Influential sections of the US and European political establishments appear shocked by the results of Israel’s general election held on November 1. For the first time, a coalition of extreme right-wing and ultraorthodox parties will rule Israel. Although the US government was quick to congratulate Benjamin Netanyahu on his victory, administration officials went public with their discomfiture about the possible make-up of the government. Right-wing governments around the world were happy that Netanyahu was back in the saddle. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were among the world leaders to immediately congratulate him. Netanyahu, who first became Prime Minister in 1996, is known to share a good rapport with right-wing leaders around the world, including former US President Donald Trump.
Fifth election in four and a half years
This election was the fifth to be held in Israel in the last four and a half years. The one held in June last year saw Netanyahu’s Likud party get the largest number of seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament). But the opposition forged a wide-ranging coalition of eight parties with differing policies to form a government with a wafer-thin majority. For the first time, a Palestinian party, Ra’am, agreed to officially extend support to the government.
As quid pro quo, the short-lived government pledged to increase funding to municipalities and areas where the Palestinian population resides within Israel. Ra’am supported the coalition government until the very end despite the war the Israeli army unleashed on Gaza and the escalating state-sponsored violence against Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
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The Jewish parties in the coalition, led by Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, agreed to suspend talks on Palestinian statehood during their time in power and to keep Netanyahu out of power and concede the Prime Minister’s post for the first two years to Naftali Bennett, an avowed Zionist and former leader of the settlers. Bennett’s Yamina party had won only six seats.
It was no surprise that sharp internal contradictions caused the Bennett-Lapid-led “government of change” to fall before it could complete a year in office. Lapid became the caretaker Prime Minister as per the power-sharing agreement. In the latest election, the Yamina party and the centre-left Meretz party, which was also part of the previous coalition, failed to get representation in the Knesset. Meretz narrowly failed to cross the 3.5 per cent threshold of votes required. Bennett announced his retirement from politics.
Despite the Bennett-Lapid-led government being dependent on a Palestinian party for survival, repression only increased in the occupied territories. Palestinians constitute 21 per cent of Israel’s population of 9.3 million; 20 per cent of the doctors and 25 per cent of the nurses in Israel are Palestinians. Palestinians living in Israel have the right to vote, but the 5.5 million Palestinians residing in the occupied territories do not have this right. The 7,00,000 illegal Jewish settlers in the West Bank not only have the right to vote but in fact set the agenda for this election: the expropriation of more Palestinian land.
The statements and actions of extremist Jewish politicians in the occupied territories have played a big role in precipitating the current cycle of violence. There were more house demolitions and incarcerations of Palestinians in the past one year than in the last few years when Netanyahu was in office. The killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh happened under their watch. The increasing Palestinian resistance since the beginning of the year has only strengthened the hands of Netanyahu and his allies in the religious Right. Netanyahu and his supporters claimed that only a Likud-led government could tame the resistance and put the two-state solution to rest forever.
The 73-year-old Netanyahu, who is still on trial for three separate charges relating to corruption, fraud, and breach of trust, will now be leading the most extreme and xenophobic government Israel has seen since it came into existence 74 years ago. One of the first priorities of the incoming government will be to get the charges against him dropped. In mid October, the Religious Zionism Party, which may bag the Justice Ministry, announced a “law and justice” plan to drastically curtail the powers of the judiciary. If implemented, the plan would give sitting Prime Ministers immunity from prosecution. Critics called it “the rescue plan for Netanyahu” and said it would turn corruption into the “official religion of Israel”.
The Religious Zionism Party is expected to be the major partner in the Netanyahu administration. It emerged as the third biggest party in the Knesset, winning 14 seats. The other coalition partners will be two more ultraorthodox parties, the Shas and the Union for Traditional Judaism party.
Netanyahu played a key role in brokering the merger of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party headed by Itamar Ben-Gvir and the Religious Zionist party led by Bezalel Smotrich. The pooling of their votes enabled them to enter the Knesset a few years ago for the first time.
New power brokers
They have now emerged as the new power brokers, filling the void left by the fading away of other religious, centrist, and far-right parties in Israeli politics. After the results were out, Ben-Gvir talked about occupying the highest political post in the country. “Friends, I am only 46 years old,” he told his supporters. “I’m not Prime Minister—yet.”
The extremist leader has come a long way in politics despite his track record as a racist and a bigot. In 1995, as a very young man, he threatened Yitzhak Rabin a fortnight before his assassination by another Jewish extremist. Rabin had incurred the wrath of Zionist zealots for signing the Oslo Accords. Today, Ben-Gvir has become an integral part of the Israeli political establishment. The Labour Party, which was once led by Rabin and which ruled Israel for more than two decades since its founding, now has only five members in the Knesset.
Even US Senator Robert Menendez, who chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and is otherwise a fervent backer of the Zionist cause, had, according to reports, warned Netanyahu that including people like Ben-Gvir in government would have an adverse impact on the bipartisan support for Israel that has traditionally existed in the US. “Death to the Palestinians” is a favourite slogan of Ben-Gvir’s at public meetings and marches. Israeli media has reported that the administration of US President Joe Biden “is following the political developments in Israel with concern”.
The religious nationalist and ultraorthodox parties that have replaced the secular parties in the Knesset have been calling for the creation of a theocratic Jewish state in which Palestinians will be reduced officially to the status of second-class citizens. The racist policies that the Israeli state has adopted, which closely resemble the erstwhile apartheid system in South Africa, could soon be formalised. A survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that only a minority of Israeli Jews were in favour of equal rights for Palestinians. According to the survey, 49 per cent of those polled between the ages of 18 and 49 believe that Palestinians should be “expelled or transferred from Israel”.
Apologists for Israel continue to claim that Israel is the only functioning democracy in the region. The Religious Zionism Party subscribes to the racist ideology of Kahanism. Rabbi Meir Kahane, an American-born Zionist, called for the expulsion of all Palestinians from Israel and the occupied territories. Baruch Goldstein, one of his followers, single-handedly massacred 29 Palestinians and injured 125 others in 1994. The incident, known as the “Cave of the Patriarchs massacre”, is an open wound in the Palestinian psyche. Ben-Gvir once hosted Goldstein at his home in Hebron and used to keep a framed photograph of him there. Ben-Gvir has on several occasions praised Goldstein and the Kahanist ideology.
The Kahanists are classified as a “terrorist” movement by the US State Department. Yaakov Katz, editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, said that Ben-Gvir was a modern Israeli version of “an American white supremacist and European fascist”. He wrote that a government that included characters like him “will take all the contours of a fascist state”. Smotrich once said that Jewish and Palestinian mothers should have separate wards in hospitals. He also claimed that there was “no such thing as Jewish terrorism” despite plenty of evidence of Jews taking the law into their own hands against Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The religious and ultraorthodox parties are lobbying to get key Cabinet portfolios such as Defence, Finance, Justice, and Public Security. Their stated aim is to expand the occupation, and some of their leaders have once again called for the expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories. In his victory speech, Ben-Gvir said: “It’s time to be owners of the country again.”
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His party’s manifesto promises “the establishment of sovereignty over all parts of Eretz Israel liberated in the six-day war and the settlement of the enemies of Israel in the Arab lands that surround our small country”. He said that the people who voted for his party “want to walk safely on the street, not to have our police officers and soldiers restrained, and to completely separate those who are loyal to the State of Israel and those who are not”.
In his previous stint as Prime Minister, Netanyahu was on the verge of officially annexing the most productive parts of the West Bank, which is already pockmarked with Jewish settlements. Among the other priorities on the agenda of the Religious Zionist Party are the demolition of the Al-Aqsa Mosque to make way for the reconstruction of the Temple Mount as it used to exist in biblical times; the imposition of Jewish laws; and the undermining of the judicial system that was established when the country gained independence. The Ra’am party warned that occupation of the mosque by Jewish extremist groups would lead to another war in the region.
Two-tier legal system
The situation for Palestinians inside Israel and in the occupied territories is getting more difficult by the day. Already a two-tier legal system operates in the West Bank; Palestinians are tried in military courts, while the few Jews who happen to run afoul of the law appear before a civil court. Israeli Jews accused of killing Palestinians are let off in no time while Palestinians accused of throwing stones spend years in jail. Rarely have Israeli courts sentenced violent Jewish settlers for crimes against Palestinians.
Palestinians recall that it was the provocative presence of Ben-Gvir in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem that contributed to the start of the 11-day war in Gaza in May last year. He had been leading a mob demanding the ouster of Palestinians from the area. Ben-Gvir returned to Sheikh Jarrah in October this year, where he was seen brandishing a gun and encouraging his supporters to shoot at Palestinians. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned that “the unholy alliance between Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir and the messianic racists” constitutes a “true threat to the state of Israel”.
- The November 1 election in Israel was the fifth to be held in the last four and a half years.
- Netanyahu’s Likud party got the highest number of seats in the Knesset and is leading a coalition of extreme right-wing and ultraorthodox parties, who will form part of the government for the first time.
- Netanyahu is still on trial for three separate charges relating to corruption, fraud, and breach of trust, and one of the first priorities of new government will be to get the charges dropped.
- Apologists for Israel claim that it is the only functioning democracy in the region, but officials in the US administration are uncomfortable with make-up of the new Israeli government.
- The situation for Palestinians inside Israel and the occupied territories is getting more difficult by the day.