Israel Faces a Reckoning

Benjamin Netanyahu and his assortment of Jewish supremacists, homophobes, and far-right religious zealots were sworn in on December 29. His new government has exposed Israel for what it has always been – an undemocratic, illiberal, ethno-religious state constructed on stolen Palestinian land.

The coalition of extremists that Prime Minister Netanyahu has assembled to solidify power and to save himself from prison, may look new, but the supremacist ideology on which Israel was founded is not. The current government is the end product of 74 years of Zionist violence against the Indigenous Palestinian people.

Israel’s pogroms against Palestinians, which began with the country’s establishment, have continued unabated in the ghettos of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The "new" Likud government promises to be even tougher on the already beleaguered Palestinians.

Anti-Arab bigotry and hatred have been fundamental to Israel’s colonizing/occupation project in Palestine. A March 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of Israeli Jews surveyed said they were in favor of expelling Arabs from Israel.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party won the election by advocating for more aggression against Palestinians, expanding colonies ("settlements") and by aligning with homophobic right-wing extremists. The election results reflect where Israeli society is today – 64 percent of the Jewish electorate identify as right-wing; this is particularly true of young Israelis.

To achieve a parliamentary majority, Netanyahu has assembled a coalition regime that includes anti-Arab extremists: Jewish supremacists, Itamar Ben-Gvir leader of the Jewish Power party, Bezalel Smotrich of Religious Zionism, Aryeh Deri chair of the Shas party and Avi Maos of Noam.

According to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, for Ben-Gvir and Smotrich to head any of Israel’s most important ministries would be "like putting David Duke, the former head of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, as attorney general."

To solidify his government, Netanyahu has agreed to hand authority of the Occupied Palestinian Territories to known Arab haters and regressive right-wing religious extremists who are set on annexation.

Ben-Gvir, ultranationalist, convicted felon and disciple of terrorist group founder Rabbi Meir Kahane, will be national security minister. Interestingly, the Israeli army, with mandatory military service, refused to let him serve.

Ben-Gvir, who opposes Palestinian statehood, has advocated for the expulsion of all Arabs, will have authority over the police units deployed in the occupied West Bank, including security oversight over the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Ben-Gvir supports Jewish prayer at the mosque compound, which is officially forbidden.

Jerusalem Post’s editor, Yaakov Katz, described Ben-Gvir as "The modern Israeli version of an American white supremacist and European fascist."

Smotrich, who believes that Israel has the right to build wherever it wants and has long advocated for a massive increase in "settlement" expansion and annexation of the West Bank, will be in charge of "settlements" and administration of the occupied West Bank.

Colonist activist Smotrich believes in the supremacy of Jewish religious law, rejects the rights of Palestinians to self-determination, denies their existence and advocates for the use of force against them.

Writing in the popular Israeli paper Ma’ariv, political analyst, Ben Caspit, described Smotrich and his supporters as akin to "Judeo-Nazis," and that, "He does not demand to set up concentration camps and to build gas chambers, but he does have a racist ideology."

Former deputy head of Shin Bet, Yitzhak Ilan, called Smotrich a Jewish terrorist. In 2005, the Shin Bet arrested Smotrich on suspicion of plotting a terror attack to prevent Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu offered the position of deputy prime minister to Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox Shas leader, Aryeh Deri, as well as the ministries of interior and health. Deri served a three-year prison sentence beginning in 2000 for bribery and fraud and in January 2022, he received a suspended sentence after being convicted of tax fraud.

Ultranationalist Avi Maos, known for his homophobic rhetoric and denial of the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Judaism, will be tasked with bolstering national Jewish identity and will play a significant role in the education ministry.

Israel’s shift toward the extreme right did not begin with Netanyahu’s virulent nationalist coalition. The demands of religious Zionist parties to control all of Palestine is a continuation of efforts over the decades to legally and ideologically entrench the belief that the land belongs solely to the Jews of Israel.

Netanyahu’s regime poses a dilemma for the Biden administration and for Israel’s supporters. How far will President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other supporters of Israel go to maintain America’s "special relationship" with it? Early signs indicate they will, as they have always done, go to great lengths to defend and mainstream the indefensible.

In his December 4, 2022 speech before the J Street National Conference, Secretary Blinken did not summarily rule out engaging with the controversial figures in the new Israeli cabinet. He again congratulated "Bibi" and stated that "We fully respect the democratic choice of the Israeli people….We welcome his commitment to making this a government that…’will work for the benefit of all residents of the State of Israel, without exception." There was no mention of the Palestinians under Israel’s military occupation in Blinken’s statement.

Since 1967, the United States has rarely been in conflict with Israel’s occupation project. Based on that history, it seems unlikely that Netanyahu’s extremist coalition will erode Washington’s support. It will become increasingly difficult for the White House to explain how Israel and the United States have shared values, as it so often claims, when the Israeli cabinet is made up of Kahanists, felons, and Jewish supremacists.

Pro-Likud supporters in both the Democratic and Republican parties, who have been boundless in their support, will find it increasingly difficult to justify America’s continued financial and military commitment to such an ultra-religious racist cabinet – $3.3 billion in military financing annually as well as another $500 million for missile defense. It remains to be seen if, as Blinken stated in his J Street address, America’s "security assistance to Israel is sacrosanct."

Although the White House has expressed concern that handing control over the administration of Palestine to extremists would be tantamount to de facto annexation and could impact the relationship between the two countries, it did not prevent Biden from calling on December 29 to congratulate Netanyahu, who is facing charges of bribery and fraud.

Diaspora Jews will also feel the fallout from the election, especially those living in the United States, who identify with Israel and who have played a major part in developing and nurturing the bond between the United States and Israel. They must now contend with an extremist government that does not care about U.S. Jews and has no use for their liberal values.

American Jews and their organizations will find it increasingly difficult to defend an Israel that defines itself as Jewish, claims to represent all Jews, but engages in openly racist practices. Like their Israeli counterparts, they will no longer be able to ignore the occupation, as Israel completes its annexation plans.

There is little doubt that the Israeli army and Jewish colonist-squatter attacks on Palestinians will increase and grow more violent. Already the number and severity of Israeli attacks against Palestinians have been on the rise. The Israeli Occupation Forces (IDF) have reported that from January to November 30, 2022, there have been 838 cases of what they call "nationalist crimes" by Jews against Palestinians.

Israel has made the occupied territories a crime scene. Ethnic cleansing is an inadequate description for what has been happening in what is left of historic Palestine. Palestinian lives and property have never been secure from Jewish zealots and their colonizing army long before the current government was assembled.

Israeli journalist/author, Amira Hass, evidenced this in her December 2022 article in Haaretz. She disclosed an internal Israeli Civil Administration document which laid out the close cooperation that exists between the Israeli state and Jewish squatters "settlers" in dispossessing Palestinians from their homes and land in the West Bank.

With Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, comfortably in power again, the United States and Israeli electorate will have to face some troubling issues. They will no longer be able to ignore the occupation; nor will they be able to act as if democracy and occupation can co-exist.

(c) 2023, M. Reza Behnam, Ph.D.

Dr. M. Reza Behnam is a political scientist specializing in the history, politics and governments of the Middle East.