On Monday, it was reported that the FBI has opened an investigation into the death of the Palestinian-American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed in May by a bullet that the IDF—on the heels of investigations by multiple news organizations—determined was likely shot by an Israeli soldier. This came a few days after the IDF announced a hearing for two soldiers involved in the death of Omar Assad, another Palestinian-American who died in January after being detained and tied up in the middle of the night and left outside at a construction site, and a few days after State Department spokesperson Ned Price condemned Itamar Ben Gvir’s attendance at a memorial for ostracized extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane as “abhorrent.” To top things off, on Friday the U.N. advanced a resolution requesting that the International Court of Justice issue an advisory opinion on the “prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation of Palestinian territory.”
With the exception of Ben Gvir’s speech at his political and philosophical icon’s memorial—a speech in which he insisted with a straight face that Kahane was motivated by love—none of these developments were directly related to the Israeli election results on their face and the triumphant ascendance of far-right parties with their far-right policy proposals. But they are actually all related to the Israeli election results, as they are attempts to shape the ground ahead of what everyone expects to be a new Israeli government that will quickly move to transform Israel’s relationship with its justice system, its relationship to accountability, and its relationship with the West Bank. Everyone—Israel, the U.S., and the international community more widely—is trying to shape the future, but what we got a glimpse of over the past week is the future that is already here.
It might seem that Israeli proposals to transform the justice system in ways that limit the Supreme Court’s oversight and make it easier to advance de jure and de facto Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank are internal Israeli issues. The reality, however, is that Israel’s justice system has long been trained on the rest of the world. The most powerful argument that Israeli leaders have for keeping the U.N., ICJ, ICC, and other transnational bodies out of Israeli affairs is that Israel’s justice system effectively polices misdeeds. Israel’s Supreme Court is admired and respected internationally, Israelis like to point out that prime ministers and presidents have spent time in prison as proof that nobody is above the law or beyond account, and the IDF has a track record of investigating its commanders and soldiers following allegations of misconduct. The U.S. has always backed up this view of Israel, arguing at the U.N. and from the press room at Foggy Bottom that the country is adept at investigating internally and righting its own wrongs.
What is unfolding now are attempts by Israel to demonstrate that this still holds true, and corresponding pushback on the idea that everything remains business as usual. The new Israeli government has not been sworn in, let alone been formed, but that prospective new government is already sending signals that limiting the Supreme Court’s authority will be the top and immediate priority. This will supercharge renewed efforts to force outside intervention on Israel, whether it be General Assembly votes, Security Council resolutions, or more ICC investigations. The talk about untying the soldiers’ and police officers’ hands and restoring security to Israeli streets by loosening rules of engagement and accountability in the midst of a marked increase in Palestinians shot by the IDF and other security forces will supercharge calls to investigate Israeli military practices and tie them to security assistance. In its zeal to give the Knesset leeway to do things that the Supreme Court has prevented in the past—from creating sweeping and permanent draft exemptions for Haredim, to erasing any strictures on settlement construction, to giving soldiers more leeway to shoot first and ask questions later—the parties in the prospective new coalition seem unattuned to the fact that Israel is not operating in a vacuum.
After months of U.S. haranguing about a criminal investigation into Assad’s death and a perception of Israeli foot-dragging in Washington, it hardly seems a coincidence that the IDF suddenly announced possible indictments in the case right after the election. While reports are that the Justice Department authorized the FBI investigation into Abu Akleh’s death before the Israeli election, it similarly hardly seems a coincidence that its existence emerged this week. It is standard practice for the FBI to investigate killings of American citizens overseas; what is unusual is to see it done when it happens in Israel. Both sides are acting as they should—it is understandable and expected that the U.S. wants its own answers when one of its citizens is killed by a foreign army, and it is understandable and expected that Israel will not allow its soldiers to be questioned by a foreign government—but this type of standoff is fated to be repeated.
The outgoing Israeli government and the Israeli security establishment are doing their best to walk a line between demonstrating that a culture of accountability still exists while protecting their soldiers from external forces, but that line is going to become increasingly difficult to straddle as it is encroached upon from both sides. Any government with Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich is going to be less concerned about accountability and sating the concerns of other countries, and any government with Ben Gvir and Smotrich is going to simultaneously face more challenges to its actions.
There is an irony that this new ripple in U.S.-Israel relations is happening at the same time that a bevy of American security officials, including CENTCOM Commander General Erik Kurilla and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl, are in Israel for meetings with Israeli counterparts. This dichotomy is going to be a feature of the relationship so long as the combination of President Biden and the prospective new Israeli government is in place, with security relations largely humming along while diplomatic relations fray at the edges. This might be a best-case scenario, with a worst-case scenario being challenges even to the security relationship if Smotrich ends up as defense minister. What the U.S.-Israel relationship does not need is a fight over Israeli negligence (or worse) in treatment of American citizens while Israel increasingly requires U.S. assistance at the U.N., or Israel requesting for the U.S. to build a united front against ICJ investigations into the West Bank while it is also legalizing illegal settlement outposts.
Yet we are seeing a preview of what this might look like. The Biden-Netanyahu relationship will be personally strong and this will blunt some of the impact, but the policy differences are going to widen, U.S. frustration with Israeli behavior will grow, and Israeli indignation with American questioning and prodding will mushroom. For those who are waiting to see what the new Israeli government will mean for Israel on the international stage and in Washington, the waiting is over before the show has even formally begun.
“culture of accountability” can mean anything. The Palestinians have no such culture, nor do the various UN “committees” dedicated to the destruction of Israel. It is beyond time to tell the USA to butt out of internal Israeli affairs. The USA has a close relationship with Israel for numerous strategic reasons and Israel has more to offer than the Palestinians ever will. Sit tight and hopefully in two years the democrats will be back out of power and the pro-Israel republicans back in power. That will be the best time to settle the dispute with the Palestinian nationalists.