Israel’s new government has yet to be formed, but there is a theme emerging from the members of the prospective new coalition on how they view the proper role of the Israeli government. On a range of issues, future ministers and members of the next coalition believe that the government’s actions should be judged based on whom those actions target, rather than on the actions themselves. It is a combination of might makes right and a specific vision of Jewish and political identity as the standards by which something should be deemed appropriate.
This does not come as a surprise given the campaign rhetoric and the personalities involved. There is also an argument that Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben Gvir, and others were clear about what they wanted to see implemented and the voters responded by sending them and their parties to the Knesset with a show of strength, and thus they should be graded on how many of their promises turn into tangible accomplishments. But amidst the heady dreams of the far-right government that is primed to take power, its members would do well to remember what I’ll call the Spiderman standard: with great power comes great responsibility. I have little confidence that this maxim will be front and center based on what we are already seeing, but it is what the new Israeli government—and all governments everywhere—should be judged on, since it ultimately underlines the basis for people to trust their governments and democratic governance.
Here are some things that happened over the past couple of weeks that illuminate the direction in which things are heading. Two weekends ago, thousands of Israelis went to Hebron for Shabbat as part of an annual pilgrimage there that coincides with the Torah portion Chayei Sarah, which details Abraham’s purchase of the burial ground in Hebron traditionally believed to lie underneath the Cave of the Patriarchs tomb. Over that weekend, there were multiple riots by Jews targeting local Palestinian residents and their property, Palestinian stone-throwing at Israelis, and in the course of the violence a few IDF soldiers were assaulted by Jews. The police detained and arrested a number of Israelis for instigating violence, but ultimately released all but the ones who were charged with assaulting soldiers and police. Rampaging against Palestinians, their homes, and their shops did not spark the same level of outcry among Israelis or the same level of seriousness within the criminal justice system as attacking soldiers, which drew immediate condemnation.
Hebron was the scene of another incident, as it so often is, again last week, when one soldier was filmed tackling a demonstrator and punching him in the face despite no evidence of an assault against the soldier, while another was filmed taunting an activist by telling him that Ben Gvir was going to sort things out and that he had lost, adding that “everything you do is against the law, I am the law.” The soldier was also wearing a patch against IDF regulations with a picture of a skull and the words, “one shot, one kill, no remorse, I decide.” Both soldiers were suspended by the IDF, and the second one was sentenced on Monday to ten days in military prison, accompanied by a letter from the division commander to field commanders instructing them to remind their troops of the moral and operational requirements expected of them. The IDF response was criticized from the right, with Ben Gvir saying that the soldier’s jail time weakens the IDF and excusing his actions as he was only responding to “anarchists,” and demanding that IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi provide him with an explanation for the disciplinary actions. The suspended soldiers’ attorneys claimed that the activists “forced the soldiers to use force” because of their verbal provocations and alleged threats, while some commentators implied that force was justified against “leftists.”
Ben Gvir also made news this week with his proposed new rules of engagement for the police, whom he is about to oversee in his coming role as national security minister. Consistent with his campaign rhetoric about restoring law and order by loosening restrictions on how security forces deal with potential attackers, Ben Gvir said that soldiers and police should be allowed to shoot anyone on sight whom they spot holding a rock or a Molotov cocktail, eliminating the current guidance that requires a potential threat to be deemed serious and immediate. There is, however, a catch to Ben Gvir’s more hardline approach: this new standard should not be applied across the board, in his view, but only when security forces are confronted by people who “hate Israel,” a definition that he left to be determined. For those reading between the lines, Ben Gvir is functionally calling for Palestinians holding stones or incendiary devices to be shot on sight, but for Jewish extremists—such as those who wreaked havoc in Hebron this month, or the hilltop youth whose attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank have increased at an alarming rate—to be subject to the stricter and more careful standard.
In all of these instances, there is a disturbing trend of the presumptive new government and its supporters turning a blind eye to violence against those it deems disfavored—Palestinians and left-wing Israelis—and supporting different rules for different people who commit the exact same actions. The messages being sent are as follows: Beating people is ok, particularly if they are Palestinians who need to be put in their place, and it only turns into a problem if you decide to turn your fists or clubs on a soldier. Soldiers abusing civilians is fine if they are leftists, particularly since most of them deserve it anyway, and the fact that you are carrying a rifle and are bound by a higher standard of duty and they are merely carrying cellphone cameras is really nothing but an inconvenience to be waved away. Shooting first and asking questions later is appropriate when you encounter Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, but should never be done when you encounter Jewish residents of Yitzhar. As Smotrich and Ben Gvir are so fond of reminding people, there are new landlords in town whose job it is to remind everyone who the masters of the house really are.
Responsible governments that have any pretension toward upholding democratic values and democratic standards of behavior understand that the awesome power that governments can wield should they so choose comes with an even more awesome responsibility to wield it judiciously and equally. The incidents of the past two weeks have all involved tangible violence and attempts to excuse it or justify it, but there are other policy issues coming that will implicate the same basic calculus, particularly with regard to things like access to neighborhoods of Jerusalem and construction in the West Bank. All of these things should be judged by the Spiderman standard: is great power being treated as if it also comes with great responsibility, or is great power being treated as a way for the powerful to bulldoze the powerless? Israeli leaders have talked for decades about Israel’s moral responsibility and its ambition to be a light unto the nations, and if the presumptive new government and its most vociferous supporters are sending any signals about how they view these imperatives, it is that they would rather do things because they can rather than because they should.