Israel’s New Government and the Rapid Acceleration of Apartheid
Israel’s New Government and the Rapid Acceleration of Apartheid
By Yousef Munayyer
December 29, 2022
In 2012, while standing in the Beit El settlement in the occupied West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, “There is no government that supports, or will support, settlement more than my government.” At the time, the Israeli government was led by his Likud Party, but also included Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party, Ehud Barak’s Labor Party, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) Party. Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and outgoing Minister of the Interior Ayelet Shaked, two Netanyahu protégés, had not yet ascended to the pinnacle of Israeli politics. Today, Netanyahu’s incoming cabinet will be the true embodiment of the sentiment he expressed a decade ago, but with different coalition partners, more pronounced racist attitudes, and increasingly disconcerting policies.
In 2012, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is slated to be a National Security Minister in Netanyahu’s new government, was not known for being a politician. Rather, he was making headlines for berating the granddaughter of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. And Regavim, a settler-colonial NGO headed by Bezalel Smotrich—another minister in the new Israeli government—was busy pressing Netanyahu’s government to accelerate the demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank, the Galilee, and the Negev.
Fast forward to a decade later. Livni, a daughter of members of Irgun—a right-wing militia that led the dispossession of Palestinians in 1948—has long since given up on politics. So too has Barak, who warned of Israel’s descent into fascism on his way out. Lieberman, who once called for the transfer of Palestinian citizens of Israel and the beheading of others whom he deemed disloyal, reportedly thinks that Netanyahu’s current coalition partners are too extreme. And Shaked, who infamously called Palestinian babies “little snakes” and who produced a campaign ad in which she sprays a perfume called “Fascism” on herself, is now warning that many Israelis will find the direction of Israeli politics alienating. Bennett, who once backed a permanent practice of apartheid and started his political career as the religious nationalist head of a settlers council, has also stepped away from Israeli politics, unable to defeat or partner with Netanyahu. Even Likud supporters who were party stalwarts in the 2012 government, including Dan Meridor and Moshe Yaalon, seem repulsed by what has become of Israeli politics. Meridor is reportedly shocked by Netanyahu’s elevation of Kahanist extremists like Ben-Gvir, while Yaalon is out protesting in the streets, claiming that Netanyahu will turn Israel into a pariah.
Netanyahu’s coalition, with its 64-seat Knesset majority, is poised to pass several pieces of legislation to change government responsibilities so that Smotrich—rather than the defense minister—can run parts of the “civil administration” in the occupied West Bank.
But although all of these Israeli politicians are currently on the outside looking in at a leader behind whom they, too, once fell in line, they all bear responsibility for today’s state of affairs. Those who were on the fringes in 2012—religious nationalists who were then considered too extreme—are now not just in the tent, but are in the driver’s seat as well. Not only has Netanyahu had to include them in his coalition in order to reach a majority, but Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s strong showing in the polls have given them major leverage with which to make demands and reap unprecedented rewards. In fact, Netanyahu’s coalition, with its 64-seat Knesset majority, is poised to pass several pieces of legislation to change government responsibilities so that Smotrich—rather than the defense minister—can run parts of the “civil administration” in the occupied West Bank, and so that Ben-Gvir can have expanded control over Israel’s internal security forces.
The new laws will carve out part of the Israeli Defense Ministry for Smotrich—who will also be given the finance portfolio in the new government—allowing him to be put in a position of responsibility over Israeli and Palestinian construction in Area C of the occupied West Bank, acting as an independent minister within the Ministry of Defense. Smotrich, who founded an organization that works to expedite both the demolition of Palestinian homes and the construction of Israeli settlements will now sit atop the government apparatus that makes those very decisions. Ben-Gvir, who was convicted of racist incitement and whom the Israeli military considered too extreme to be conscripted, will now head a national security portfolio. To call this situation inmates running the asylum would be misleading. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are certainly extreme and destructive but they are not out of their minds. On the contrary, they have strategically pursued power, and now, sitting at the pinnacle of it, they are in the greatest possible position to advance their ideological agenda.
In a telling move, on December 28 Netanyahu announced his government’s agenda, which states, “The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel—in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan, Judea and Samaria.” For the better part of the last half century and especially during the last 20 years, Israeli politics has largely been characterized by a steady rightward shift, and by the oft-repeated scene of one set of right-wing politicians leaving politics in dismay as even more right-wing politicians take their place. Now, Israel stands on the precipice of even greater catastrophe.
The New Government
Netanyahu’s new coalition is poised to be the most stable since he was last able to bring together a coalition in 2015. After that government fell apart, Israel witnessed a period of political deadlock and several inconclusive elections until Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid cobbled together an ideologically divided government in 2021. That narrow, volatile coalition lasted just about a year.
Although not a massive majority, reaching 64 seats after multiple elections that failed to produce even a necessary 61-seat coalition is significant, especially since Netanyahu was able to bring together a coalition involving new partners.
Israel’s November 2022 election brought a victory for Netanyahu in the form of a 64-seat, right-wing, religious nationalist coalition. Although not a massive majority, reaching 64 seats after multiple elections that failed to produce even a necessary 61-seat coalition is significant, especially since Netanyahu was able to bring together a coalition involving new partners. The ideological cohesion within the coalition also means that it is more likely to stay together instead of falling apart around some of the issues that have plagued previous coalitions. These 64 seats include 32 seats belonging to Netanyahu’s Likud Party, 14 seats from Smotrich’s Religious Zionism slate, 11 seats from Aryeh Deri’s Shas Party, which promotes the interests of Sephardic and Mizrahi Haredi Jews, and 7 seats from the United Torah Judaism Party.
Netanyahu is not only empowering his coalition partners by legislating new powers for them—as in the cases of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir—but he is also advancing legislation to allow Deri, who was recently convicted of tax fraud, the opportunity to serve as a minister. Current Israeli law prevents those convicted of crimes from heading ministries, but to secure Shas’ participation in the coalition, Netanyahu agreed to change the law.
Deri, Smotrich, and Ben-Gvir are asking for a lot, including unprecedented legal changes. But it is easier for Netanyahu to keep three key leaders happy in order to hang on to this coalition than it would be to satisfy the leaders of many smaller parties. Moreover, Netanyahu is dealing with a different Likud Party than existed in the past. He has restructured the party around himself to include those who are most loyal, and not just to the party but to him personally and to his effort to evade accountability on corruption charges.
Fanning the Flames
Netanyahu’s coalition of religious nationalist extremists has come to power in a particular political moment and context, both internationally and in Palestine. The year 2022 marked the single deadliest year for Palestinians in nearly two decades. United Nations experts recently condemned “the rampant Israeli settler violence and excessive use of force by Israeli forces against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank this year that have made 2022 the deadliest in this area of the occupied Palestinian territory since the United Nations started systematically documenting fatalities in 2005.” Despite presenting itself to the world as a coalition of change, the outgoing Bennett-Lapid government offered no change for Palestinians, continuing Israel’s policies of settlement expansion, home evictions, and expulsions, while also continuing to crack down on Palestinian civil society.
Despite presenting itself to the world as a coalition of change, the outgoing Bennett-Lapid government offered no change for Palestinians.
2022 also brought forth new Palestinian armed collectives, an expression of both Palestinian frustration and hope for a new path that has shaken the West Bank in ways not seen in almost two decades. According to recent polls, Palestinians view these collectives with approval, with 72 percent of respondents supporting their formation, 79 percent opposing their surrender or the surrender of their arms to the Palestinian Authority (PA), and 59 percent expecting such groups to spread to other parts of the West Bank. These views lay bare not only Palestinians’ support for armed resistance against the Israeli occupation, but also their rejection of any Palestinian Authority policing of the groups, particularly in collaboration with Israel. The new Israeli government is expected to bring these tensions to a breaking point, as it will both foment greater armed resistance and increase the cost of security coordination when it comes to the PA’s reputation and legitimacy.
Implications for Israel and the US
Palestinians will be bracing themselves in the coming months since this new Israeli government will escalate Israel’s already rampant policies of ethnic cleansing and apartheid against them. With the coming to power of the tag team of Smotrich, who will light new fires by letting loose bulldozers in the West Bank, and Ben-Gvir, who will pour fuel on those fires by heavily repressing Palestinian opposition through his security position, Palestinians should expect new levels of unbridled cruelty from the Israeli government. The Palestinian Authority, which is already struggling to justify its security coordination with Israel, will come under even more pressure to end the practice, and armed collectives in the West Bank will likely take on a more prominent role in response. This extremely tense period may also be seen as an opening for potential successors to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who may exploit the situation to finally force him to relinquish the reins of power that he has held since 2005. The impact of this government for Palestinians will, of course, not be limited to the West Bank; Palestinians residing everywhere in Palestine—including those with Israeli citizenship and those under a longstanding Israeli blockade in Gaza—will be under threat.
Palestinians will be bracing themselves in the coming months since this new Israeli government will escalate Israel’s already rampant policies of ethnic cleansing and apartheid against them.
For Israelis, this new government will likely provide long-sought political stability, but coupled with security and cultural chaos. A right-wing, religious nationalist government is large enough and likely ideologically cohesive enough to govern for its full term, but in doing so it will bring sweeping changes that will move Israeli society in a more religious direction, something that is opposed by many secular Israelis and others who disagree with the policies of the country’s Haredi political parties. These tensions will also spill outside of Israel into the diaspora, and will particularly impact Jewish Americans who have already been alienated by Israel under Netanyahu’s leadership, and who will likely move further away if the country transforms into a more religiously-oriented society.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s policy toward Palestine and the profound human rights crisis brought on by Israeli policy during Biden’s term thus far can be characterized as an “ostrich” policy, as burying one’s head in the sand and hoping any talk of Israel’s abuses will simply go away. The main exception to this situation came in April, May, and June of 2021 when the Palestinian Unity Intifada forced even those who were trying their best not to respond to finally pay attention. The new Israeli government will likely mean that the Biden administration will be forced out of its comfort zone far more regularly on this issue. And given the Jewish American community’s displeasure with the direction successive Israeli governments have been taking, the Biden administration might feel that it has enough political backing to take a stronger position. There is, however, a US presidential election on the horizon, and there is no doubt that Netanyahu will continue to meddle in American politics, especially by endorsing a Republican challenger. Reports that Netanyahu may appoint former Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, a Miami-born political operative who has long been enmeshed in Republican circles, to head the Foreign Ministry suggest that the 2024 US election is something that Netanyahu will be monitoring very closely.
The new Israeli government will likely mean that the Biden administration will be forced out of its comfort zone far more regularly on this issue.
The new Israeli government is the product of one man, Benjamin Netanyahu, and of his lust for power and his desire to evade criminal accountability. It is also the logical extension of an Israeli political system that is hellbent on moving rightward politically and eastward geographically by colonizing more and more Palestinian land. Netanyahu has finally secured his political survival, but his gain will likely bring increasing amounts of death and destruction to Palestinian lives and hopes for the future, and will potentially harm Israel’s relatively stable alliance with the United States.