Since Benjamin Netanyahu won Israel’s elections, the former prime minister has struck deals with anti-Arab racists, homophobes and politicians convicted of crimes. As a result, he is on the cusp of returning to power after 18 months in opposition and presiding over the most extreme, rightwing government in the Jewish state’s history. It is an appalling indictment of the lengths Netanyahu — who is also still on trial for corruption — is willing to go to maintain his dominance of Israeli politics as he heads towards a sixth term as prime minister. It spells disaster for liberal-minded Israelis and the Palestinians.
The writing was on the wall when Netanyahu allied himself with the extremist Religious Zionism grouping ahead of last month’s election to ensure his rightwing alliance secured a working majority after four inconclusive parliamentary polls. Religious Zionism became the third-largest group in the Knesset, and second largest in Netanyahu’s coalition, thrusting its leaders Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich from the margins to the mainstream.
Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist who once threatened to expel Palestinians of Israeli citizenship and was convicted in 2007 of incitement to racism, is to become the security minister with expanded powers. That means a man who was a disciple of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, whose anti-Arab ideology was so extreme his movement was labelled a terrorist group by the US, will hold sway over the Israeli police and the border police who operate in the occupied West Bank. For Smotrich, a self-declared homophobe and ultranationalist proponent of annexation of Palestinian territories, the prize is the finance ministry. His party will also get a newly created second ministerial post in the defence ministry with powers over civil administration in the West Bank.
Other members of the new government include the ultranationalist and virulent opponent to LGBT+ rights Avi Maoz, and Aryeh Deri, an ultra-Orthodox leader, despite being convicted of tax fraud this year. The path to Deri’s appointment was eased after MPs gave preliminary approval to a law change to allow people convicted of crimes, but spared jail, to become ministers.
Legal reforms are expected to be among the new government’s priorities. This includes enabling MPs to override High Court rulings potentially with a simple majority and giving politicians control over appointing judges. That would amount to an assault on the judiciary. Ben-Gvir has also said he would support legislation to dismiss the corruption trial that has dogged Netanyahu for two years — the incoming prime minister’s likely ultimate aim.
Equally alarming is the government’s hardline stance towards Palestinians. Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir have already agreed to legalise Jewish settler outposts in the West Bank. That would further cement Israel’s settlements in occupied territory and inflame tensions with Palestinians at a time when the West Bank is enduring its most violent year since 2005. It is an early sign that the rise of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich — both of whom live in settlements — will accelerate Israel’s creeping colonisation of the West Bank, moving it closer to de facto annexation.
Israel’s western allies must not standby and watch this disaster unfold. The US, Israel’s key military ally, and the EU, its biggest trading partner, should use their leverage to hold Netanyahu and his rogues’ gallery to account. In the past, western officials have ignored Israel’s transgressions, while touting shared values with the Jewish state. Yet the very democratic values Israel has long professed to espouse face a grave threat. Netanyahu’s new government must be called out for what it is.