Giving Comfort To The War Criminals: Benjamin Netanyahu’s Visit To Australia Shames Us All


The prime Minister of Israel is visiting Australia. And our government and media are turning a conveniently blind eye to his horrendous war crimes, writes Michael Brull.

Remember when Donald Trump was running for President, and he said that he could shoot someone in the middle of New York without losing any voters? That’s basically the perfect analogy for the red carpet being rolled out to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu this week.

Netanyahu is an overtly racist brute. He has murdered thousands of people, and openly announces his intention to offer de jure institutionalisation of de facto apartheid in Palestine. The reaction from Australia’s political class has ranged from warm welcome in the Coalition, to mild disapproval on the left extreme of the ALP.

Trump merely bragged what he could get away with. Netanyahu proves that no matter how extreme, racist and rejectionist Israel gets, the response from the two major political parties will at most consist of lukewarm expressions of concern.


Netanyahu’s record of savagery

For almost two months in 2014, from early July to late August, Israel bombed Gaza. The destruction was immense. Whole suburbs were levelled and razed. Entire families were wiped out at a time, as 216 people were killed in attacks on their homes. Gaza’s infrastructure was devastated. Ambulances and medical personnel were bombed at least 24 times. Some 18 000 homes were damaged or destroyed. 100,000 Palestinians were displaced, out of a population of close to 2 million. Israel damaged 63 water facilities, and destroyed 23. The only power plant in Gaza was bombed four times. 2,251 Palestinians were killed, including 1462 civilians, and 551 children. Over 11 000 were injured. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children were left needing “direct and specialised” psycho-social support.

Responding to mounting horror at all the death and destruction, Netanyahu urged people around the world not to respond too sympathetically to the horrifying images. The Palestinians “want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can. They use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.”

A file image of Gaza in 2009. (IMAGE: gloucester2gaza, Flickr)
A file image of Gaza in 2009. (IMAGE: gloucester2gaza, Flickr)

That man – who killed thousands of Palestinians, and then said the Palestinians use their most “telegenically dead” just to demonise Israel – is the man we have welcomed to Australia.

Then there’s the siege on Gaza. Netanyahu has been Prime Minister since 2009. If his predecessor Ehud Olmert deserves blame for imposing the siege in 2006, Netanyahu has presided over most of its existence.

The combination of savage attacks on Gaza’s infrastructure and the siege has devastated Gaza. The Israeli security cabinet, when tightening the siege in 2007, admitted that it was making use of “civilian levers” against Hamas. That is, it was intentionally imposing collective punishment on the population of Gaza. Netanyahu has presided over this policy, which includes counting the calories allowed into Gaza, and leaving it “on the brink of collapse”.

By 2009, upwards of 90 percent of Gaza’s water was undrinkable. The UN warned in 2012 that if current trends continued, Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020. That warning was repeated in 2015. The siege remains in place. It is now 2017.

The former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights observed that “Their whole civilisation has been destroyed, I’m not exaggerating. It’s almost unbelievable that the world doesn’t care while this is happening.” She said that in 2008, almost nine years ago.

That siege has been supported by every single Australian government. The only exception was a period of a day or so after the attack on the Mavi Marmara in 2010. Kevin Rudd, during his first stint as Prime Minister, opposed the blockade for a period that can be counted in hours. He soon fell into line, and called merely for an “easing” of the siege on Gaza. This call was totally meaningless. As the US coordinated the so-called easing with Israel, it contributed virtually nothing to the reconstruction of Gaza. The point was to co-opt public outrage, and to help rehabilitate Israel’s blockade.

It is important to recognise that, because the key limit on Netanyahu’s savagery is what he can get away with. In 1989, as Deputy Foreign Minister, Netanyahu complained that “Israel should have taken advantage of the suppression of the demonstrations in China [the Tiananmen Square massacre], when the world’s attention was focussed on what was happening in that country, to carry out mass expulsions among the Arabs of the Territories. However, to my regret, they did not support that policy that I proposed, and which I still propose should be implemented.”

He will go as far as countries like Australia and the US let him. And it turns out, that is quite some distance. Whilst some ALP politicians have been willing to offer mild opposition to the expansion of Israeli settlements, they haven’t even said a word about the siege on Gaza. That offers some illustration of their principles and decency when it comes to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.


Netanyahu’s rejection of Palestinian rights

In July 2014, Netanyahu frankly announced that “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.” What he always says. No to a Palestinian state.

In March 2015, to clinch a tight election, Netanyahu repeated himself. “I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel…. The left has buried its head in the sand time and after time and ignores this, but we are realistic and understand.”

In 1999, Netanyahu said that “Nor do I think Israel can achieve peace only by establishing a Palestinian state. On the contrary, I am convinced that such a state will endanger Israel and cause war.” In his book, published in 1993, he said, “To subdivide this land into two unstable, insecure nations, to try to defend what is indefensible, is to invite disaster. Carving Judea and Samaria out of Israel means carving up Israel.” In 1978, Netanyahu said that, “The stumbling block to the road for peace is this demand for a PLO state…. When this demand is abandoned we can have real and genuine peace.”

UK Minister of State for International Development, Alan Duncan MP, visits Gaza, 10th December 2012. He is the first British minister to visit Gaza since the ceasefire entered into force on 21 November. (IMAGE: UNRWA/Shareef Sarhan, Flickr).
UK Minister of State for International Development, Alan Duncan MP, visits Gaza, 10th December 2012. He is the first British minister to visit Gaza since the ceasefire entered into force on 21 November. (IMAGE: UNRWA/Shareef Sarhan, Flickr).

When Netanyahu stood with Trump, and said that under any peace agreement, “Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River”, that was not a stray remark. That is typical Netanyahu rejectionism. It could almost be called Netanyahu’s ideology, if one could impute meaningful beliefs to such a seasoned bullshit artist. Whatever his beliefs, his record is of consistently working to prevent Palestinian self-determination.

Take the negotiations conducted under US Secretary of State John Kerry from 2013-14. Traditionally, the US has been Israel’s strongest backer. Even they became fed up with Israeli rejectionism. As documented in an incisive article by Jamie Stern-Weiner, the peace talks were basically about Kerry taking Israel’s long-expressed terms for a peace deal – annexing the major settlement blocs, rejecting a right of return – and trying to impose them on the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority was willing to acquiesce in those terms. But Netanyahu rejected his own position.

Senior American officials later admitted to one of Israel’s most influential journalists that the reason talks had failed was the Israeli government, and that the “primary sabotage came from the settlements”. They admitted that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had agreed to a demilitarised state, allowing Israeli annexation of 80 per cent of settlers, Israel to keep “security sensitive areas” for five years, before the US occupied them instead. He agreed to Israel annexing settlers in East Jerusalem, and sharply curtailing the return of refugees. Meanwhile, the Israeli government was ramping up the building of settlements, and refused to release Palestinian prisoners.

Trying again in 2016, the US convened a secret summit with Israel, the US, Jordan and Egypt. Instead of pursuing this opportunity, Netanyahu proceeded to form a new rejectionist coalition with far right party Yisrael Beiteinu, effectively killing the summit’s agenda.

Netanyahu’s record was similar as Prime Minister from 1996-99. A tape from 2001 was leaked a few years ago. The tape showed a frank chat he had behind closed doors, where he bragged that he “de facto put an end to the Oslo Accords”, through his devious dealings with the Americans. Netanyahu apparently took pleasure in his cunning, explaining that, “America is a thing you can move very easily”. Netanyahu was openly proud of putting an “end to this galloping forward to the ’67 borders”. He also explained his strategy for dealing with the Palestinians: to “beat them up, not once but repeatedly, beat them up so it hurts so badly, until it’s unbearable”.

The rest of Netanyahu’s record is more or less consistent with this thread of brutality, deviousness, and rejectionism. When Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo agreements with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation – effectively giving the Palestinians nothing – Netanyahu became one of the agreements most prominent and vicious opponents. As a Ha’aretz editorial observed, Netanyahu led “two famous rallies” demonising Rabin. In one, “marchers carried a coffin and a noose”. He stood on a balcony at Zion square “with cries beneath him of ‘Rabin is a traitor,’ ‘Rabin is a murderer’ and placards were being waved of Rabin in an SS uniform and the crowd singing ‘Death to Rabin’”. This “dangerous and violent campaign” led to the assassination of Rabin by Yigal Amir. Netanyahu “gave the incitement his approval”. Likewise, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak said that “Bibi is not guilty of Rabin’s murder, but he was and remains the chief inciter.” Rabin’s widow and son also blame Netanyahu for inciting the assassination.

In 2005, he resigned from Ariel Sharon’s government, to oppose the withdrawal of settlers from Gaza. Even Sharon – who ranked highly among Israel’s worst war criminals – was too dovish for Netanyahu.


Apartheid now, apartheid forever

In 2009, Netanyahu offered a brief, tokenistic break from decades of rejectionism. He said that, “The truth is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish Homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians. We do not want to rule over them. We do not want to run their lives. We do not want to force our flag and our culture on them.” Note the implicit concession. Israel rules over Palestinians. He doesn’t want to run their lives, or force the Israeli flag and culture on them. He just happens to do so. This was his rationale for supporting a Palestinian state.

Admittedly, even this expressed “primitive racialism and imaginary civilizational hierarchies”, as Saree Makdisi commented. The Jews “are a people with a homeland”, with meaningful rights. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are “not a people at all, or certainly not one of the same order”. After all, this was an “inherently Jewish land”, which has been “inconveniently cluttered up with a non-Jewish population”.

This was the biggest rhetorical concession Netanyahu was ever willing to give to the humanity of the Palestinians. And of course, it was bullshit. In 2012, Likud Member of the Knesset, Tzipi Hotovely proudly admitted that the speech was merely a “tactical speech for the rest of the world”. It wasn’t meant to actually be taken seriously. Naturally, the far right MK who supports annexing the West Bank was appointed Deputy Foreign Minister in 2015.

Protests in support of the flotilla protesting the treatment of Palestinians by Israel. (IMAGE: Luciano, Flickr)
Protests in support of the flotilla protesting the treatment of Palestinians by Israel. (IMAGE: Luciano, Flickr)

It is important to stress that it is not just Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s cabinet has 21 members. Mehdi Hassan catalogued statements by sixteen of them opposing the creation of a Palestinian state.

That is, the most important people in Israel’s government are overtly committed to subjugating the Palestinians in the occupied territories, and leaving them disfranchised. As might be expected, many of those ministers have overtly racist views about the Palestinians.

For example, the deputy defence minister of Israel is Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan. He holds the view that Palestinians “are beasts, they are not human”. Furthermore, a “Jew always has a much higher soul than a gentile, even if he is a homosexual”. Rabbi Ben-Dahan is in charge of the Civil Administration, affecting most aspects of the occupation of the West Bank.

Israel’s Justice Minister is Ayelet Shaked. She has made a litany of racist remarks, including laughingly agreeing that she hoped her pilot husband would be “pounding the Arabs hard with bombs”. She infamously shared an article explaining that Palestinian parents should be killed to prevent more “little snakes” from being raised. Israel’s Education Minister said to a Palestinian MK that, “When you were still climbing trees, we had a Jewish state here”. He also bragged that “I have killed lots of Arabs in my life – and there is no problem with that.”

One could go on and on. As a final example, let us take the case of a comment by Israel’s Prime Minister. Netanyahu famously won the last election by warning of “Arabs” coming out in “droves” to vote. Consider the kind of thing he said that wasn’t even regarded as significant. A year ago, Netanyahu explained why Israel should surround itself with fences and barriers. He said that, “In the area that we live in, we must defend ourselves against the wild beasts.”

Israel is not surrounded by wild beasts. It is surrounded by Arab countries, whose populations Netanyahu regards as wild beasts. That kind of gratuitous racism is by now so standard in Israeli politics that no one even notices. That is the gratuitous racist that Malcolm Turnbull proudly says we share values with.


The cowardly response

It takes some discipline to not notice the extreme, rabid racism and brutality practiced across Israel’s political mainstream. The response to this in Australia has been cowardly. Israel has just passed a law which legalises Israeli settlements built on privately owned Palestinian land. Israel’s current President, Reuven Rivlin, complained that, “It will cause Israel to be seen as an apartheid state”.

As the UN Security Council has just reconfirmed the international consensus that settlements are illegal under international law, this act is an open expression of contempt for the rest of the world. Australia’s response has been almost uniquely shameful. Virtually every country in the world supported the Security Council Resolution. Turnbull called it “one-sided”. When Israel responded with a law legalising settlements, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop refused to condemn the law.

The ALP response has been about as pathetic and cowardly. Shadow Foreign Affairs spokesperson Penny Wong responded to the law by saying it was “a counter-productive step away from progressing a two-state solution”. That was the most critical thing she was willing to say about the law in her statement. That kind of weak and mealy-mouthed response to Israel legalising the expropriation of privately owned Palestinian land is by now standard for the ALP.

To get a sense of how inadequate Wong’s statement was, consider this. AIJAC is a privately owned think tank, which is primarily devoted to lobbying for the Israeli government. It released a statement about the law which was as weak as Wong’s statement. AIJAC also called the law “counter-productive”, and also called it “unwise”. They both cited the Israeli Attorney-General’s position that the law is probably unconstitutional. AIJAC also said that it does “not serve the long term interests of Israel” and is “likely to make” resolving the conflict “more difficult”.

Let me underline that. Israel’s law is so extreme that its cowardly Supreme Court is expected to reject it, its Attorney General has strongly opposed it, and its President has said it looks like Apartheid. Yet Australia’s leading pro-Israel organisation has taken a position on the law that is probably more critical of Israel than the position of the Coalition, or that of the ALP. There isn’t even any critique from the much-lauded ALP elders for that shameful stance.

The cowardice of the ALP has a long pedigree. When we condemn Turnbull for his warm welcome for Netanyahu, we should also extend that critique to the ALP, and their appalling record


The red carpet

Given Netanyahu’s overt racism, and the racism of his government, one might hope he wouldn’t be made welcome in the first place. But the obsequiousness of our government knows no limits. Whilst AIJAC criticised the land theft law, Turnbull has said nothing. Instead, Turnbull wrote an embarrassingly fawning op ed in the Australian, just to say how great Israel is, and how he hopes to expand links between Australia and Israel. On Thursday night, Netanyahu announced on his Facebook that Australia and Israel plan to double the bilateral trade between our countries.

Meanwhile, as Netanyahu says no to a Palestinian state – as he has for decades – Turnbull called for a “return to the negotiating table”. The negotiating table that Netanyahu has admitted he regards as a cynical ruse.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, pictured on ABC TV's 7:30 program.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, pictured on ABC TV’s 7:30 program.

The point of returning to negotiations is to make it easier to act like everything is fine. If there is a “peace process”, then why criticise Israel? They’re sorting out their problems with the Palestinians. But the “peace process” began in 1993, and over 20 years later, it has turned out to be an annexation process. The settlements have grown and expanded, and there are now hundreds of thousands of new settlers, as Israeli governments, from Labour to Likud, have desperately grabbed what they can of the best parts of the West Bank, to grab what they want, and leave Palestinians in isolated, non-contiguous cantons.

For his part, even as a tourist, Netanyahu isn’t shy about his rejectionism. In his speech at Central Synagogue, Netanyahu began by saying “wow”. Then almost immediately, in his first sentence, he said that Jerusalem was “our Eternal Capital, never to be divided again!” So, no to a Palestinian state he announced, to cheers, and his friendly host, our Prime Minister. Later on, Netanyahu added, “By the way, the Golan will never go back to Syria, it will always be a part of the state of Israel”. So no to peace with Syria, too.

To openly reject peace with Syria and the Palestinians seems like a strangely anti-Israel thing to applaud. A reasonable response to Israel’s contempt for human rights and international law would be imposing sanctions. This would mean blocking all cooperation with the Israeli military until it stops oppressing the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, stops committing war crimes, and lifts the siege on Gaza. It would mean boycotting the Israeli government until it complies with the ruling of the International Court of Justice, and dismantles the settlements and West Bank annexation wall.

These kinds of responses are not currently on the political agenda. But they should be. They are a reasonable response to Israel’s open institutionalisation of apartheid. Instead, the two major political parties are acting like the lemming voters Trump described.

Israel can shoot someone in a crowded city in broad daylight, and tell us we’ll still support them. The ALP will say that the murder was “counter-productive”, but they still think Israel is great and are eager to support them. The Liberals will buy Israel more bullets, and refuse to comment on the dead body. And the corporate media will act like this spectrum of debate is meaningful and important, rather than a disgraceful illustration of their shared contempt for human life.

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).