December 13, 2022
Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich and Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, Knesset, Jerusalem, Dec. 13, 2022. (AFP)
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has until Dec. 21 to form the most extreme government in the history of the country, complete with ultranationalists, religious Zionists and far-right Cabinet members. The Likud leader has no challenger, but if he fails to hammer together a coalition government before the deadline, Israel will find itself once more in the political wilderness.
Last month, voters took to the polls for a fifth time in four years in a bid to hand a leader the 61 seats needed to form a stable majority government. But the meteoric rise of the Religious Zionist and neo-Kahanist Jewish Power has shaken up the Israeli political stage, throwing these far-right, once-fringe parties into the mainstream. Together, they have become the proverbial kingmaker, giving Netanyahu the necessary votes to form a coalition, but at a hefty price.
The head of Likud already has the necessary votes to form his coalition, but negotiations continue over meeting his new partners’ long list of demands. He has given Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of Jewish Power and a racist and supremacist by the definition of the Israeli media, the critical national security portfolio, which controls the police and security in the occupied West Bank.
Ben-Gvir has vowed to relax all rules of engagement for the Israeli police and border guards when dealing with Palestinian protesters. An already-inflamed situation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem will certainly get worse when he is in charge. That means more extrajudicial killings of Palestinians — even more than have already taken place since the beginning of this year. Almost 200 Palestinians have been gunned down by Israel in the West Bank so far in 2022.
To make things even worse for the Palestinians, Netanyahu has agreed with Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich to hand him the Finance Ministry — and with the condition that Smotrich will appoint a minister within the Defense Ministry who will be responsible for the West Bank. Smotrich originally wanted the defense portfolio for himself but, under pressure from the Biden administration, Netanyahu rejected this demand. Still, both Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are now, directly and indirectly, in a position to dictate policy in the West Bank.
This has been dubbed “the crazy team” by the leftist Israeli media. Even the more conservative outlets are appalled at how Netanyahu, who wants to pass a law in the Knesset giving him immunity from prosecution, is handing over real power to extremists whose agenda is open and clear. They want to legalize all settlements in the West Bank — a tent, a caravan and any Palestinian land Jewish settlers claim as theirs. They want to go as far as annexing most parts of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, and they want to expel Palestinian citizens of Israel who defy the occupation. It is feared Ben-Gvir will establish armed settler militias that will be above the law.
Israel’s military and intelligence establishments have warned that the new coalition will be a recipe for disaster. They say that a new Palestinian intifada could erupt at any moment. Centrist and leftist politicians have also warned that Netanyahu’s outrageous submissiveness to the religious far right will spell the end of Israeli democracy and its secular foundations. They warn of a misogynistic, homophobic and openly racist government. Others likened it to an Israeli version of Daesh.
The leftist newspaper Haaretz described the incoming government as “radical, coercive and violent,” while outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid simply called it “crazy.”
But despite all the warnings, Netanyahu has no choice but to go ahead with putting together this dangerous coalition, with little concern for what it means for the future of Israel or for the embattled Palestinians. It is astounding that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken chose his words so carefully when he addressed the J Street national conference last week. Blinken underlined the Biden administration’s commitment to a two-state solution, Israel’s security and expanding the Abraham Accords. He added that “we fully respect the democratic choice of the Israeli people,” and pledged “to gauge the government by the policies it pursues rather than individual personalities.”
Both Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are now, directly and indirectly, in a position to dictate policy in the West Bank.
The Israeli media reported last week that Washington had set two red lines for the incoming Netanyahu government. The first is not to annex any parts of the West Bank and the second is not to change the status quo at Al-Aqsa Mosque. It also said that Washington had warned that any escalation against the Palestinians would hamper America’s efforts to cooperate with Israel in dealing with the Iran nuclear deal.
These two red lines will almost certainly be crossed by the next Israeli government. How Washington and other Western capitals will react when this is done is something that could be the beginning of a major shift in policies toward Israel, although this is unlikely. What is most likely is that Netanyahu will put Israel and the region on the path toward an unpredictable conflagration.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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