The Statecraft of Covid-19: Israel, India and the Myths of Democracy

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points at a map of the Jordan Valley as he gives a statement, promising to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area, in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. Image courtesy : AFP

“We turned the challenge into an opportunity,” announced Narendra Modi on May 12, in a premature boast of his government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Modi’s close friend, Benjamin Netanyahu, may well use the same words to congratulate himself. On May 17, Netanyahu began his fourth consecutive term as prime minister of Israel (and his fifth overall), after his party, the Likud, entered into a coalition with the Blue-and-White bloc of centrist parties led by Benny Gantz. Citing Covid-19, the erstwhile rivals formed a “national unity government”, akin to a wartime coalition. The alliance was cast as a moment of national resolve, all hands on deck. Or that was how Gantz, leader of the Israel Resilience Party and hitherto Netanyahu’s principal opponent, explained his volte-face. The pandemic has proved a lifeline to Netanyahu’s career. Israel’s first sitting prime minister to face trial and possible imprisonment, after being indicted last year in three separate cases of bribery and misuse of office, he is back in power, once more in a position to command public attention and direct it away from the scandal. As with Modi, his immediate reflex is to reach for the imagery of warfare, fanning a surge of religious nationalism and persecution.

The vote for Benny Gantz and the Blue-and-White bloc was emphatically a vote against Netanyahu and the Likud. That vote stands nullified now, and so does the massive Arab turnout in the general election. The candidates of the largely-Arab Joint List alliance had won an unprecedented fifteen seats in the Knesset, and made an offer of support to Gantz. The Blue-and-White bloc has since turned its back on them. With that, Israel’s politics returned to Netanyahu’s comfort zone – pitting right-wing nationalists against the Palestinians – demonstrated by his latest announcement of plans to annex parts of the Jordan Valley and illegal settlements in the West Bank.

The occupied Palestinian territories were under lockdown long before Covid-19. Deprived of free communication and access to the outside world while being monitored intrusively, their dependence on external aid used by Israel as a bludgeon to subdue them; the pandemic presents yet another stark sign of their exposure to Israeli mistreatment. The BDS movement points out that Gaza, with some two million people, faces Covid-19 equipped with just sixty-three ventilators and seventy-eight ICU beds. In 2012, the UN had predicted that Gaza would be “unliveable” by 2020. Here, some of the highest population density on the planet coincides with severe unemployment, while seven out of ten people are refugees. Thirty-five per cent of Gaza’s arable land cannot be accessed because of Israel’s security zones. Eighty-five per cent of its coastline is closed to fishermen. Cooped up, impoverished, malnourished and blockaded, its population could hardly be at a greater disadvantage in confronting the pandemic.

Human rights abuse and the downgrading of people based on their religion and ethnic identity are essential ingredients to Netanyahu’s brand of politics. His government’s 2018 “nation-state law” identified “the right to exercise national self-determination” as “unique to the Jewish people”. It also demoted Arabic from an official language to a “special status”, and established “Jewish settlement as a national value”, specifying that the state “will labour to encourage and support its establishment and development”. Writing inequality and discrimination into the constitution has also been a major project of India’s BJP government. Apart from the parallels between the treatment of Gaza and Kashmir – both frequently described as “open-air prisons” – India’s new Citizenship Amendment Act shares the spirit of Israel’s 2018 law. It favours the claims to citizenship of certain religious groups, while pointedly excluding Muslims. The similarities are not accidental. In 2017, Modi became India’s first prime minister to make a state visit to Israel. The synergy between the two governments was one of Netanyahu’s selling points during his election campaign, which featured large hoardings of himself with Modi to illustrate the new global acceptance of his ideas.

Netanyahu’s politics not only commit Israel to the suppression of its Palestinian citizens and of Palestinians in the occupied territories, but also to unending conflict between them and Jewish Israelis. Attacks on the rights of Palestinians have been accompanied by the steady depletion of political options with Jewish Israelis. Tied to the mast of their right-wing government’s policies, Israeli voters are left with less and less control over their future. As the basis of Israeli statehood alters, the chances of a peaceful settlement diminish. This model of statecraft, where the security apparatus hijacks public resources and determines all choice, is one increasingly shared by India. And Israel is a material source as much as an inspiration to this undertaking.

One of many damning statistics to emerge during the Covid crisis is that India spends over twice as much on its military as on public healthcare. Our country, with less than one doctor per 1000 people, and 2.3 ICU beds per 100,000, is the Israeli defence industry’s biggest customer, buying over a billion dollars worth of weapons per year. Between 2014 and 2018, India accounted for forty-six per cent of Israel’s weapons exports, not counting small arms. Increasingly, Israel’s reckless mentality is imported along with its weapons. As Bipin Rawat, now India’s chief of defence staff, expressed it to a roomful of defence strategists on November 28, 2018: “When you talk of strike drones, how does the Israeli strike the Hezbollah…?” He added enviously, “This kind of thing is possible in that area – in that country. In our country, you’ve seen… the kind of flak that you face when you take such action even against a stone-thrower…” India has come a long way since Rawat’s talk. Full-scale military action against stone-throwers is routine with our defence forces. That unnecessary fuss about rights and liberty deplored by Rawat counts for little today.

For one, India’s laws have been given new shape. Under the amended Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (2019) the government may declare any citizen a terrorist before the charge is proved in court. We are required to take home minister Amit Shah at his word that the law will not be misused; rather than ensuring a fair process, it is more important for the government to stay “four steps ahead” of the terrorists. Supplied by Israel, India has taken other big strides since Bipin Rawat’s conference, whether in dealing with stone-throwers or non-stone-throwers. The Canada-based Citizen Lab revealed in October 2019 that Pegasus spyware bought from Israel’s NSO Group had been used to snoop illegally on at least fourteen civil rights activists in India. The NSO Group maintains that the spyware is sold only to governments. There has been no word of clarification from Amit Shah so far. Nor from Ravi Shankar Prasad, the usually voluble union minister who holds three relevant portfolios: law and justice, electronics and information technology, and communications.

“To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a wilderness, they call it peace,” were the words of the chieftain Calgacus, spoken against Rome, so reports Tacitus in his Agricola (c. 98 CE). In both Israel and India, public resources have been diverted from welfare towards projections of power involving weapons, aggression and the erasure of citizens’ rights. Good as ever at accommodating opposites, India looks like a composite of both Gaza and Israel at this moment: combining the poverty and desperation of the first with the arrogance and spleen of the other.

Over 500 writers worldwide have supported Amnesty International’s call for an embargo on weapons purchase from Israel till the thirteen-year-long blockade of Gaza is lifted. In 1974, India was the first non-Arab country to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It went on to recognise the state of Palestine in 1988. From standing up with protesters to being arraigned with oppressors is a long journey. And we know where it ends.