Summary: a disturbing rise throughout the world of far right extremism is being echoed in Israel where former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is plotting his comeback with the help of racist parties.
Today Israel votes for the fifth time in less than four years as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks a return to power. Polls show a tight election but if the pundits are to be believed Bibi will indeed be back thanks to an alliance with two extreme right racist parties. It is a scenario that draws cries of outrage from some commentators and purrs of delight from others.
Critics see the Likud leader’s alliance with extreme ultra-Orthodox parties as a marriage of convenience, one that would allow him to escape the courts and charges of corruption. Yossi Klein Halevi writing in the Jerusalem Post was blunt: “The Likud seeks to destroy our independent judiciary, overriding its ability to monitor political corruption, and thereby extricate Netanyahu from his legal woes.” On the same day and in the same newspaper Bobby Rechnitz, an American real estate magnate who claims to have “pumped hundreds of millions into the Israeli economy” opined: “On November 1st, Israel will decide whether to return to its former glory under Benjamin Netanyahu or continue to steep deeper into chaos and uncertainty under a coalition of adversaries and opportunists.”
The coalition that Netanyahu has chosen as his vehicle is nothing if not opportunist, featuring Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) and Bezalel Smotrich who heads the Religious Zionist Party. Though both espouse far right rhetoric, it is Ben-Gvir who has captured the headlines in the run-up to the election. In return for his support he has demanded that Netanyahu gift him the position of Public Security Minister. This is a man who twice in the past ten months has pulled out a pistol and threatened Arabs with it. In late December he brandished his gun at a Palestinian parking attendant who had told him not to use a restricted parking place.
Ben-Gvir’s most recent pistol-toting incident was in the Palestinian community of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, long a target of the extreme settler movement. Efforts to intimidate residents and seize their homes are part of a wider effort to lay claim to all of Jerusalem as the capital of a Jewish state, thus denying East Jerusalem its right to be the capital of an independent Palestine. Two weeks ago Ben-Gvir rushed to the neighbourhood after seeing a video of a Palestinian throwing a stone. In true John Wayne fashion he tweeted “I am now on my way to the place to protect the Jewish residents.” When he arrived he pulled out his pistol and demanded of police officers “if they are throwing stones shoot them.”
Ben-Gvir was a disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane the ultra-nationalist American-born terrorist whose ideology of hate against Arabs inspired Baruch Goldstein, the killer of 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in 1994. Ben-Gvir had a picture of Goldstein prominently displayed in his office until just a few years ago.
What is possibly more concerning is the current appeal Ben-Gvir has with young Jews. At a recent appearance at a high school in the heart of liberal Tel Aviv, he was applauded and cheered. With the power of a cabinet position in his sights Ben-Gvir was keen to play down his support for the mass murderer, telling students:
“It’s true, at the age of 17 I said that Dr Baruch Goldstein was a hero. Today, I am 46, a few years have passed since then, I’ve had children, became a lawyer. I don’t think that Dr. Goldstein is a hero. I don’t think we should kill Arabs, I don’t think we need to deport Arabs.”
That rather conveniently ignores that in 2019 the picture of Goldstein was still hanging in his office. And as for deporting Arabs, including citizens, his views have altered only to make him more appealing to those lawmakers in Likud who may have at least some concerns over his extremist views. He, apparently, no longer believes all Arabs should be expelled. As he told the author of a largely sympathetic profile piece: “If somebody is a terrorist and throws Molotov cocktails then that person should be in prison, and then after they leave prison they shouldn’t be here. They should be sent elsewhere.” Thus says this disciple of the terrorist Rabbi Kahane and erstwhile admirer of the terrorist killer Goldstein.
An analysis of recent polls by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that among young Israelis, support for Ben-Gvir and his party is growing. And, rather as the presidency of Barack Obama galvanized white supremacists in America, the addition of the United Arab List, the party of Mansour Abbas, in the coalition that enabled Naftali Bennett to become prime minister, a first in Israeli politics, has proved a rallying point for racists in Israel. Abbas eventually pulled out of the coalition but the fact that an Arab politician could wield power disturbed many Israelis. As Dr Or Anabi, who carried out the polling analysis for Israel Democracy Institute put it: “Until Mansour Abbas joined the government Jews were used to the idea that Arabs are never part of the power game.”
Should Netanyahu’s alliance of Likud with neo-fascists prevail, it will confirm for Palestinians, both those who are citizens and those who are denied either citizenship or a state of their own, that the slide towards extremism and the genocidal policies that accompany it are quickening in a manner that ought to alarm not just Israel but its Western allies.