As the refugee crisis continues to reach levels of despair unseen since World War II, Israeli politicians raced to the bottom, exploiting the horrors to bash each other for political gain.
The self-proclaimed Jewish State’s geographic location, sharing a border with Syria, and being the land path for African refugees fleeing political persecution in Eritrea and Sudan, make it an obvious destination. And while Israel has portrayed itself as uninvolved in the crises unfolding in its vicinity, it has repeatedly bombed Syria (and continues to colonize the occupied Golan Heights), treated wounded fighters from al-Nusra – al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria – before sending them back to the fighting, and sold weapons to despotic African regimes. Legally, Israel is obliged to accept refugees as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. But while the Israeli government refuses to accept refugees escaping war and persecution from its north and south, statements from leaders highlighted the cynical nature of Israeli politics in which no form of suffering is off-limits from exploitation for political gain.
To kick it off, opposition leader and Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept a limited number of Syrian refugees. “I call on the government of Israel to act toward receiving refugees from the war in Syria, in addition to the humanitarian efforts it is already making,” Herzog said, apparently referring to treatment of Al-Nusra fighters as Israel’s “humanitarian efforts.” But Herzog has been perfectly content with rounding up African refugees fleeing war-torn countries into the Holot detention center (what Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has referred to as a “concentration camp”), and didn’t protest when Silvan Shalom barred them from Tel Aviv and Eilat, nor did he lift a finger when the mayors of Arad and Beit Shean extrajudicially set up checkpoints to prevent African refugees from entering. Of course, Herzog was an enthusiastic supporter of the 51-day assault on Gaza last summer, the open-air prison for mostly Palestinian refugees.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded, “Israel is a small country, and we do not have the geographic and demographic depths [to absorb them].”
There are a few layers of irony to this claim: The State of Israel’s entire existence is predicated on the creation of 750,000 Palestinian refugees and permanent denial of their and their descendents’ right of return, as legally guaranteed by multiple UN resolutions. Many of the these refugees live in the besieged Gaza Strip, one of the world’s most densely populated areas that is a small fraction of the size of Israel and rest of the occupied territory. In Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp, Palestinian refugees attempting to escape siege and attacks from both ISIS and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were originally expelled in the Nakba. While Netanyahu claims that Israel has no space for refugees, his government continues to confiscate land to expand Jews-only settlements in the occupied West Bank at the expense of Palestinians.
Why would Herzog demand that Netanyahu absorb Syrian refugees, when to do so would be antithetical to Zionism? Simply because he wanted to embarrass Netanyahu in the international arena by making him appear brutish and indifferent to the plight of refugees.
Of course, Herzog would never agree to absorb refugees either if he were in power. If he did, he’d be pilloried politically, evidenced by a recent poll that four out of five of Israelis oppose taking in Syrian refugees.
While Herzog hit from the left, Herzog’s own party played a duplicitous game and flanked Netanyahu from the right, blaming his government for not having expelled African refugees. “The crisis of the refugees from Syria is not similar to the issue of the infiltrators from Africa who are mostly migrant workers. If only Bibi’s government had created immigration laws, it would be possible to send back to their country those who are in Israel for their welfare and for work. But the Likud government is only good at talking, and it is responsible for the troubles of the residents of south Tel Aviv,” the Zionist Union said in an official statement.
Herzog chose to play an extremely cynical game, attacking Netanyahu for the same behavior that he would undoubtedly do himself – all to gain points for his image, and at the expense of refugees.
But it doesn’t end there. While Herzog and the Zionist Union were attacking Netanyahu from both right and left, supposed “centrist” Yair Lapid, the chairman of Yesh Atid, attacked Herzog from the right in refreshingly honest terms. Allowing Syrian refugees into Israel would open a “back door for a discussion of the Palestinian right of return,” he said. Indeed, acceptance of any non-Jewish refugees would call into question the denial of the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees, an outcome that would upend Zionism, Israel’s national ideology.
Lapid then came from the left, invoking the plight of African refugees who are currently inside Israel. “There are refugees in Israel already. Out of 50,000 infiltrators there are several thousands who came from Darfur, people who fled something I don’t want to term as a Holocaust, but is like the Holocaust, and it’s them that the State of Israel should assimilate,” Lapid said.
Like supposed “center-left” leader Isaac Herzog, Lapid has enthusiastically supported the Israeli government’s policy of making life intolerable in order to coerce refugees to go back to Africa – which they would face imprisonment and possibly death – first articulated by former Interior Minister Eli Yishai.
While the faux debate allows Israeli politicians to gain credibility in internal politics, it also contributes to the abroad image of having a humanist side – the Israel that American liberal Zionists pine for. Meanwhile, the most accurate measure for Israel’s attitude towards refugees is its acceptance rate, which remains at nearly none.