On 29 December, the most right-wing government in Israeli history was sworn in, returning Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, to power. Unlike most recent governments – there have been five elections in less than four years – this one has a stable parliamentary majority, with 64 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Alongside cabinet posts for members of his right-wing Likud party, Netanyahu has given senior positions to extremist ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist politicians.
The most notorious of them is Itamar Ben-Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party. He is now minister for national security, a new position created by expanding the police ministry to encompass control of the border police, which operates in the occupied territories. Ben-Gvir was once a member of Kach, a party banned for incitement to racism. In 1994 one of its members, Baruch Goldstein, murdered 29 Palestinians worshipping in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron; until 2020, a photograph of him hung in Ben-Gvir’s home. Another senior member of the new cabinet is Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party, who was arrested in 2005 on suspicion of trying to blow up a road to hold up Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. More recently, he has called for the separation of Jewish and Arab mothers in maternity wards. Smotrich has been appointed minister of finance, with a second post in the defence ministry, where he will have significant power over approving new Jewish settlements and overseeing the eviction of Palestinians. And then there is Avi Maoz of the Noam party, who has argued for gender segregation and banning Jerusalem’s Pride parade. He has been put in charge of a new body aimed at promoting Jewish identity.
Liberal Israelis have two main fears. The first has to do with the strengthening of religious influence over political institutions, further empowering an ultra-Orthodox community which already enjoys exemptions from state duties such as military service. The second centres around the judicial reform bills proposed by the justice minister, Yariv Levin. The plan is to enable Supreme Court decisions to be overturned by a parliamentary majority. This raises the possibility that legislation could be passed even if it violates Israel’s Basic Laws, the closest thing the country has to a constitution. The government would also be given effective control over appointments to the court. Together, these reforms would undermine the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary – a particular worry given Netanyahu’s ongoing trial for corruption, fraud and breach of trust, and the legal challenges faced by some of his ministers.
Since the start of the year, tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets of Tel Aviv, Beersheba, Haifa and Jerusalem every week in protests against the new government; on 21 January more than 100,000 people turned out. Support for the cause has also come from diaspora Jewish communities, with rallies in New York, Boston, Los Angeles and London. Amid the Israeli flags and banners you can sometimes spot a few placards mentioning Palestinian rights. But demonstrators calling for an end to the occupation are segregated from the main protesters, who either consider their efforts a distraction from the real challenges facing Israeli democracy, or are indifferent to – even supportive of – the government’s policies towards Palestinians. As the coalition’s official guidelines make clear, these policies make fully explicit Israel’s intention to hold onto the occupied territories permanently.
There have been tepid statements of concern about the new government from Israel’s allies, including the Biden administration. In December, Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, said the US would judge it ‘by the policies and procedures, rather than individual personalities’. Alarming policies and procedures were soon announced, but since then there has been no meaningful response from the US or European governments. Israeli journalists and public figures have started talking about Israeli ‘fascism’, yet allies abroad have been far more restrained: Keir Starmer ordered one Labour MP, Kim Johnson, to apologise for using the word.
The government has done little to mask its extremism. Levin has said the judicial reforms won’t be delayed ‘for even a minute’. One of Ben-Gvir’s first moves as minister was to visit the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, a highly provocative move intended to challenge the status quo agreement on Jerusalem, which prevents non-Muslims from carrying out religious ceremonies in the compound. The visit lasted thirteen minutes and didn’t involve any praying, but it elicited a strong reaction: King Abdullah, normally measured, declared such actions ‘red lines’ and said Jordan was ready to get ‘into a conflict’ to protect Jerusalem’s holy sites. Ben-Gvir must now decide whether to approve a request to allow right-wing Temple Mount activists, on whose behalf he has previously advocated (his wife is one of them), to slaughter a lamb on the site when Passover falls in April.
Israel’s government presides over fourteen million people, of whom only around 60 per cent have the right to vote. All Jewish Israelis, wherever they reside between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, have a say in its make-up. Of the roughly seven million Palestinians living in the same area, only the 1.7 million with Israeli citizenship have any political rights with respect to the entity that controls their lives. In 2021 Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights organisation, all published reports substantiating the Palestinian narrative that Israel practises apartheid against the Palestinian people. The illusion that Israel is or has ever been a democracy is sustained by the myth of partition along the Green Line, which divides ‘Israel proper’ from the Palestinian territories it came to control after 1967.Successive Israeli governments have abandoned the pretext that Israel is a liberal democracy somehow distinct from its occupation, even as this notion continues to be parroted by Western policymakers and by Palestinian officials tethered to Israel’s occupation.
But even Palestinian citizens of Israel can’t be said to have real democratic rights. Their experience of political life is fraught: it entails balancing their communal needs and struggles for equality with participation in a Zionist state structure. Israel’s previous government, which lasted from June 2021 to December 2022, was the first to include members of a Palestinian party, the Islamist Ra’am; Jewish Israeli parties have historically been opposed to sharing power with Palestinians, but decided to do so this time in order to keep Netanyahu out. During its brief period in power, Ra’am often found itself at odds with government policy: it didn’t in the end support the ‘family reunification law’ that bars people from living with Palestinian partners who don’t hold citizenship. The collapse of the coalition reaffirmed the fact that the Israeli state is premised on safeguarding Jewish supremacy, even as it opens the door for the political participation of a small number of Palestinians.
One example of the way this structural discrimination operates is the recent magistrate’s court ruling that the city of Karmiel didn’t need to provide transportation for Arab children, whose attendance at Arab-language schools would change the city’s demographic balance. Politicians are now openly pursuing the ‘Judaisation’ of the Naqab/Negev, the Galilee and cities with a Palestinian presence. Policies like these aren’t a feature of the protests, which helps explain why Palestinian citizens of Israel have barely been involved in them. Palestinians understand that Israel is a democracy for Jews and an apartheid regime for non-Jews. But just like the Green Line, this is a false separation, since the Jewish democratic system itself is dependent on ethnic exclusion and demographic engineering. The liberals condemning the rise of fascism in Israeli politics are fighting for the rights of only part of the population: a functioning judicial system for Jews, a free press for Jews, rights for Jewish women and LGBTQ+ communities. Achieving these goals is generally predicated on ensuring their fellow inhabitants on the land remain without political rights.
The Basic Laws which liberals want to protect are the same set of laws that have, since 2018, defined Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people exclusively. The Supreme Court which protesters are taking to the streets to defend is the same Supreme Court that provided the legal foundations for the expropriation of Palestinian land and property and for the state’s expansion of settlements in the occupied territories. Last year it ruled against evacuating unauthorised settlers who had seized land and built ‘outposts’, paving the way for settlements in the West Bank even beyond those sanctioned by government.
What worries the protesters is the prospect of the fascist ideology so familiar to Palestinians being turned on Israeli Jews. One new minister, Orit Strook, wants doctors to be able to refuse to treat LGBTQ+ people. Others are pushing to reform immigration laws to keep out Jews who don’t fit a strict Orthodox definition of Jewishness – no Reform Jews, no Conservative Jews. Netanyahu’s previous governments enacted repressive policies against liberal Israelis and human rights organisations, describing them as ‘traitors’ and ‘collaborators’. Now, he has staffed his cabinet with ultra-nationalist politicians who have incited violence against the left.
On 27 January, a Palestinian gunman attacked Israelis in the illegal settlement of Neve Ya’akov in Jerusalem, killing seven and injuring three. The following evening, protesters gathered in Israeli cities for the fourth week in a row. The atmosphere was muted. Among those in attendance was Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party and prime minister until last December. ‘I came here to Jerusalem to declare to everyone that we are one people,’ he said, lighting a candle. ‘The government needs to choose if it wants to fight against terror or if it wants to fight against Israeli democracy.’ In the bubble of Israeli liberalism, one could be forgiven for not realising that a day before the Neve Ya’akov shootings, the Israeli army had raided the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, killing ten people. Or that the Jerusalem attacker had been personally affected by the violence of the Israeli regime, which enabled a settler to murder his grandfather without punishment and an army official to execute another relative of his a week before he walked into Neve Ya’akov. Or that more than thirty Palestinians were killed by Israeli authorities in January alone. Or that in 2022, when Lapid was in government, more than two hundred Palestinians were killed by Israeli operations in the West Bank, among them fifty children, making it the deadliest year for Palestinians in two decades, with the exception of Israeli military assaults on the Gaza Strip.
On 30 January, Blinken made a long-planned trip to Israel. ‘It’s important that the government and people of Israel know America’s commitment to their security remains ironclad,’ he said in a press conference. ‘America’s commitment has never wavered. It never will.’ He had nothing to say about the government’s proposals to enact a law allowing for the deportation of the families of suspected terrorists, and to expedite gun licences for Israeli civilians. Shortly before Blinken’s visit, the Palestinian anti-apartheid coalition, comprised of political bodies and civil society institutions, had met to discuss and co-ordinate the continuing ‘struggle to expose and dismantle Israel’s system of settler colonialism, apartheid and military occupation’. For many Palestinians, the new government is simply a more extreme and even more repressive version of the governments that preceded it. That isn’t insignificant: it brings the threat of more violence, death and displacement. It doesn’t mean, however, that what came before was democratic. If democracy is what they really want, the protesters in Israeli cities should follow the Palestinians’ lead and seek to dismantle the regime of supremacy they’re upholding.
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