Just weeks after the new extreme right wing Israeli government was formed under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, another serious flare-up in the region seems to be in the offing. Everyone seems to be in agreement that the latest Netanyahu-led government is the most right-wing administration in the country’s history. In late December, within weeks of being sworn in, the far-right coalition government went full steam ahead to fulfil its extremist agenda. The consequences have been devastating for Palestinians in the occupied territories. In January alone, 32 Palestinians, including 10 children, were killed. The violence escalated sharply after Israeli security forces conducted a midnight raid on January 26 in the West Bank city of Jenin that killed 10 Palestinians, including a 61-year-old woman. The next day, a lone gunman killed seven Israelis in an apparent revenge attack near a synagogue in occupied East Jerusalem.
In late January, the Israeli government announced the introduction of harsher punitive measures against the Palestinians in the occupied territories. This included the demolition of homes of relatives of Palestinian fighters involved in the killing of Israeli soldiers or citizens. Until now, the Israeli government had only demolished houses of those involved in so-called terror attacks. The Israeli government also announced that it would make it easier for Jewish citizens to get gun licences and that it would take “new steps to strengthen the settlements”.
On top of the new government’s agenda is the annexation of the West Bank and burying the two-state solution for good. Netanyahu also unveiled plans to drastically curtail the powers of the judiciary. Key ministries were given to the leaders of the Religious Zionist Party, the Jewish Power party, and the Noam party, all avowedly racist parties, determined to officially reduce Palestinians to second-class inhabitants within Israel and the occupied territories. Two right-wing religious parties espousing a similar agenda—Shas and United Torah Judaism—also received key Cabinet positions in this Netanyahu government.
The new coalition government’s list of guiding principles published in late December explicitly asserted the “exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel” for the Jews. The Land of Israel, or “Eretz Israel”, is a Biblical term for all the land that was mostly populated by Palestinians until the middle of the last century. The list also pledged to “develop settlements in all parts of the West Bank”. A separate agreement between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and the Religious Zionist party, a coalition partner, said that the Prime Minster would personally lead Israel’s efforts to formally annex the West Bank. The final death knell for the Oslo peace accords is now ringing loud and clear. The Oslo accords had called for a time-bound two-state solution to end the Arab-Israeli conflict over Palestine.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, the newly appointed Minister for National Security, made a highly provocative visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, soon after taking office. Ben-Gvir was previously convicted of hate crimes against Arabs and for lending his support to Jewish terrorist groups. Orthodox Jews have laid claim to the site as it was where the Jewish Temple Mount was located 2,000 years ago. Israeli leaders’ previous high-profile visits to the Al-Aqsa Mosque had triggered backlash among Palestinians and in the Muslim world. Under the terms of an international agreement, Jews can visit the Al-Aqsa site but they are not allowed to offer prayers at the mosque.
Jordan is the legal custodian of the mosque. Jordan’s King Abdullah recently said that his country was prepared for war if Israel crossed certain “red lines” tied to Jerusalem’s holy sites. He warned that provocative Israeli actions could lead to another “intifada” (uprising). Ariel Sharon’s visit to Al-Aqsa in 2000 had led to the second Palestinian intifada. It lasted more than five years and claimed the lives of hundreds of Palestinians. The first intifada started in the late 1980s.
During the holy month of Ramadan in May 2021, the Israeli far right had organised a “flag march” at the holy site. Violent protests and clashes between Palestinians and Jews then broke out in Israel and the occupied territories. Israel used the clashes as a pretext to again wage war against the people of Gaza. Rockets fired from the Gaza Strip were provided as the Israeli government’s rationale to kick-start the third round of war against Palestinians trapped in the Gaza Strip. Many commentators described this as the world’s largest open-air prison. Gaza has been under an Israeli blockade for more than two decades now. After the deadly Israeli raid in Jenin in January, militants in Gaza fired two rockets into Israel. The Israelis retaliated with the bombing of a militant base in the Gaza Strip.
As it stands, 2022 was among the deadliest for Palestinians in the last 20 years. Israeli forces and settlers in the occupied West Bank killed 166 Palestinians. Among those killed were more than 30 children. Legislation passed in December gave National Security Minister Ben-Gvir complete control over the special police forces deployed in the occupied territories. Ben-Gvir has ordered the security forces to stop the display of Palestinian flags in public places, describing them as symbols of “terrorism”.
The order came after Palestinians and left-wing Israelis held a large demonstration in Tel Aviv in early January to protest against the right-wing government’s decisions relating to the occupied territories and the plan to curtail the powers of the Supreme Court. Palestinian flags were prominently displayed in the protest march in the Israeli capital. There is no law banning the Palestinian flag but the security forces have now been given the power to remove them anyway.
The new Israel government also rescinded the travel permit of Palestine Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki. The decision was part of the government’s efforts to penalise Palestinians for taking Israel to the International Court of Justice for an opinion on the occupation and continuing land grab on the West Bank. In response to that action, the Netanyahu government also announced its decision to withhold $39 million in revenue from the already cash-strapped Palestinian Authority (PA).
The Israel government’s other punitive measures included using Palestinian tax money to compensate the families of settlers and soldiers in the West Bank who had come under attack from Palestinian resistance forces. Israel collects tax money on behalf of the PA. Netanyahu’s office said the aforementioned measures were a “response to the PA’s decision to wage political and legal war against the state of Israel”.
The government’s plans to clip the wings of the country’s Supreme Court has angered a large section of Israel’s Jewish population. Many Israelis feel that the main purpose of the legislation aimed at curbing the powers of the judiciary is to ensure that Prime Minister Netanyahu does not serve jail time. He is currently on trial for serious corruption charges. Netanyahu said that the move against the judiciary was necessary as the unelected judiciary was trying to override the decisions of an elected government. Former Prime Minister Yair Lapid said that Netanyahu’s move was akin to “extreme regime change” and would “destroy democracy”. Benny Gantz, another opposition leader, said that Netanyahu was “cooking up what he was really aiming for—an exemption from trial”.
Israel Justice Minister Yaariv Levin confirmed that the government was determined to pass legislation that would give it more control over the appointment and promotion of judges. This is a playbook that many right-wing governments all over the world are trying to adopt. The Israeli Supreme Court, like the Indian Supreme Court, can currently strike down laws that it deems unconstitutional. Levin proposed legislation that would allow a simple majority in the Knesset (parliament) to override any decision of the Supreme Court. Ehud Barak, a former Israeli Prime Minister, said that Netanyahu’s proposals would crush the judicial system and that Israeli civil society would never allow that to happen. President of Israel’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut said that the government’s plan was aimed at dealing “a mortal blow to the independence of the judiciary and silence it”.
On January 18, the Supreme Court delivered a potentially devastating blow to the Netanyahu government when it disqualified Aryeh Deri, Israel’s Interior and Health Minister. He is a key ally of the Prime Minister and the head of the ultra-orthodox Shas party. Netanyahu was forced to sack the minister after stalling for a couple of days. At the same time, the Prime Minister also pledged to implement his plans to make the judiciary subservient to the executive.
Secular Jewish citizens of Israel are also increasingly worried that the Netanyahu government is aiming to strengthen the autonomy of their ultra-conservative brethren who make up 13 per cent of Israel’s population of 9 million. The Prime Minister has already agreed to protect the financing of the public education system for the group, despite subjects like Maths and English not being on the curriculum. The Netanyahu government has also agreed to legalise the arrangement under which conservative Jewish seminary students are exempted from compulsory military service.
Western governments have not been very critical of the Netanyahu government for its onslaught on the judiciary or for its daily killings of Palestinians. The West’s critical focus in the region continues to be Iran and the protests there. In comparison, Israel’s shredding of the Oslo Accords and the strengthening of its racist policies in the occupied territories are given short shrift.
US President Joseph Biden was quick to congratulate Netanyahu on his victory and described him as an old friend. He said that he was looking forward to working with the Israeli Prime Minister “to jointly address the many challenges and opportunities facing Israel and the Middle East region, including threats from Iran”. Biden, in his statement, said that the US would continue to support the “two-state solution” and would oppose “policies that endanger its viability”. At the same time, the Biden administration indicated that it would go ahead with plans to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Trump administration had first announced the decision to shift the American embassy in 2017, going against the international consensus on the issue. East Jerusalem is the designated capital of the State of Palestine. The city’s status remains disputed under international law. Israeli authorities expropriated the land earmarked for the American embassy in Jerusalem from the Palestinians.
After Netanyahu took over, the Biden administration has in fact elevated Israel’s status as “a full military partner” in terms of strategising and planning with the US in the region. The US is busy building a military alliance of regional states with Israel as a key player in the build-up to a possible military confrontation with Iran in the near future.
The actions of the new Israeli government also do not seem to have troubled the country’s new Arab allies—the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. The three nations had normalised relations with Israel after signing the so called “Abraham Accords” in 2020 under the supervision of the Trump administration. Diplomats from these three countries now treat Ben-Gvir with respect.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first to congratulate his “good friend” Netanyahu after his political comeback. Modi was also the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel. In any case, the BJP government has progressively distanced itself from the Palestinian cause. India was among the nations that abstained in a recent vote in the UN General Assembly on a resolution that asked the International Court of Justice for its view on the legal consequences of Israel’s “prolonged occupation” and “annexation” of Palestinian territories.
This was not always India’s stance in the past. India, in fact, was the first non-Arab state to recognise the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in 1974. India’s position on Palestine started to waver in the early 1990s after it established formal diplomatic ties with Israel. However, it is only after the BJP government gained power that India’s voting record at international forums tilted decisively towards Israel and its colonial policies towards the Palestinians.
- Everyone seems to agree that the latest Netanyahu-led government is the most right-wing administration in the country’s history.
- New coalition government’s guiding principles explicitly asserted the “exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel” for the Jews.
- National Security Minister Ben-Gvir ordered security forces to stop the display of Palestinian flags in public places, describing them as symbols of “terrorism”.
- The regime’s plans to clip the wings of the country’s Supreme Court has angered a large section of Israel’s Jewish population.
- Western governments have not been very critical of the Netanyahu government for its onslaught on the judiciary or for its daily killings of Palestinians.