Even for someone who is professionally and personally consumed with the Middle East, it is hard not to be preoccupied today with the one-year anniversary of the January 6 Capitol insurrection against American democracy. That day revealed some hard truths about the U.S. and the state of its politics, leaders, and citizens, many of which require a book rather than a few hundred or thousand words to do them justice. The anniversary, however, leaves me thinking not about the insurrection itself but about the year that ensued; how the evolving reactions to January 6 one year later both mirror a dynamic taking place in Israel and explain the commonplace mainstreaming of extremism, and reveal how Israel’s political system is working in a way that the American one is not.
As events recede, the passage of time can render them less meaningful, and in some cases engender debate about what truly occurred. Something that seemed momentous at the time appears trivial in hindsight, and the lessons that one absorbed in real time get reevaluated. The fact that time changes how we view people and history opens the door to opportunists who utilize this to their advantage for political gain. Events that were once straightforward are challenged, dangers that were once evident are dismissed, and consequences that were easily discernible are portrayed as far-fetched fantasies.
The treatment in some quarters of the January 6 insurrection is a perfect example of this dynamic unfolding before our eyes. Whereas all but true extremists denounced the storming of Congress and the attempt to overturn an election in its immediate aftermath, Americans are now being gaslit and told that January 6 was nothing more than a normal tourist visit, a peaceful rally, a false flag operation intended to tar President Trump and Republicans, or an attempt to protect democracy rather than overturn it. Much of this is driven by political cowardice and also by a deep cynicism, where politicians who are supposed to be leaders act the opposite. Rather than speak truth to the people they represent, they pander and pretend that up is down and day is night. Perhaps worst of all, they do this without much thought to the long-term consequences or a plan for what happens when events spiral out of control. As more time passes, it will get even easier to dismiss the January 6 insurrection, claim that it and its consequences were not what they actually were, and sink deeper into a hole from which it will eventually be impossible to climb out. And as a distinct segment of politicians benefit from this dynamic, it will become easier for more to embrace the same set of claims and tactics.
Israel has not undergone a recent event like the storming of the Capitol, though Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination was even more traumatic and time has imposed a similar revisionist framing of the causes and culprits of Rabin’s murder. But the past few weeks in Israel have seen displays of extremism that are only possible because leaders, instead of leading, would rather reap short-term political gains at the expense of responsible leadership, relying on the fact that humans have short memories. As a brushfire among Israelis and Palestinians turns into an inferno, too many are fanning the flames without heed to what it will mean once the fire is out of control.
Violence in the West Bank in 2021 was up on both sides. Shootings and stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians doubled compared to 2020, and there have literally been daily reports of stone-throwing at cars for months. Attacks by Israelis on Palestinians also rose dramatically, with a 21% increase in attacks causing property damage, a 40% increase in attacks causing death or injuries, and a nearly fourfold and fivefold increase respectively in Palestinians killed and injured by the IDF. Israeli attacks on IDF soldiers are up as well, with many high-profile incidents particularly in the northern West Bank, which Defense Minister Benny Gantz denounced in late December. The evidence suggests that extremist settlers have no compunction about attacking Palestinians or IDF soldiers, that larger numbers of Palestinians have no compunction about attacking Israelis, that Palestinian Authority Security Forces are under pressure to defend Palestinians from Israeli attacks rather than stop Palestinian violence, and that the political will on either side to crack down on homegrown extremism is absent.
Instead, we have Israeli politicians flocking to Evyatar, an illegal outpost that has been the tensest West Bank flashpoint and the subject of immense Palestinian anger, and speaking about its sanctity as if it is Mount Sinai. We have Knesset members forming a caucus to insist on the resettling of Homesh, one of the four West Bank settlements evacuated by Ariel Sharon as part of the Gaza disengagement and which is subject to a Knesset law forbidding Israeli citizens from entering. Rather than mourning Yehuda Guetta and Yehuda Dimentman— two Israeli yeshiva students who were recently killed by Palestinian terrorists—by figuring out how to prevent more Israelis from being murdered in terrorist attacks and reduce friction, right-wing Israeli leaders are turning the places associated with the victims—Evyatar and Homesh—into pilgrimage sites and churning a nationalist froth that is guaranteed to increase friction. We have gone from an acknowledgment that it is better for there to be some places where Israelis do not settle for the sake of stability and quiet, to a situation where the absence of Israelis from those places is treated as an outrage that will in fact lead to more terrorism and less stability and quiet. Politicians who do and should know better are willing to say or do anything to placate the mob, either assuming that they can control things down the road or not even bothering to think about what it looks like further down the road.
In a similar vein, Gantz meeting with Mahmoud Abbas to discuss security coordination and strengthening the Palestinian Authority without a hint of resuming actual peace talks or raising final status issues is not treated as being in Israel’s basic interests, which it so obviously and glaringly is. It is treated as a form of perfidious betrayal, with both the opposition and some of Gantz’s fellow ministers tripping over themselves to see who can denounce it in the most jarring tones. Whereas a short few years ago, nearly everyone recognized that basic engagement with Abbas was both beneficial and necessary—after all, a plan for a Palestinian state minus still requires someone to run the minus—now even discussing the mechanisms by which the Palestinian Authority Security Forces will rescue wayward Israelis from downtown Ramallah, as happened only last month, is treated as an unacceptable outrage. Instead of clamoring to be seen as responsible adults, Israeli leaders clamor to be seen as the most aggrieved at the hint of engaging with the first—and maybe last—Palestinian leader to completely eschew violence. As in the U.S., in Israel denouncement of extremism has morphed into acceptance bordering on doctrinal orthodoxy.
But there is another way in which the January 6 anniversary shows how Israel is avoiding some of the pitfalls that the U.S. has not. The way in which the reactions to the insurrection have shifted highlights the utter breakdown in cooperation, or even baseline agreement, between the different sides of the American political spectrum. In the days after January 6, while there was certainly no universal consensus among the two parties, the overwhelming majority of Republican senators and a significant number of Republican House members voted to certify Joe Biden’s election. I have no confidence that the same would occur today. The speed with which the Big Lie about a stolen election has cemented itself has made cooperation on anything—even first-order principles about democracy—impossible.
By contrast, Israel is half a year into an unprecedented and so far successful experiment in political partnership and cooperation that transcends political philosophies and policy preferences. It can be criticized as resulting in muddled policies that leave nobody fully happy, but it also means that everyone has to compromise and learn to live with some measure of disappointment without delegitimizing the entire system and bringing it crashing to the ground. Sometimes this means approving thousands of new settlement units in spots deep inside the West Bank, and sometimes it means coming up with the barest of excuses to indefinitely delay plans to build in E-1, as was announced yesterday, but the point is that Israel has figured out a way to forge ahead in the face of deep political differences in a way that we have not. As Americans grapple with the one-year anniversary of our own dangerous brush with political extremism, we can look at Israel for a cautionary tale and also for a sense of hope.