Far Right

Israel. Ever More to the Right, a Race to the Abyss

Who is going to stop the repressive government of the extreme nationalist, colonial and religious right set up by Benyamin Netanyahu? Its coalition agreement suggests a worst-case scenario. Sylvain Cypel and Ezra Nahmad outline what the latter calls “Israel’s descent into the abyss”.

Benyamin Netanyahu chairs the first cabinet meeting of his new government in Jerusalem, December 29, 2022
Ariel Schalit/AFP

On 30 December 2022, the day after the Israeli parliament ratified the new coalition government, the UN called on the International Court of Justice to render an advisory opinion on “the ongoing violation by Israel of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” “Ongoing” is the right word. The UN General Assembly has passed numerous resolutions condemning settlements and other illegal activities perpetrated by Israel in the territories occupied since June 1967. But in vain, because the violation of rights has never ended. As with its predecessors, this latest resolution of the UN General Assembly (86 for, 26 against including the US, the UK and Germany, and 53 abstentions, including France) remains unenforceable. Three days later, Israel announced the forced expulsion of 1,000 inhabitants of Masafer Yatta, on the West Bank, to make way for a “firing range” for its army.

American Concern

Israel has just given itself a more colonial and militantly Jewish government than ever. How long will its main supporters, the US and the EU, go on protecting such a state? The American media is alarmed. The Associated Press (AP) believed that the new government “puts Israel on a collision course with its closest allies, first the US and the American Jewish community.”1

Joe Biden, reiterating his commitment to the two-state solution, may have congratulated Benyamin Netanyahu, while his Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US would “gauge the government by the policies and procedures, rather than individual personalities,” but Washington is alarmed by the coalition taking power in Tel Aviv. The first signals it received from Netanyahu went down badly. Israel’s policies are becoming more and more problematic in the view of the US administration, notably for an internal reason: criticism of Israel continues to grow among young Democrats. Moreover, more than 300 American rabbis have announced that they are cutting all contact with members of the new Israeli government, as the American Jewish community increasingly distances itself. Especially the young Jews, who consider that the behaviour of the “Jewish state” is more and more horrifying. Measures announced by Netanyahu are not going to bring them back to the fold. “American Jews wonder: is it time to declare independence from Israel?” writes the American historian Eric Alterman.2

The Israeli PM established a special position of “Minister for Strategic Affairs” who will be the real chief of international policy, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs relegated to diplomatic niceties. In charge of these “strategic affairs” is none other than Ron Dermer, a long-term henchman of Netanyahu. He it was who in 2015, in league with Republican congressmen, orchestrated the humiliation of Barack Obama in Congress over the attempted nuclear agreement with Iran. Dermer, then ambassador to Washington, was one of Trump’s most vociferous fans.

Dangerous concessions to the settler camp

To consolidate his power in the Israeli parliament and dodge the judicial prosecutions against him, Netanyahu has doubled down on concessions to the “settler camp.” He has initiated a first: 55 years after the West Bank occupation began, the Israeli army is deprived of its absolute control over operations throughout the occupied territories. The new Minister of Finance, Betzalel Somtrich, from the most radical extreme right, is to take over all civil activities in the West Bank – read, above all, the extension of settler activity. In doing this, the Prime Minister looks like a weakling. It only needs a small part of his religious allies to desert him, and it is goodbye to his coalition.

So, Netanyahu’s concessions presage two looming conflicts. One is a major resurgence of the Palestinian uprising both in the territories and inside Israel itself. Netanyahu has just announced the extension of settler activity in the West Bank, and promises future annexations, without fixing a date. Nothing new there. But will he be able to control Itamar Ben Gvir, the new chief of police? How can he control a man who throughout his career has personified racist violence? Palestinian citizens of Israel, and especially those in East Jerusalem, must expect the worst. Haaretz recalls that until recently, Ben Gvir was being investigated by Shin Beth’s Jewish Terrorism department.3 And given that his alter ego Betzalel Smotrich oversees civil affairs in the West Bank, the occupied Palestinians may fear a rapid worsening of their living conditions and even more violent daily repression.

Both Gvir and Smotrich are linked to the most extreme Jewish settler circles in the West Bank. Their supporters’ files are overflowing with plans for expropriating the Palestinians and seizing their possessions, above all, their land. With the arrival of Ben Gvir and Smotrich to power, the settlers’ feeling of impunity has reached a peak, raising fears of a spike in the level of the already permanent attacks on the Palestinians (and Israelis who come to support them). Ben Gvir had barely taken the job before he rushed to the al-Aqsa mosque compound to signal his intentions.

Already, some senior Israeli military figures have expressed their fears of a new uprising among young Palestinians. The retiring army Chief of Staff, Avi Kochavi, briefed Netanyahu on his concerns. On the radio, Gen. Nitzan Alon, former military commander of the West Bank from 2009 to 2012, was very explicit: “The situation in Judea and Samaria is much more difficult today than when I was there,” he said. Giving power to Ben Gvir and Smotrich is “a folly. They are trying to sow chaos in the territories on the quiet, without a formal decision. I think that is the scenario this government is trying to bring us to.”4 For the time being, the army has been given a verbal assurance that no decision will be taken without its prior agreement. But with Netanyahu, Ben Gvir and Smotrich, such promises are only believed by the gullible. Already, the two accomplices have proposed a law stipulating a moratorium of ten years before any retiring member of the army staff could take up a political post (it currently stands at three years). A way of keeping retired generals out of the picture.

Threats to democracy

The other looming threat in Israel is on the internal front, notably the in-depth “reforms” conceded by Netanyahu. Firstly, the weakening of the powers of the Supreme Court. Its rulings could be annulled by the Knesset, and nominations to its bench would also be controlled by parliament. That would allow the passage of bills sent back by the Supreme Court for not conforming with the “fundamental laws,” 14 in number, which makes up the constitution. Secondly, the adoption of a "Plan for law and justice to amend the judicial system and strengthen Israeli democracy’. As far as Netanyahu’s adversaries are concerned, that means to deal a radical setback to democracy. Among other things, this plan includes:

➞ An increase in public subsidies for religious schools, and a reduction in their compulsory subjects such as maths, science, English, history, etc., in favour of religious instruction;
➞ The nomination of an extreme-right deputy, Avi Maoz, to the post of controller of school curricula. He is known for his hatred of ‘sexual deviants’ (LGBT) and the feminist struggle;
➞ Giving businesses, hospitals or individuals the right to refuse to sell, rent or do business with LGBT people (an extension of the right of refusal already in force for the rental or sale of property by Arabs).

The plan is also to modify the ‘Law of Return’ in a very restrictive manner. Up till now, the granting of nationality was open to anybody with a Jewish grandparent. The new proposal is to apply Talmudic law (Halacha) according to which Jewish identity is transmitted only through the maternal line. Under such a rule, a good third of the Jews from the USSR and a large proportion of American Jews would lose their Jewishness in the view of the Grand Rabbinate. As would Jews born to mothers converted by ‘reform rabbis’, common practice in the US. Such Americans would immediately lose their Jewish identity, and the right to become Israeli citizens if they wanted. At a minimum, several hundred thousand Jews, Israeli or otherwise, are involved. That does not mean much to the Palestinians, deprived of any right to return for the past three quarters of a century. But the majority of American Jews see it as an outrage, especially the young. Opinion polls show that they often consider Israel an apartheid state, while Ben Gvir scored his highest ratings among Israel’s young!

These ‘reforms’ will not necessarily all be ratified by Parliament. Already, the mayors of major townships have announced that they will refuse to cooperate with Avi Maoz in the educational field. But for the basics, Netanyahu enjoys a comfortable majority. Most Israeli analysts believe that society may experience serious upheavals challenging democratic rights and benefitting religious quarters and the most corrupt. Two days before the new government was presented, parliament passed a law which would allow Rabbi Arieh Dery – an important electoral ally of the PM – to take a ministerial seat despite the fact that he is being prosecuted for fiscal fraud. Netanyahu obviously has little to fear from such a parliament in the future.

Anxiety is mounting in Israel about religious coercion and a strong erosion of democracy. But according to the online site +972 Magazine, if ‘the crusade of the extreme right against secular liberalism provokes massive opposition in Israel, it cannot be separated from the anti-Palestinian orientation of the state’.5 The more Israeli society relapses into frenzied identity politics, the more those who take a stance of resistance realise that the way out of the crisis lies in a joint conflict with the Palestinians. As for the Zionist left, which wants to preserve democratic norms while accepting identity ideology, it is gradually disappearing from the political arena, as the recent elections showed.

‘Western exceptionalism towards Israel must end’

In November 2018, two extreme-right Israeli deputies tabled a bill stipulating that a soldier ‘shall not be questioned as a suspect and will be immune to prosecution for any act committed, or order given, in the discharging of his duties.’ It amounted to inserting the legalisation of crime into the military code. That text was never debated in open parliamentary session. But in October 2022, an identical bill was tabled, signed by 23 deputies. Eight of them became ministers or deputy ministers in the new Netanyahu government. There we are. Joe Biden and Antony Blinken are waiting to judge for themselves, while the anti-colonial Israeli left once again calls on the western powers to end the systematic impunity granted to the Israeli government. ‘As the apartheid crimes worsen, western exceptionalism towards Israel must end,’ writes Michael Sfard, one of the most important defenders of the rights of the Palestinians in Israel. A sentiment shared by Israel progressives: without urgent and firm pressure from Israel’s allies, Israeli society, trapped in its triumphant colonialism, will not be able to halt its rush towards the worst.

Israel or the headlong rush towards the worst

By Ezra Nahmad

How to define and understand Israel’s trajectory? Its descent into the abyss, stubborn, inevitable, spread over several decades, is extraordinary. Take other nearby countries like Iran or Syria. They have masses who struggle to check the rush to ruin, ready to sacrifice their lives. In Israel, a large majority push in that direction, and the rest of the population is either indifferent or tone-deaf.

Perhaps one should agree on what Israel’s fatal trajectory is. The country is unquestionably a military and technological power. But its everyday life, its social or cultural climate are as black as its military and police technology is dazzling: they seem to be pointed in opposite directions. The military and technological powers, closely intermeshed, are based on perfecting the miseries inflicted on the Palestinian people. With time, this barbaric form of Israeli progress could only advance with the usurping of lands, military repression, police surveillance, rampages. Israel’s pride and joy have come about only through the systematisation, industrialisation and commercialisation of the criminal technologies developed against the Palestinians. The birth of this state vocation is a phenomenon as astonishing as it is monstrous. Cynically put, one could say that all Israel’s merits are ultimately due to the Palestinians, without whom the state would undoubtedly not be what it is today.

To the health of the country, an essential issue. The violent ferocity of the settlers and the army against the Palestinians, and the racist laws, are basically applied in the West Bank, although the Arabs of Israel also suffer a variety of discriminatory laws. With the passage of time, these crimes have tarnished the morale, the intelligence and the culture of Israel. And that is precisely why the country has just formed a government of corrupt, racist men, with ministers who call openly for the establishment of a theocratic state, for the separation of men and women in public spaces, for the segregation of homosexuals, for the strengthening of the apartheid laws on anything that falls outside an ever more paranoid form of Judaism.

That the Israelis should consent to such political projects bears witness to their increasing loss of moral landmarks. The sense of humour or happiness, curiosity or interest in others, have deserted Israeli culture, replaced by a depressive autism, meagre and playing the victim, and subcultures riddled with superstitions. We are told that most young people support the ideas of the new Israeli government. Their participation in collective crimes inflicted on the Palestinians during their military service has a lot to do with it, but indoctrination begins in school at the most tender ages.

The official Israeli discourse claims that the crimes committed in the West Bank, a sort of no man’s land for the Israelis, does not affect people inside the country. But the traumatisms of the Israelis, criminal acts committed very young, repressed traumatisms, silenced yet none the less real, testify to the contrary. This brutalising effect is more of a collapse because it is brought on, willed by a large majority of the people, in a logic of oneupmanship which has been going on for decades, in a headlong rush towards the worst, breeding blacker and blacker schemes in enfeebled minds.

A people who commit ever more brutal force to enslave another people living in the same space ends up succumbing to its own demons, to become in turn an enslaved people. This is not a law, but the logical outcome of a series of choices. The dynamic of Israel’s drift is not unique in the wider world, where it is countered by a growing mass of individuals and groups. In Israel, by contrast, the die seems to be cast.

1Josef Federman, “As Israel’s Netanyahu returns to office, trouble lies ahead”, AP, 29 December 2022.

2Eric Alterman, “Is it time to declare independence from Israel?”, Haaretz, 19 December 2022.

3Amos Harel, “Netanyahu government legislative tsunami will barrel down on the defense establishment”, Haaretz, 1 January 2023.

4Amos Harel, “Israel’s army chiefs drew his red lines, but does Netanyahu have any?”, Haaretz, 27 December 2022.

5Meron Rapoport et Ameer Fakhoury, “Why the ‘second Nakba’ government wants to remake the Israeli state”, 9 December 2022.