The triumph of the far right, alarming enough in itself, could also see the destruction of judicial checks upon political power
Wed 2 Nov 2022
In some ways, Tuesday’s election looked drearily familiar to voters in Israel – inevitably so, as the fifth in less than four years. Once again, it was fought to a large degree on whether Benjamin Netanyahu, still on trial for corruption, is fit for office. The official results will not be declared until next week, and tiny shifts in votes could push smaller parties over the threshold for representation, which can be critical in the usually drawn out process of coalition-building. Nonetheless, it seems extremely likely that Mr Netanyahu will be back as prime minister once more, with a small majority in the 120-seat Knesset, after a brief interregnum.
Yet the results so far are also deeply shocking. They mark the triumph of the racist far right, in the form of Mr Netanyahu’s Religious Zionist allies, who want the deportation of “disloyal” Palestinian citizens of Israel and the annexation of the occupied West Bank. They are not only Mr Netanyahu’s partners, but his creation: he brought three far-right parties on to the same slate, welcoming them into the mainstream. Itamar Ben-Gvir, second on the list, is an anti-Arab former follower of the banned Kach terrorist group, with a conviction for inciting racism. Until his 2019 Knesset run, he had a picture of Baruch Goldstein – who massacred 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron – in his living room. For years he was politically untouchable. Thanks to Mr Netanyahu, he now dominates the third-largest political force in Israel, and is expected to become a senior minister.
The Biden administration has rightly made it clear that it wants nothing to do with Mr Ben-Gvir. Mr Netanyahu appears unfazed, doubtless counting on a Republican resurgence and Donald Trump’s return in 2024, and the unlikelihood of Washington taking the kind of action that might make Likud think again in the meantime.
“The results confirm that we have no partner in Israel for peace,” said Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. The choice between the right and the “government of change” led by the centrist incumbent Yair Lapid – an unwieldy anti-Netanyahu coalition, which replaced him for a year before collapsing – was like that between Pepsi and Coca-Cola, he suggested.
That view may not last. This could mark a turning point for Israel’s democracy, and especially its judiciary, with grim and dramatic repercussions. The Religious Zionists and Likud share one key interest: to rein in the supreme court and other democratic safeguards, such as the attorney general’s power and independence. Mr Netanyahu wants his legal problems to vanish. Allowing the legislature to select supreme court justices and override the judiciary, so that unconstitutional laws can be passed, also opens the door to an extreme agenda of land grabs, changes to the rules of engagement for soldiers, and other abuses.
Mr Ben-Gvir’s very popularity, however necessary to Likud’s leader, is likely to alarm him too. Mr Netanyahu may not be able to restrain the force he created. His political partners have always lived to regret their dealings. But for that very reason, he is out of other options. And a more ideologically cohesive government should be easier to manage than his previous incoherent coalitions. This is a truly frightening moment. The country’s increasingly rightwing electorate has picked a government likely to pursue an extreme and authoritarian trajectory, trampling over the lives of Palestinians and the democratic safeguards of Israel.
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