Land grabs, homophobia, radicalized police: What to expect from Israel’s far-right government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Otzma Yehudit party head Itamar Ben Gvir (Yonatan Sindel - Flash90)

Natasha Roth-Rowland

+972 Magazine  /  December 29, 2022

The new coalition is set to deepen colonization on both sides of the Green Line, while expanding its tools to oppress Palestinians, leftists, and LGBTQ people.

A concerted push to speed up West Bank annexation, led by a messianic Jewish settler. Even more immunity for Israeli soldiers who assault or kill Palestinians. Denial of medical services to LGBTQ people. A defanged Supreme Court. A return to politics for previously banned Jewish terrorists.

All of these proposed policies have been aired in the Israeli media over the past few weeks as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition, pieced together through intensive negotiations and sworn in on Thursday, has taken shape. Following the consistent trajectory of the past few decades, the new government is the country’s most far-right yet, giving Netanyahu a relatively ideologically homogeneous cabinet while handing unprecedented power to extremist figures who had, until recently, been perceived as destined to remain on the political margins.

How much leeway Netanyahu and Likud will give to their junior coalition partners to push through the full extent of their fundamentalist vision for the country remains to be seen. But the returning prime minister’s weakness in the face of ongoing legal jeopardy, and the power and prestige he has already handed to members of the far-right Religious Zionist Party (RZP), Otzma Yehudit, and Noam paint an ominous picture. Netanyahu’s insistence to the public that he will not allow the religious extremists in his government to run riot — painting himself, in timeworn tradition on the Israeli far right, as a buffer against those even further to the right — is belied by the acquiescence he has shown throughout the negotiations of the past weeks.

With the new government now sworn in, here is a rundown of some of the most dangerous policies, proposals, and new powers attached to the incoming coalition.

West Bank annexation in all but name

While the informal annexation of the occupied West Bank has been a long-term, continual project of successive Israeli governments, Israel has not — yet — formally annexed the territories as it did East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights in the early 1980s, following their capture in the 1967 war. Advancing this agenda remains a long-term, overarching goal for the RZP and its head Bezalel Smotrich, as per the party’s coalition agreement with Likud; for now, however, the focus is on accelerating de facto annexation.

The new coalition’s guiding principles promise to continue furthering a colonial project that stretches across — and erases — the Green Line. In its opening section, the full coalition agreement declares: “The Jewish people has an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel — in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan, Judea and Samaria.”

Thanks to legislation passed in the Knesset on Tuesday that places the Civil Administration and COGAT — units within the defense ministry that administer the occupation and the siege on Gaza — under the auspices of the RZP, Smotrich is now the “de facto overlord” of the parts of the West Bank under full Israeli military and civil control and where most of the settlements are found, as well as having considerable power over the lives of Palestinians in Gaza.

There will be many ways for Smotrich and his party to exercise that power, but whatever concrete forms their policies take, they are all but guaranteed to involve optimizing the conditions for settlement expansion, including through legalizing outposts; making political appointments designed to undermine Palestinians’ ability to argue for legal recognition of their privately-owned land; advancing settler tax breaks; giving settlers even greater latitude to conduct their own takeovers; and further harmonizing laws in the settlements with those inside the Green Line.

In parallel, Smotrich will be able to ramp up so-called “enforcement” and other punishments against Palestinians in Area C, whether by denying building permits, demolishing homes and other structures, or restricting exit and work permits. Equally, the party will determine who can enter and exit the Gaza Strip and when, as well as dictating what materials can go in and out of the enclave.

Further colonizing the Naqab/Negev and the Galilee

The Naqab and the Galilee, home to major Palestinian population centers in the south and the north of the country respectively, have long formed the bedrock of government efforts to Judaize the country within the Green Line. For the far right in particular, they are considered part of the front line — along with the so-called “mixed cities” — of the Israeli push to “re-colonize” areas that are, to their mind, insufficiently Jewish in character due to the size of their Palestinian populations. Both these parts of the country therefore received considerable attention in negotiations between Likud and both the RZP and Otzma Yehudit, with each party winning significant control over these areas.

Otzma Yehudit’s coalition agreement handed it control of the Negev and Galilee Development ministry, which has been expanded to include West Bank outposts — another act of informal annexation. Ben Gvir, meanwhile, as national security minister, will enjoy control over the enforcement arms of various government branches relating to land and the environment, including the Nature and Parks Authority and the Israel Land Authority. This will give him significant say in the allocation of state land, and how that land is used — which he is certain to use as a cudgel against Palestinian communities in areas the state is focused on intensively settling with Jewish Israelis.

Moreover, the RZP won a commitment from Likud to even further expand the Judaization of the Negev and the Galilee, and it, too, has been granted a measure of power within the Israel Land Authority, with MK Strook to sit on its council.

Threats against the LGBTQ community

The RZP’s joint electoral slate, which pulled in the third-largest vote haul in last month’s elections, won one seat for the extreme-right Noam party, bringing its chair, Avi Maoz, into the Knesset. The party, which is only a few years old, has consistently run on a predominantly anti-LGBTQ platform; in the immediate aftermath of the elections, when it became clear Maoz was going to be in the governing coalition, he immediately began floating homophobic policy proposals — including a push to ban Pride parades in the country, particularly in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu gave that idea short shrift, at least in public, but shortly after appointed Maoz to a deputy ministerial role within the Prime Minister’s Office that will oversee “Jewish identity,” with attendant responsibility for external school programming. There has been backlash by some mayors and local authorities to the appointment, but in the meantime, the homophobic pronouncements of Maoz and his ideological cohort have continued, amid reports that his party previously assembled lists of LGBTQ media figures — leading to LGBTQ activists issuing stark warnings of homophobic violence.

Part of Likud’s coalition agreement with the RZP has also handed the latter a victory in an American-style culture war, allowing it to try and amend an anti-discrimination law that would permit service providers to refuse to work with certain individuals based on their religious beliefs. (This is also part of Likud’s agreement with the haredi United Torah Judaism party.) RZP MK Orit Struck suggested that, under the new law, doctors could refuse to treat LGBTQ patients, while Simcha Rothman, also of RZP, said that hotel owners would have the right to refuse rooms to gay customers.

There has also been talk of reversing a recent ban on so-called “conversion therapy,” reinstating a ban on gay men donating blood, and reimposing barriers to accessing gender reassignment surgery.

Top-down radicalization of the police forces

The creation of a new national security ministry headed by Otzma Yehudit chair Itamar Ben Gvir is already sending shockwaves through Israel’s police establishment. The ministry, an expanded version of the internal/public security ministry, gives Ben Gvir — a convicted terrorist sympathizer with a long history of violence and incitement, chiefly against Palestinians — dictatorial powers over Israel’s combined police forces on both sides of the Green Line. As per Likud’s coalition deal with Otzma Yehudit, which passed the Knesset on Wednesday, the Border Police — which patrols through the West Bank and East Jerusalem — has been removed from Israel Police authority, and now sits directly under Ben Gvir’s ministry.

A disciple of the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane and longtime admirer of the 1994 Hebron/Al-Khalil mass murderer Baruch Goldstein, Ben Gvir is vowing to push for further immunity for security forces accused of killing or assaulting Palestinians — above all soldiers — and, thanks to his party’s coalition agreement, has the authority to make open-fire regulations even more permissible. His control over Border Police means he now has oversight of the forces that violently suppress Palestinian protests, help carry out demolitions, and police predominantly Palestinian areas inside the Green Line. Ben Gvir further has the power to appoint the police commissioner, a privilege denied to his predecessor, as well as to put the police on a tighter leash in areas where he has political and religious goals — such as, for example, expanding Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which has traditionally been restricted, albeit to an ever-lesser degree, by the police.

The war on — and over — the judicial system

Central to Netanyahu’s negotiations — and part of his acquiescence to his partners’ demands — has been the drive to undermine Israel’s legal system so as to get him off the hook in his various corruption trials. This is a reciprocal goal: RZP, Otzma Yehudit, and other far-right outfits want to see the judiciary bent to the government’s will, pushing for a so-called “override clause” that will allow the ruling coalition to overturn Supreme Court judgments — which would drastically disempower the country’s highest court. In practice, this could allow a razor-thin Knesset majority — 61 out of 120 MKs — to overrule a Supreme Court decision to strike down, for example, a discriminatory law passed by the Knesset. Such an option would greatly facilitate the codification of far-right policies, from racial and religious discrimination to land grabs and expanding the criminalization of Palestinian civil society and human rights NGOs.

A related, though discrete, coalition agreement involves overturning the bans on potential Knesset members previously accused, or convicted, of incitement to violence and hatred. This move was orchestrated by Ben Gvir, seemingly to allow his Kahanist former running mates — Michael Ben-Ari, Baruch Marzel, and Bentzi Gopstein — to try once more to enter the Knesset. At the same time, Ben Gvir has made it clear that his party will use law to try and bar Palestinian politicians from the Knesset.

In a further sign of the waning power of the High Court, the coalition agreement between Likud and the RZP revives previous attempts to indefinitely detain asylum seekers, with a proposal for a new Basic Law based on legislation that the court has struck down in the past.

Likud and Otzma Yehudit have also agreed to pass a bill within the next year that would institute the death penalty for (Palestinian) “terrorists.”

Crackdown on civil society

Even before the new coalition was sworn in, the Israeli state’s already repressive treatment of activists, journalists, and civil society groups deteriorated further. In recent weeks, soldiers assaulted left-wing activists in the West Bank while boasting of the impact Ben Gvir will have on their role; a journalist was arrested for incitement after he commended a Palestinian from the West Bank for seeking out Israeli security forces to attack rather than civilians; and a Likud MK called for the “imprison[ment]” of Breaking the Silence head Avner Gvaryahu.

The new coalition looks set to further criminalize, persecute, and otherwise impede human and civil rights actors, as well as journalists, on both sides of the Green Line. Smotrich has called for further “legal and security” targeting of human rights groups — calling them “an existential threat to the State of Israel” — and plans are underway to tax donations to left-wing NGOs by foreign governments. A years-old effort to criminalize the filming of Israeli soldiers on duty is being resuscitated, while Likud is reviving threats to shutter the news arm of Israel’s public broadcaster, which Netanyahu has previously deemed overly left-wing.

Natasha Roth-Rowland is an editor and writer at +972 Magazine, and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Virginia. Her research and writing focus on the Jewish far-right in Israel-Palestine and the United States