Is Israel’s new government both a move to the right and a step back to familiar territory?

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Israel’s December 2022 election ushered in what many have called its most right-wing government in history. With Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu re-appointed Prime Minister, propped up by an alliance of ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, the election has caused widespread alarm as fringe extremists enter the fulcrum of power.

The biggest name among Netanyahu’s new partners is the new Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a firebrand ultranationalist previously convicted of anti-Arab racism and supporting a terrorist organisation. He now oversees the police and Border Force, which has led to significant concerns in the West for the rights of Palestinians. Other allies include leader of the Religious Zionist Party Bezalel Smotrich, the new Finance Minister and head of the Civil Administration, which controls settlement building and considerable elements of Palestinian life. Deputy minister in the coalition Avi Maoz, leader of the anti-LGBTQ Noam party, has championed banning gay pride events and objects to equal military opportunities for women. Already, Palestinian flags have been banned, and $40m in Palestinian Authority money has been seized. 

On paper, this government purports to be the most extreme in living memory, but we’ve also been here before. Netanyahu was elected in 2019 promising to annex illegal settlements in the West Bank and refusing to countenance a two-state solution. At the time, that government was also called the most right-wing in Israel’s history. The rhetoric of this government is similar. Early legislation proposed includes amendments to discrimination laws that would allow businesses to refuse services to people on religious grounds – harming the LGBTQ community and affirming Israel’s “exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the land of Israel”. This includes the occupied West Bank. It promises to “advance and develop” settlements there; settlers in the occupied territories voted en masse for the far right.

On paper, this government purports to be the most extreme in living memory, but we’ve also been here before

Netanyahu has attempted to assuage some fears, promising that “I’ll have two hands firmly on the steering wheel… I won’t let anybody do anything to LGBT or to deny our Arab citizens their rights or anything like that, it just won’t happen.” Observers have queried whether this declaration, and the election of Amir Ohana, an openly gay politician, as parliamentary Speaker, is mere lip service, or whether the prime minister actually has the capacity to control his extremist allies. Some have pointed out that Netanyahu’s political survival somewhat depends on them, making this unlikely. Netanyahu has been indicted with breaches of trust, fraud and bribery, the last of which could warrant a ten year prison sentence. For some, the Prime Minister has made a Faustian bargain with his ultraconservative partners. Legislation that they have proposed would allow a parliamentary majority to override Supreme Court rulings – such as, hypothetically, on his corruption.

The election certainly seems a triumph for the extreme right, but there is also staunch opposition. Netanyahu’s bloc, of Likud and its allies, won barely over half of the 120 Knesset seats – hardly a resounding majority. More widely, many Israelis are concerned about the threats the new government poses to the independence of the judiciary and Palestinian and LGBTQ rights. Haaretz reported that thousands gathered on the streets of Tel Aviv last week, mostly mobilised against the proposed legal reforms. Organisers claimed there were over 20,000 involved. Another march at the same time centred around demands for equal rights between Arabs and Israelis. Evidence therefore suggests that, while in some quarters there may have been a swing to the right, there is also considerable backlash against it. 

The election certainly seems a triumph for the extreme right, but there is also staunch opposition

For some, Israel is a country devoid of political options. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, but multiple mainstream parties have refused to consider coalitions with him in protest at his criminal charges. Netanyahu’s sixteen-year tenure has primarily been in coalitions, and governments have failed to form before deadlines multiple times in recent history. The petty infighting and lack of cooperation that characterises the Knesset has likely not given a weary population much faith in the political process. An estimated 46 to 50% of the population were considered right-wing in 2019, an extraordinary percentage and one which can hardly have shifted much since. Hardline rhetoric on Palestine and settlements has always dominated political discourse. The election of the far right is certainly a cause for concern, but is perhaps not altogether unexpected.

Image: Masa Israel Journey via Flickr

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