Since October 7, we have often dismissed the most radical people and statements from our side due to the extremism of the other side. We should be able to condemn Palestinian extremism while also condemning Israel’s.

The International Court of Justice begins hearings today on the charge that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. As with many allegations against Israel in international institutions, the genocide allegation is an overreach that treats Israel as operating in a vacuum and relies on assuming the absolute worst fact pattern that one could generate for Israeli behavior. The case also relies on a litany of statements from Israelis, both government officials and citizens with no official capacity, advocating all manner of crimes and treating Palestinians as sub-human. A dossier purporting to prove Israeli genocide by citing tweets from Israeli celebrities can be easily mocked, but we dismiss the underlying extremism it represents at our peril. Amidst the trauma of October 7, it has been easy to lose sight of the fact that this Israeli government is historically and unacceptably radical, and it continues to damage Israeli interests and Israel’s case for global support.

The Peace Palace in The Hague, home to the International Court of Justice

On December 15, three Israeli hostages were tragically killed by IDF soldiers, who mistook them in the fog of war for Palestinian terrorists. The incident received an enormous amount of attention, refocusing people on the plight of the hostages and the pressures on IDF soldiers dealing with rules of engagement as they navigate an enormously challenging landscape. What received far less attention was an incident that took place two weeks earlier. On November 30, in the midst of a terrorist attack in Jerusalem in which two Palestinian terrorists shot and killed three Israelis, Yuval Castleman—an Israeli bystander at the scene of the attack—shot at the terrorists, alongside two soldiers who were on the scene. After the terrorists had been killed, Castleman knelt on the ground, threw away his gun, opened his shirt to demonstrate that he was not armed, and shouted in Hebrew that he was Israeli. One of the soldiers looked at him, took a few steps in his direction, and shot and killed him anyway, clearly thinking that he was an unarmed Palestinian rather than an unarmed Israeli. As if that were not bad enough, the Israeli police immediately claimed that there were no bullets in Castleman’s body and allowed him to be buried without an investigation. This led to his body being exhumed and autopsied—during which Israeli bullets and shrapnel were unsurprisingly found—and a State Attorney-mandated investigation into the police’s conduct. It was an echo of the infamous Elor Azaria shooting of a disarmed and injured Palestinian terrorist in 2016, with the crucial difference being that this time it was an Israeli Jew rather than a Palestinian who was killed.

The Castleman shooting and the bizarre police cover-up come during the tenure of Itamar Ben Gvir—who dressed up as Azaria for Purim after he was convicted of manslaughter—as the minister overseeing the police. Since October 7, Ben Gvir has distributed weapons to Israeli civilians with abandon and almost certainly against existing regulations, leading to the resignation of the official in charge of gun permitting. He has called for blanket immunity for soldiers and police for anything they do in the context of fighting in Gaza or combatting terrorism. He infamously declared in August that the right of his family to drive on West Bank roads should trump any Palestinian freedom of movement at all. This week, in the wake of police violence against demonstrators, the Israeli Supreme Court issued an injunction against Ben Gvir giving the police operational guidelines with regard to protests, ruling that he had improperly instructed them to prevent and break up demonstrations against Israel’s operation in Gaza. It is not hard to connect the dots between Ben Gvir’s actions and statements and the atmosphere he is actively fostering, and instances in which Israeli police behavior has been disturbing and problematic.

Not to be outdone, Bezalel Smotrich continues to push for Gaza to be depopulated of Palestinians, continues to insist that Israel should build settlements everywhere and anywhere irrespective of whether Palestinians are there or own the land, and continues to disregard nearly every U.S. request to stop doing things that increase tensions and make the situation on the ground worse. As finance minister, Smotrich directly controls the government’s purse strings, where has directed funds to West Bank regional councils and Haredi schools while withholding money for Israeli evacuees from the north and the south. He has prevented security cabinet discussions of Israeli plans for Gaza beyond the military operation through implicit threats to leave the coalition, since he refuses to accept any result other than a full-scale Israeli occupation of Gaza and the return of Israeli civilians to the territory.

The Israeli finance minister—considered to be one of the three most important cabinet positions alongside the defense and foreign ministers—is openly calling for Palestinians in Gaza to be removed and resettled in other countries, while insisting that Israel should rebuild its settlements in the territory. His political partner, the national security minister, joins in these sentiments. Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir ran together on a slate that controls more seats than any party in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition other than his own Likud. Yet when they advocate war crimes, promote their odious brand of Jewish supremacy, and boast about flouting American requests and priorities, we here in the mainstream American Jewish camp dismiss them as irrelevant clowns. We argue that they aren’t representative of anything, even though they are representative of a disturbingly large number of Israelis and of a growing ideological strain inside of Israel. We seize upon the statements of low-level Palestinian functionaries as proof that Palestinian society is fundamentally irredeemable. Whenever a Squad backbencher says something offensive, my email inbox is filled with asides about the Democratic Party being controlled by or in thrall to antisemites, as if Rashida Tlaib both sits in the White House and is the House Democratic leader. Yet we insist that Smotrich and Ben Gvir should be ignored and that they don’t have a real impact on Israeli policy, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. The other side’s extremists are proof of a deep rot, while ours are just inconvenient.

Palestinian farmers in a former Israeli settlement in Gaza, 2020

Right now, Smotrich is the most influential and powerful minister other than Defense Minister Yoav Galant. Every day, he lends credibility to those who believe that Israel has a secret plan to ethnically cleanse Gaza. That he is a radical ideologue does not mean that he should not be taken seriously. He has been empowered and elevated by Netanyahu, and there seems to be nothing that he can do or say to change that. Netanyahu has constructed and continues to maintain a government that says radical things and then backs them up with radical action. It is the entire government that is contributing to casual observers—and not only hardcore anti-Zionist activists—believing that Israel is ethnically cleansing Gaza. This government is also preventing Arab states in the region from wanting to lift a finger to help Israel solve the Hamas problem and avoid Gaza reverting back to the status quo ante, and pouring fuel on the cut-security-assistance-to-Israel fire. The imperatives to remove Hamas from power and restore basic safety and peace of mind to Israelis do not alter the inescapable fact that Israel’s government is an enormous barrier to fulfilling many critical Israeli interests.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Both Israel and the U.S. agree that Hamas is not the only problem on the Palestinian side, and that the Palestinian Authority too cannot be entrusted with responsibility for Gaza unless it undergoes serious reform. The American Jewish community has embraced this as a truism, adopting the language of a reformed or revitalized or reconstructed PA for it to have any future role. We should be taking a similar approach to this Israeli government, which should not be trusted to oversee the critical work that will be necessary to Israeli security and diplomacy as the war in Gaza transitions to the next phase. If we keep on dismissing the most visible extremists in the Israeli government as irrelevant or uninfluential, we will not only be wrong on the facts. We will increasingly find that doing so is met with both incredulity and declining sympathy for a country going through a generational trauma that it did not create and that needs that sympathy and assistance more than ever.