As Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was en route to Jerusalem for a visit at the beginning of September, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livini called him a “very problematic man.”
The charge was interesting, though not in its description of Duterte. He’s waged wars in the Philippines, killing thousands in a supposed crackdown on drug users and dealers, and declared martial law in the region of Mindanao as part of the state’s ongoing war against rebels there.
In his version of the war on drugs, Duterte infamously embraced Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust (though underestimating its catastrophic death toll by half) when describing the level of violence he was committed to. “If Germany had Hitler,” he told reporters in 2016, “the Philippines would have … ” Duterte then pointed to himself.
“Hitler massacred 3 million Jews,” he continued. “There’s 3 million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
For a representative of the self-declared Jewish state like Livni to call a man who admiringly compared himself to Hitler merely “problematic” amounts to an understatement.
But Livni’s words are more remarkable because of who they came from. After all, Livni herself has been charged with war crimes by at least two countries — Switzerland and Belgium — because of her role as foreign minister during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09.
According to the UN-commissioned Goldstone Report on the Israeli massacre in Gaza — which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians (and 13 Israelis) — Livni described Israel as “a country that when you fire on its citizens it responds by going wild — and this is a good thing.”
For years, Israel cast itself as a pluralistic democracy. Its leaders claimed to be committed to a peace process with the Palestinians, but the Israelis severely repressed them in the name of “fighting terrorism.” All the while, Israel entrenched its regime of ongoing dispossession of Palestinian land and homes, legal apartheid and militarized oppression of Palestinians within its self-declared borders, as well as the West Bank and Gaza.
Recently, however, Israel seems increasingly uninterested in global public opinion.
The entire history of building a Jewish state — in a place where the majority of people were historically not Jewish — has involved tremendous racialized violence. But part of the cover for Israeli actions was that the country served as an outpost of democracy in the region. False as that ever was, the pretense is now gone.
Earlier this year, Minister of Culture and Sports Miri Regev was filmed smiling at a soccer game surrounded by Beitar Jerusalem fans, chanting, “May your village be burned” as their team played an Arab club called Bnei Sakhrin.
Just weeks before, Oren Hazan — a member of the Knesset and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government — took police and a camera crew on board a bus carrying Palestinian mothers from Gaza visiting loved ones in Israeli prisons to berate them, calling their children “dogs.”
Netanyahu hosted Duterte during his visit. The prime minister himself was once considered a hard-right figure on the Israeli political spectrum, but has redefined the country’s center over his many years in power. Netanyahu now stands to challenge David Ben Gurion as the state’s longest-serving prime minster.
Israel’s defiance of international law, global institutions and global public opinion isn’t new. Its flouting of those things has been enabled by the fact that it has faced precious little consequence for its crimes against the Palestinians and its neighbors.
That impunity has been underwritten by a United States that, for decades, has kept the weapons and aid flowing while maintaining a diplomatic shield for Israel on the world stage. The US’s contempt for international law and its institutions continues to grow. But also, this model — in which Israel commits highly visible, indefensible acts with open contempt for anyone who challenges them, and is armed, aided and legitimized by the United States — is going increasingly global.
When Duterte visited Jerusalem, we saw Netanyahu playing that legitimizing role for the Philippine leader. If Israeli politics is unconcerned with even pretending to respect human rights, Duterte must have felt right at home.
Like the present Israeli government, Duterte rejects human rights not only in practice, but in speech.
Among his many horrendous comments are those that embrace sexual violence against women as both expressions of his unabashed misogyny and as a weapon of political terror. At the end of August, Duterte attributed incidences of rape in the city of Davao — where he was mayor prior to becoming head of state — to the presence of “many beautiful women” in the city. While campaigning for president in 2016, Duterte commented on the 1989 gang rape and murder of Australian missionary Jacqueline Hamill in the Philippines by lamenting the fact that he did not get to participate in the sexual assault himself.
In February of this year, speaking before a room of soldiers, Duterte called on the police and military to shoot rebel women, aiming for their vaginas. He said that, without their vaginas, the women would be “useless.”
A male politician’s enthusiasm for sexually violating women as a display of macho power calls to mind, of course, the current US president’s bragging about grabbing women’s genitals.
Trump, Duterte and Netanyahu all make outrageous statements and commit horrendous acts, all without apology. And they are not alone.
A Global Reaction
Yes, Trump’s daily defiance of convention is remarkable. His hostility to the very notion of public accountability for those who hold power — embodied in his constant denunciation of the news media as “enemies of the people” — is dangerous. His embrace of unabashedly draconian ways of rule, both for himself and heads of state he admires, are alarming.
But, while the president — with his self-congratulatory style that relies heavily on superlatives — would prefer that people believe his way of wielding power is a product of his own genius, Trump is actually part of an international turn toward dispensing with the trappings of democracy in favor of more authoritarian measures.
Before Duterte’s visit, Netanyahu hosted Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Orbán, who has also dismissed the Holocaust — and whose anti-Semitism has also been excused by Netanyahu — infamously erected a barrier on Hungary’s border with Serbia and Croatia in response to the wave of refugees entering Europe in 2015. Building border walls is something that Netanyahu champions, as does Trump.
These politicians offer walls as means to “defend” national or ethnic purity. That kind of racism is central as well to the reign of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is a radical Hindu nationalist deeply rooted in India’s far right.
Democratic rights are under attack around the world. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has arrested tens of thousands since a failed coup in 2016 — including more journalists than any other country in the world in that year and the next. In Brazil, the right wing removed leftist president Dilma Rousseff from power in 2016 through the Senate (rather than a popular election), arrested and imprisoned former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva this year, and assassinated socialist leader Marielle Franco shortly thereafter.
While authoritarianism is nothing new, governments that may have been isolated on the world stage a generation ago are increasingly playing leading roles in international politics.
Russia under Vladimir Putin has not only become more internally repressive, it is emerging as a powerful force in the world politics. Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has not only arrested feminists and other activists en masse, but has also guided the kingdom in playing a more direct role in intervening in Middle East politics. The most visible example of this is Saudi Arabia’s prosecution with the United Arab Emirates of a cruel siege on Yemen — with weapons and plenty of assistance from the United States.
Weapons were actually what brought Duterte to Jerusalem, which he was drawn to due to the lack of restrictions in Israeli arms sales.
We Need a New Solidarity
The most powerful countries in the world are cracking down on democracy. They are collaborating with each other and arming each other.
For the left, our fights in whatever country we happen to be located — against the attacks and in defense of democratic rights — will be strengthened by an international outlook that shows us what we’re up against. Such an outlook is critical here in the United States, where the gravitational pull of national politics tends to narrow our scope.
While Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin has raised eyebrows, for example, criticism tends to be on the basis of the Kremlin’s threat to “our democracy” rather than a general, principled opposition to authoritarianism.
Having a bigger picture and forging unity with similar fights around the world will be crucial. After all, those waging wars on freedom shuttle across borders to world capitals in pursuit of alliances. We have to build our own — based on solidarity against oppression.