Israel’s government of racists and bigots must not be normalized
This week, the likely next Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, should be presenting his coalition government. The tough horse-trading continues, but all eyes will be on which ministries his most extreme racist colleagues will get and what will be in the coalition agreement. How will the world, the region and indeed the Jewish diaspora handle a government containing ministers who have openly called for the expulsion of Arabs and have indulged in some of the worst bigotry imaginable? It will be the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history.
The arch-racists are Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leaders of Religious Zionism, the far edge of the spectrum of the Israeli far right. In no way are they on the fringe of Israeli politics — they are now mainstream.
Having rustled up 14 Knesset seats and more than 500,000 votes in becoming the third-largest party in the Knesset, they know they cannot be sidelined. Netanyahu’s scheming and populism has antagonized too many of the alternative coalition partners, who continue to refuse to work with him — the likes of Benny Gantz and Avigdor Lieberman. He has little choice but to continue to court the uber-extremists he would normally be reluctant to be seen with.
So, let us take a look at Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. Both are settlers — Smotrich in Kedumim in the northern West Bank and Ben-Gvir in Kiryat Arba, the major settlement on the eastern fringe of Hebron. They both see the settlements in the West Bank as the beating heart of the biblical Israel of their fantasies. Previously, their extremism was outlawed in Israel. Ben-Gvir had threatened Yitzhak Rabin three weeks before he was assassinated in 1995. Tel Aviv is, for them, an abhorrence due to its secular, liberal lifestyle. Both will demand settler outposts be legalized and that Israel annex the West Bank. They would like to dismantle the Palestinian Authority.
They are also the heirs to extremist terrorist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Ben-Gvir spoke at a memorial service to Kahane last Thursday, when he was even booed when he declared that he did not support the expulsion of all Arabs. His base expects him to deliver. They are the ones who go on “death to Arab” marches. Kahanism has shifted from being reviled to being mainstream in just 30 years.
The West would never deal with ministers from the Ku Klux Klan and, for the same reason, they should not deal with the neo-Kahanists
Anti-Arab racism in these ranks is blatant, not camouflaged. Ben-Gvir was even convicted of this. Both he and Smotrich would like to expel Palestinians not just from the Occupied Territories, but from Israel too, although they claim to have altered their positions. They now just want to expel those who are deemed “disloyal.” Ben-Gvir wants Israeli police and soldiers to have immunity from prosecution for harming Palestinians. He is also demanding Netanyahu make him minister of public security, which would send a chill down every Palestinian spine.
Politically, Ben-Gvir has been clear about the fate of Palestinians: “They won’t have a country nor Israeli citizenship … I’m against autonomy. I’ll dismantle the Palestinian Authority … they won’t vote in Israeli elections,” he said last month. The party’s platform has a clear demand to extend Israeli sovereignty over all the territories occupied in 1967. Smotrich says that Israeli law must be applied everywhere and that the Ministry of Defense should no longer be in charge of the West Bank. Even though these areas would be annexed, Palestinians would not get citizenship or the right to vote — essentially making for a more intense form of the system of apartheid that already exists.
Perhaps one of the most incendiary positions will be Jewish prayer on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. The neo-Kahanists will push unashamedly for full Jewish prayer rights and the shredding of the status quo agreements that govern the holy places in Jerusalem.
Many believe that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir speak for a large segment of the Israeli right. They are just prepared to state in public what many Jewish Israeli citizens increasingly feel.
It must not be forgotten that anti-Arab racism is not monopolized by Religious Zionism. Netanyahu has invoked it. He also facilitated their rise to power. He is putting them in government. He once stated that Israel is “the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.” His Likud colleague and former minister Miri Regev declared: “I am happy to be a fascist.”
The Jewish diaspora is split. This was made clear by the contrasting editorial positions of The Jewish Chronicle and Jewish News in the UK. In possibly one of the most appalling editorials in the paper’s long history, The Jewish Chronicle essentially argued that the Jewish community should support Israel no matter who Israelis elect, thereby acting as apologists for racists and homophobes. Any politician of principle should steer clear of a publication that is beyond the pale. The editor of the Jewish News pounced on the editorial, summing it up in nine words: “Fascists should only be condemned when they threaten Jews.” Its front cover featured a picture of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir alongside the headline, “Our worst fears.”
The US administration is nervous. It does not want to see an off-the-charts racist in charge of the Israeli Defense Ministry, in particular. State Department spokesman Ned Price was scathing about Ben-Gvir attending the Kahane memorial, saying: “Celebrating the legacy of a terrorist organization is abhorrent. We are concerned by the use of Kahane’s legacy and rhetoric by extremist and violent right-wing activists.”
It is not clear how European states are going to handle this. It should be zero engagement, but it will not be. Racists will be tolerated. It will also be uncomfortable for those Middle Eastern states that have relations with Israel. It may well slow the pace of normalization. Palestinians will continue to suffer the tyranny of the majority.
As alarming as the recent election results in Italy and Sweden were regarding the march of the far right, they are roughly the equivalent of Netanyahu and Likud. The Israeli extreme right of Religious Zionism is far more dangerous and is prepared to journey further down the dark road of racist violence. For a huge segment of Israeli Jews, it will also be terrifying as they battle to keep the state secular and tolerant, let alone retain the last vestiges of any democratic practices.
For those who care about the future of politics and not just in Israel, these racists and bigots cannot be normalized. Most politicians in the West would never deal with ministers from the Ku Klux Klan and, for the same reason, they should not deal with the neo-Kahanists. This must be a Rubicon never to be crossed.
- Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, in London. Twitter: @Doylech