which is carried out largely by the Palestinian Authority, settler groups, and the indispensible fountain of “abuse” and “bureaucracy, rigid procedures, lack of sensitivity, lack of tolerance, real time pressures” to which Begin ascribes the blame for human rights violations. The Knesset members who voted for the NGO inquiry are simply trying to re-nationalize this policy – to proudly take responsibility for outcomes which the government has been depicting for years as unfortunate and intended byproducts, which it cannot prevent, despite its best intentions.