I usually announce the guest for our Friday Zoom call at the end of the newsletter. But this Friday, the guest is Noam Chomsky. As an intellectual, a leftist and a Jew, Chomsky has fascinated me my entire adult life. I want to ask him about growing up in a Hebrew-speaking home, about his time living in Israel, and about the reports that he considered making Aliyah. I want to ask about his ground-breaking 1967 essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” which savaged academics like his MIT colleague Walt Rostow for overseeing America’s murderous war in Vietnam, and about the fact that he nonetheless defended Rostow’s right to teach at MIT when students disrupted Rostow’s classes. I want to ask about his relationship with Edward Said, and why he still supports partitioning Israel-Palestine even though Said embraced one binational state.
I want to ask Chomsky too many things. But I’ll let other folks on the call ask questions too. To accommodate more people, we’ll be using a different Zoom link than usual. Paid subscribers will get it on Wednesday.
Subscribe and join us.
The big news from Israel is that Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett have forged a coalition that could oust Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. Does that matter? It depends: If you’re Jewish, yes. If you’re Palestinian, no.
For Israeli Jews, Netanyahu’s departure matters because he was undermining the rule of law. To avoid prosecution for corruption, he was trying to warp and delegitimize Israel’s judicial system. It was Trumpesque. And because avoiding prosecution required staying in power, Netanyahu engineered a two-year stalemate that prevented Israel’s government from functioning normally. Israeli Jews expect to be governed by leaders who are restrained by law. Since Netanyahu was threatening those restraints, his departure matters.
For Palestinians, it matters far less. Netanyahu’s assault on the rule of law didn’t impact them as much because the rule of law has never applied to them all that much. Most Palestinians who live under Israeli control—those in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip—aren’t Israeli citizens. They are thus already subject to arbitrary and unrestrained state power. In the West Bank, Palestinians cannot hold political gatherings of more than ten people, publish material “having a political significance” or display “flags or political symbols” without prior approval of the Israeli army. In Gaza, Palestinians have no say over the blockade that has helped make life in the strip “unlivable,” according to the United Nations. Even Israel’s Palestinian citizens—often called “Arab Israelis”—don’t enjoy the same legal protections as their Jewish neighbors, a reality illustrated by the fact that, although both Jewish and Palestinian citizens committed acts of violence during last month’s communal fighting, Palestinians comprised as much as 90 percent of those arrested.
A new Israeli government may end Netanyahu’s assault on the judiciary. But it’s unlikely to end the structural discrimination that, to varying degrees, blights the lives of all Palestinians under Israeli control. Although the new coalition would include the progressive Zionist party Meretz, and enjoy outside backing from a predominantly Palestinian party, Ra’am, it would be led by Naftali Bennett, a former settler leader who is even more dedicated to entrenching Israeli dominion over millions of stateless Palestinians than is Netanyahu. In 2023, Bennett would supposedly give way to Yair Lapid—who supports a Palestinian state without a capital in East Jerusalem (which is a little like creating a country in Westchester that lacks access to New York City). But given the power that right-wingers wield in the Bennett-Lapid coalition, it’s virtually impossible that such a government—if it even lasted until 2023—would be able to do anything but perpetuate the settlement project that has been pushing relentlessly forward for close to half a century.
That’s why comparing Netanyahu’s exit to the exit of other ultra-nationalist demagogues—Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, India’s Narendra Modi or Hungary’s Viktor Orban—is misleading. It’s misleading because while all these leaders threaten liberal democracy, Israel has only ever really been a liberal democracy for Jews. Beating back Netanyahu’s authoritarian challenge doesn’t change the fact that, for Palestinians, Israel has been authoritarian all along. The best analogy for Netanyahu would be a white South African leader during apartheid who defied his country’s judicial system and undermined its election rules to perpetuate his stay in power. In so doing, he would have challenged the liberal democracy that white South Africans enjoyed without challenging apartheid itself. To find an American analogue for what’s happening in Israel now, you’d have to imagine that Donald Trump (or Donald Trump Jr. or Tucker Carlson or whoever) had succeeded in disenfranchising most Black and Hispanic Americans and was threatening to emasculate the Supreme Court—but was ousted by a good government-coalition led by Ted Cruz and Susan Collins, which maintained Black and Hispanic disenfranchisement but ensured that white Americans could still rely on an independent judiciary.
That’s a long way of saying that Netanyahu’s ouster, if it happens, probably won’t deserve all the attention it gets. But it will leave me with vast troves of Netanyahu stories that no one will care about anymore. Since time may be running out, I’ll end by sharing one that encapsulates Bibi’s decades-long interactions with America’s leaders. In 1996, Netanyahu met Bill Clinton for the first time as prime minister and proceeded to lecture him at length about how the US should handle Israeli-Arab relations. After a while, notes former US diplomat Aaron Miller in his book, The Much Too Promised Land, Clinton couldn’t take it anymore. After Netanyahu left, he erupted to his aides, “Who the fuck does he think he is? Who’s the fucking superpower here?” Questions to ponder as we contemplate a new Israeli political era.
For readers who think I exaggerated the degree to which Palestinian citizens of Israel lack equal rights, I’d recommend this haunting Washington Post column by Eva Najjar.
This story in Slate does a good job of capturing the obstacles that US journalists face in covering Israel-Palestine.
This essay by Idan Landau, translated into English by Moriel Rothman-Zecher, offers a powerful rebuttal to the many justifications that American and Israeli politicians have offered for Israel’s bombings in Gaza.
In Vox, Zack Beauchamp offers a thoughtful defense of the two-state solution. In the coming weeks, maybe I’ll explain why I disagree, or have Zack on a Friday call to discuss the issue (if he’s willing). But if you read his essay alongside Nathan Thrall’s recent interview in Jacobin, you’ll get a sense of where I think his analysis comes up short.
Hope to see you Friday,