Extreme view points: The Israel that we knew has disappeared
Alas, that government has now collapsed and is being replaced by the most far-far-right coalition in Israel’s history. Lord save us if this is a harbinger of what’s coming our way.
WASHINGTON: Israeli political trends are often a harbinger of wider trends in Western democracies — off-Broadway to our Broadway. I hoped that the national unity government that came to power in Israel in June 2021 might also be a harbinger of more bipartisanship here. Alas, that government has now collapsed and is being replaced by the most far-far-right coalition in Israel’s history. Lord save us if this is a harbinger of what’s coming our way.
The coalition that Likud leader Bibi Netanyahu is riding back into power is the Israeli equivalent of the nightmare U.S. Cabinet I imagined above. Only it is real — a rowdy alliance of ultra-Orthodox leaders and ultra-nationalist politicians, including some outright racist, anti-Arab Jewish extremists once deemed completely outside the norms and boundaries of Israeli politics. As it is impossible for Netanyahu to build a majority coalition without the support of these extremists, some of them are almost certain to be Cabinet ministers in the next Israeli government.
As that unthinkable reality takes hold, a fundamental question will roil synagogues in America and across the globe: “Do I support this Israel or not support it?” It will haunt pro-Israel students on college campuses. It will challenge Arab allies of Israel in the Abraham Accords, who just wanted to trade with Israel and never signed up for defending a government there that is anti-Israeli Arab. It will stress those US diplomats who have reflexively defended Israel as a Jewish democracy that shares America’s values, and it will send friends of Israel in Congress fleeing from any reporter asking if America should continue sending billions of dollars in aid to such a religious-extremist-inspired government.
You have not seen this play before, because no Israeli leader has “gone there” before. Netanyahu has been propelled into power by bedfellows who: see Israeli Arab citizens as a fifth column who can’t be trusted; have vowed to take political control over judicial appointments; believe that Jewish settlements must be expanded so there is not an inch left anywhere in the West Bank for a Palestinian state; want to enact judicial changes that could freeze Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial; and express contempt for Israel’s long and strong embrace of LGBTQ rights.
We are talking about people like Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was convicted by an Israeli court in 2007 of incitement to racism and supporting a Jewish terrorist organization. Netanyahu personally forged an alliance between Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party and Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionism party, which turned them (shockingly for many Israelis) into the third-largest party in the country — giving Netanyahu the allies Likud needed to win a parliamentary majority in this week’s election.
Smotrich is known for, among other things, suggesting that Israeli Jewish mothers should be separated from Arab mothers in the maternity wards of Israeli hospitals. He has long advocated outright Israeli annexation of the West Bank and argued that there is “no such thing as Jewish terrorism” when it comes to settlers retaliating on their own against Palestinian violence.
Netanyahu has increasingly sought over the years to leverage the energy of this illiberal Israeli constituency to win office, not unlike how Trump uses white nationalism, but Netanyahu never actually brought this radical element — like Ben-Gvir, who claims to have moderated because he has told his supporters to chant, “Death to terrorists,” instead of, “Death to Arabs” — into his ruling faction or Cabinet.