Israel’s Violations of International Law Are Bigger Than Netanyahu

When Netanyahu proposed a reform to allow parliament to overturn Israel’s Supreme Court, liberals feared it would lead to the end of the rule of law in Israel. But Israel has never respected the rule of law, and liberals within the country ensured this.

An Israeli soldier seen aiming while other soldiers search shops in the town of Hawara, south of Nablus, in the West Bank. March 25, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to drastically reduce the power of Israel’s Supreme Court, made possible by support from the far-right Likud and Otzma Yehudit parties, has ignited one of the largest protests in the country’s history. Several hundred thousand Israelis continue to rally against this proposed legislation, which would allow the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court decisions with a majority vote and undermine the country’s independent judiciary.

In the United States, this attempt to weaken the court has been met with sharp criticism by both critics and supporters of Israel. Over ninety House Democrats stated that they were “profoundly concerned” over Netanyahu’s attempted judicial overhaul in a letter to President Biden, and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman declared that “Netanyahu is shattering Israeli society.” Criticism of Israel is nothing new among the American left, which has long considered Netanyahu a pariah.

Obscured behind fears of the end of liberal Israel is the general agreement, across what is comically called the Middle East’s most successful democracy, on the necessity of systematically violating the human rights of Palestinians. Israel’s violations of international law — including the American-supported and subsidized occupation of the West Bank, Golan Heights, and Gaza Strip, and the regular attacks on neighboring nations — are points on which parties across the political spectrum agree.

Liberals who worry about the Israeli far right putting an end to the rule of law have often been incapable of seeing analogies between the country’s domestic and foreign policy. The rate of settlement expansion in the West Bank demonstrates the widespread consensus among Israeli politicians that Israel need not obey international law. While it is indisputable that transferring civilian populations into occupied territories is a clear violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel has steadily increased the population of settlers in the West Bank over the past four decades, regardless of whether the government in power was considered right-wing, left-wing, or centrist.

This remains true today, even among the most vehement anti-Netanyahu politicians. As Peter Beinart recently noted in the New York Times, former prime minister Yair Lapid — the most prominent political opponent of Netanyahu — is sharply critical of the current government’s attempts to strip the judiciary of power. Lapid is considered a “centrist” politician, championed by the Atlantic as “the man who could end the Netanyahu era.” Yet not only did Lapid oversee a major attack on Gaza as prime minister, but he is also committed to annexing large settlement blocs in the West Bank, annexing all of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, and reserving the right to invade the remnants of whatever is left for a future Palestinian state “at will.”

Beinart also noted that centrist Benny Gantz, another “major figure in the anti-Netanyahu movement,” oversaw the designation of “six leading Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organizations” as defense minister. Recently, Gantz supported a proposal to annex large areas in the West Bank, and in 2014 he commanded the assault on Gaza that killed over 2,200 Palestinians, including five hundred children. He later bragged that this operation sent areas in Gaza “back to the Stone Age.”

Political support for violations of international law extends even to the liberal end of the spectrum (not including the Arab parties in the Knesset such as the Palestian-supported Ra’am, which served ineffectually in the short-lived government between June 2021 and December 2022). Former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who presided over “the most left-wing government” according to Avigdor Lieberman, tightened the blockade on Gaza, expanded settlements in the West Bank, and launched one of the deadliest assaults on Gaza in Israel’s history.

Israel’s violations of international law are directly aided and subsidized by the US government. The United States gives Israel $3.3 billion in foreign military financing annually, more than every other state combined. This military aid finances Israeli arms imports from the United States and significantly subsidizes Israel’s domestic arms production. American military aid accounts for around 16 percent of Israel’s entire defense budget.

The result: American military aid goes directly to fund Israel’s regular attacks on neighboring states, as well as its occupation of Palestinian territories, which has been condemned as a brazen violation of international law by the International Court of Justice, the United Nations Security Council, and dozens of General Assembly resolutions. US-supported Israeli activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, according to Human Rights Watch, constitute “crimes against humanity,” which “stand among the most odious crimes in international law.”

American support for Israeli violations of international law is not limited to military aid. Despite the recent uptick in settler violence in the West Bank and Israel’s planned settlement expansion, the Biden administration pressured the Palestinian Authority to withdraw a Security Council resolution calling on Israel to freeze settlement expansion. In 2019, the Trump administration declared that the United States recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights, in clear violation of Security Council resolutions. The secretary-general of the United Nations, the European Union, the Arab League, and multiple General Assembly resolutions condemned this move as a violation of international law. But rather than reversing the Trump-era recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, the Biden administration affirmed it.

The United States’ support and subsidization of Israel’s violations of international law is where the American left should focus its attention and advocacy. It is true that Netanyahu and the general rightward shift in Israeli politics is concerning, and Netanyahu’s cabinet is full of ultra-right-wing nationalists and bigots. However, for many prominent liberals in Congress, condemnation of Netanyahu is articulated as praise for his opposition, even though its positions on international law are remarkably similar.

The Left should not fall into this trap. Concentrating on Netanyahu’s right-wing radicalism should not distract from the reality that his liberal opponents are also responsible for entrenching the occupation of Palestine, expanding settlements, and consistently violating international law. The internal domestic politics of Israel, concerning as they may be, should not divert the Left’s attention away from focusing on the United States’ subsidization of the crimes supported across the spectrum of Israeli politics.