After 12 years, Israel finally inaugurated a new prime minister. While being hailed by many as the opportunity for a fresh start, Naftali Bennett is at best a continuer of Netanyahu’s policies and at worst an ideologue whose positions are to the right of Netanyahu’s.
In 2013, as Middle East peace talks were set to resume after a five-year freeze, Bennett reportedly proclaimed to Israeli National Security Adviser Ya’akov Amidror, "I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life – and there’s no problem with that."
In 2014, Bennett, who had previously been the director of the Yesha Settlements Council, contradicted Netanyahu by asserting that all Jewish Israelis living in the West Bank, even those living in outposts that violate Israeli law, should remain under Israeli sovereignty, and called for more settlement construction. "This is the time to act," he said. "We must continue building in all corners of the Land of Israel, with determination and without being confused. We are building and we will not stop."
In 2016, as Israel’s Minister of Education, Bennett called on Israeli Jews to "give our lives" to annex the West Bank. While this might seem relatively innocuous, it was not. Bennett’s remarks invoked Kahanism, a Jewish supremacist ideology, based on the views of Rabbi Meir Kahane, that calls for violence and terrorism to be used to secure Israel as an ethno-nationalist state. In 1994, Israeli settler and Kahane follower Baruch Goldstein massacred Palestinians in the West Bank Ibrahimi mosque. In 1988, the Kach party was banned from running for the Israeli Knesset. In 2004, the US State Department labeled Kach a terrorist organization.
Sunday, June 13, 2021, right before he was inaugurated to replace Netanyahu as the prime minister of Israel, Bennett doubled down on his anti-Palestinian views proclaiming that his government would "strengthen settlements across the whole of the Land of Israel."
It’s not only on the Palestinian issue that Bennett is a far-right ideologue. Bennett uses his adherence to orthodox Judaism as cover for his opposition to gay marriage. "Judaism doesn’t recognize gay marriage, just as we don’t recognize milk and meat together as kosher, and nothing will change it," he declared. Netanyahu, by contrast, touts himself as being pro-LGBTQ+ rights. As recently as 2018 he wrote: "I am proud to be the prime minister of one of the world’s most open and free democracies… Israel consistently upholds civil equality and civil rights of all its citizens regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation."
So why then are progressive politicians and organizations responding so positively to the change in Israel? Bernie Sanders, known for his progressive stances and for being a congressional champion of Palestinian rights, said in a video that he was "hopeful" that the new government would be one "we will be better able to work with." Americans for Peace Now, the sister organization of Shalom Achshav, Israel’s preeminent anti-settlement/pro-peace organization, released a statement that it "welcomes the swearing-in of Israel’s new government." On Sunday night after the new government was sworn in, thousands of Israelis took to the streets in Tel Aviv – considered Israel’s bastion of secular liberalism – and celebrated into the night.
One answer lies in how fed up people inside and outside of Israel had become with Netanyahu’s rule. His tenure was marred by corruption charges and shrewd maneuvers to remain in power, and what had become an endless cycle of Israeli elections, during which the government was paralyzed and unable to pass a budget for the past three years.
The other answer, however, is that this was the best change that could be obtained from a government that prevents about five million people living under its rule from being able to vote. Here’s the situation:
About 20% of Israeli citizens are Palestinian. They can vote in all Israeli elections and have representation in Knesset. This election saw the first Palestinian party join an Israeli majority government coalition. However, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship represent only about one-third of the Palestinians living under Israeli rule and military occupation.
Though the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are the official governments of the West Bank and Gaza, respectively, Israel is the absolute power in charge. Israel controls the borders, the currency, and the central bank. It collects taxes on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (PA), maintains the right to carry out military operations on Palestinian land, and controls the amount of freedom, or lack thereof, that Palestinians are granted.
Israel approves only about half of the permits that residents of Gaza apply for to travel outside of Gaza for vital medical treatment. In 2017, 54 people died while awaiting a permit to travel for medical treatment, leading to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI), and Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, to release a joint statement calling for the blockade of Gaza to be lifted.
Reasons for denying people in Gaza necessary medical treatment are often absurd, such as denying travel because a relative at one time moved from Gaza to the West Bank without Israeli permission. Even when not carrying out a massacre, such as the May 2021 one that killed 256 Palestinians, Israel regulates the fuel and building materials available to Gazans. At times, it has even controlled the number of food imports according to the number of calories Gazans should consume.
Israel controls not only the exterior borders of the West Bank but what goes on inside as well. While the Palestinian Authority manages utilities and infrastructure for much of the West Bank, Israel is the ultimate authority. Israeli settler regional councils control 40% of West Bank land. Even in areas like Ramallah, supposedly under complete Palestinian Authority control, Israel reserves the right to enter the city at any time, close streets and shops, burst into homes, and make warrantless arrests.
While the PA does maintain a judicial and penal system, one that itself is incredibly repressive, Palestinians are also subject to Israel’s military court system and laws such as Military Order 101, which bans peaceful protest. Though they are prosecuted in Israeli military courts and serve time in Israeli military prisons, Palestinians have no say over who is appointed to run the Israeli military, let alone the military courts.
Jerusalem was captured by Israel in 1967 and formally, and illegally, annexed in 1980. Common sense might follow that Israel would have then absorbed the East Jerusalem Palestinians, now numbering around 370,000, and made them Israeli citizens.
Rather than holding citizenship, however, Jerusalem Palestinians hold the status of permanent residents, allowing them to vote in municipal, but not national, elections. While this may at first seem a move in the right direction, a closer look reveals careful manipulation of demographics to ensure an at least a 70% Jewish majority at all times. Through such policies as exorbitant taxation, requiring constant proof of residency, and denial of family unification, since 1967 Israel has managed to revoke the residency of 14,595 Palestinian Jerusalemites.
Right now Israel’s courts are in the process of ethnically cleansing the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Before the Nakba, when over 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes and lands to establish the state of Israel, two Jewish trusts purchased a plot of land in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. When Israel was established, the Jewish families living in Sheikh Jarrah left for West Jerusalem as that section of the city was now part of the new state of Israel while East Jerusalem came under Jordanian and UN control. In 1956, Jordan and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees resettled 28 Palestinian families who had been forced out of their homes inside the new state of Israel into Sheik Jarrah. In exchange for giving up their rightful refugee status, the 28 families were to receive ownership of the Sheikh Jarrah properties, but they never got the deeds to their properties. Israel is now trying to return the properties to the Jewish trusts who later sold them to Nahalat Shimon, a real-estate company registered in the US state of Delaware. The kicker is that while Israel regularly uses this tactic to remove Palestinians from East Jerusalem, Israeli law bars Palestinians from recovering property they lost in the Nakba, even if they still reside in areas controlled by Israel.
2021 marks 54 years of occupation, including 14 years of the siege of Gaza, and 28 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords that were supposed to create a Palestinian state. 600,000 Israeli citizens now live in the approximately 200 illegal Israeli settlements that cover the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
A breakdown of who is and isn’t allowed to vote between the Jordan river and the sea reveals Israel’s motivations:
- Number of Jewish Israelis living in Israel proper, and East Jerusalem, and West Bank settlements: 6.589 million (Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics)
- Number of Palestinian citizens of Israel (Palestinians who can vote in national elections): 1.5 million (Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics and Jerusalem Municipality)
- Number of Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza who cannot vote in Israeli national elections: 4.88 million (Palestinian Authority Central Bureau of Statistics)
As we get to know Israel’s new prime minister and government, as we continue to watch Israel forcibly remove Palestinians from East Jerusalem, as we worry about a next massacre in Gaza, and as we continue to hear the absurd label of Israel as a democratic state, let’s not forget that the right to vote is only granted to 60% of the total population and only one-third of Palestinians who live under Israeli rule had any say Naftali Bennett becoming Israel’s thirteenth prime minister.
Ariel Gold is the national codirector and senior Middle East policy analyst with CODEPINK for Peace.