DECEMBER 9, 2022
Israel Opinion Palestine Opinion

Opinion: Israel’s New Right-Wing Government is Even More Extreme than Protests would have You Think

Opinion: Israel’s New Right-Wing Government is Even More Extreme than Protests would have You Think

By Jonathan Guyer

Nationalist, exclusionist, and far, far right: The most extreme Israeli government in the nation’s history has taken shape.

The policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly sworn-in governing coalition brought out 80,000 protesters over the weekend in Tel Aviv. The protesters were largely focused on the government’s proposals to overhaul the judicial system, which could weaken the country’s democracy and separation of powers. But the effects of the policies on the 1.6 million Palestinian citizens of Israel and the 5.2 million Palestinians living in the occupied territories will be catastrophic, building upon years of policies that Israeli human rights organizations say constitute crimes against humanity.

The human rights defenders and experts in Israeli politics I spoke with emphasized that this government is not a departure from previous ones — indeed, it’s Netanyahu’s sixth time leading the country. Rather, it’s a culmination of Israeli politics drifting farther and farther to the right, and decades longer of policies that amount to de facto annexation of the occupied West Bank, and policies of Jewish supremacy. What’s different now, however, is how clearly these ideas are stated in the new government’s coalition guidelines and by prominent ministers about the fundamentals of how the country runs.

As US national security adviser Jake Sullivan meets Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week, there are serious questions of how the Biden administration will cooperate with an Israeli government that has scratched off its liberal veneer and thrown away any pretense of negotiations toward a Palestinian state. (Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to travel to the Middle East soon, too.)

The new Israeli government is a turn from a brief centrist government last year, now seeking to implement policies that are anti-Palestinian and anti-liberal. But it’s certainly not the first Israeli government to do so.

“It’s key not to pretend, as many seem to already be doing, that it’ll somehow be a sudden departure from Israeli quote-unquote ‘democracy,’” says Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Israeli watchdog B’Tselem. “What worries me is that even this level of clarity will not be sufficient to trigger an adequate international response.”

The new Israeli government is shaping up to be as extreme as anticipated

Israel’s parliamentary system of many fragmented parties has spelled collapsing governing coalitions and electoral turmoil, with five national elections since 2019. The “Change” government in 2021 brought together opposing parties last year to oust Netanyahu. But that fell apart last summer, and in the ensuing elections, Netanyahu built a coalition of ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist parties that returned him to power, leading an even more extreme government.

It was easy to foresee how the coalition would act: The new government’s ministers have made longstanding attacks on LGBTQ communities, religious freedom, Israeli and Palestinian civil society, and who can even call themselves a Jew. Above all, there will be drastic implications for Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and for civil liberties for Israeli citizens, in large part because Netanyahu’s internal coalition negotiations have brought settlers into key ministerial posts.

“They don’t have a lot of cracks in the coalition that could potentially derail some of the things that they want to do, and they have Netanyahu over a barrel,” says Jeremy Ben Ami, the president of the pro-Israel and pro-peace advocacy group J Street. “They passed a bunch of laws already before they were even sworn in as a government. They rearranged the way in which the occupation is run.”

Days into the government’s swearing in, there are already signals of how these personalities will rule.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin has introduced legislation that would weaken judicial review and the power of Israel’s supreme court to strike down legislation. Another proposal would revamp and politicize the country’s longstanding process for selecting judges.

Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of Israel’s Jewish Power party and new minister of national security, congratulates Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the new government is sworn in, in Jerusalem on December 29, 2022.
Israeli mounted police watch as Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism party, visits the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of the Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem on May 10, 2021. 

Or look at the first moves from the national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, of the Jewish Power Party. A provocateur whose political ideas are inspired by the late radical iconoclast Rabbi Meir Kahane, Ben Gvir has stepped into a role tailor-made to oversee the police both within Israel and the occupied West Bank. He’s already, in a dangerously escalatory move, visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. And in early January he, on dubiously legal grounds, directed the police to tear down any Palestinian flag in public spaces.

There’s also Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. The head of the Religious Zionism party, he is a settler whose anti-gay rhetoric is legion. He has already seized customs revenues that belong to the Palestinian Authority, an entity he’s called a “terror-abetting body” that he thinks should fall. He also holds newly created authorities that give him oversight of the West Bank occupation through a role crafted for him in the Defense Ministry.

These rapid moves, particularly Levin’s judicial reform proposal, speak to the political infrastructure on the right that has been built over the last decade, largely funded by Republicans in the US. The Kohelet Policy Forum, a nationalist, libertarian Israeli think tank backed by right-wing American billionaires, reportedly drafted the legislation. As Ben Ami told me, “It’s not fully understood that this is being driven ideologically and professionally by a machinery that has its roots right here in the United States.”

Further clues to how Netanyahu and his partners will govern are apparent in the coalition agreement that sets out the new government’s guidelines. Though it is not legally binding, it states plainly its ideology: “The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right over all areas of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop the settlement of all parts of the Land of Israel — in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan and Judea and Samaria,” the latter referring to the occupied West Bank.

This goes further than any previous agreements. The government has made “explicit the coalition parties’ long-standing intent to further entrench Jewish supremacy and Palestinian repression throughout the State of Israel and the occupied West Bank through a two-tiered system of governance on all levels,’’ Israeli human rights organization Adalah writes in a report.

The new government’s approach to the occupied West Bank constitutes the illegal annexation of Palestinian land, according to a coalition of leading human rights groups in Israel. The government plans to legalize illegal outposts built on private Palestinian land. The likely result, writes the coalition: “Palestinians stripped of rights and protections” and left “more vulnerable to violence and exacerbating the hardship they already endure.”

“These changes” — to the judicial system, and bestowing ministers like Smotrich with new authorities over the occupation — “threaten civil rights and individual rights in Israel, but it is mainly going to be a big, big issue against the national minority, the Palestinian citizens of Israel” who make up about 20 percent of the country, said Aida Touma-Suleiman, a member of the Knesset from the Hadash party. “We will be the first and the most severely damaged by those changes.”

“This government has all the components of fascist groups,” Touma-Suleiman added.

The Biden administration has so far stepped cautiously. “We will gauge the government by the policies it pursues rather than individual personalities,” Secretary of State Blinken said last month at advocacy group J Street’s annual conference.

Yet the US also appears to be holding out hope that it can work with Netanyahu and his ministers. “The prime minister, as he’s told all of us, has his hands very firmly on the wheel,” US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides told Israeli TV recently. “He’s assured me we’ll work with the US government. Obviously, we have shared values. He understands the position of the United States, which is: we want to keep the vision of a two-state solution alive.”

But the idea of shared values and of the two-state solution are in essence untenable with this new government. There are no negotiations happening between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the prospects for a sovereign and viable Palestinian state are further away than ever. Not just because of this new Israeli government, but in large part because of its many predecessors.

How the new government builds on old ones — and what, if anything, the US can do about it

It’s worth emphasizing that Israel has been violating Palestinians’ human rights with impunity for decades, and this new government just illustrates the most brutal intentions with greater clarity.

“The hypocrisy is denying that Palestinians have already been living for many years under extreme, organized, criminal Israeli state violence, underwritten by the US,” El-Ad of the human rights group B’Tselem told me. “And the lack of accountability and the acquiescence of the international community is to a great extent responsible for driving this.”

Last year was the most deadly for Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank since the United Nations began recording deaths in 2005, and it was also the year the most Palestinians have been held in administrative detention. The attacks on Palestinians throughout the center-right government of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett cannot be understated. Beloved Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, a US citizen, was reportedly gunned down by Israeli authorities while reporting in the West Bank. Israeli authorities raided the offices of six Palestinian NGOs, showing the limits of free expression in the country.

The US has had a role here, too, as it continues to supply Israel with billions of dollars of military aid — and has failed to publicly criticize Netanyahu’s new political allies.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023.

“There’s no way that Netanyahu, as desperate as he is, would have gone to form this kind of coalition if it wasn’t for years and years of US abdication of responsibility for what happens here,” says Mairav Zonszein, an analyst covering Israel and Palestine for International Crisis Group. “He just wouldn’t have felt that he could do it. It would have been too outlandish.”

Meanwhile, the US government carries on with some of former President Donald Trump’s Middle East policies, like building a new embassy in Jerusalem on land owned by Palestinians and pursuing further normalization deals with Arab states like Saudi Arabia.

The Biden administration will only be able to carry on with a wait-and-see approach for so long. When US military materiel or dollars are being used to advance the policies so far only described by Israel’s new ministers, what will the State Department do?

In a new commentary, Carnegie Endowment researchers Matthew Duss and Zaha Hassan recommend consequences for the Israeli government’s choices. That might include withholding US aid to Israel and avoiding acting on Israel’s behalf in international forums like the United Nations and International Criminal Court.

The Biden administration is “clearly aware of the problem,” says Ben Ami of J Street. “But are they going to actually back it up in any way?”

Touma-Suleiman, the Palestinian member of the Knesset, is not optimistic. “I have to tell you the truth. I don’t have a lot of expectations,” she told me. The Biden administration “might criticize, they might give messages, but I don’t see them doing more than that.”

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