Netanyahu courted the far-right – and set his government on a reckless path

Donald Macintyre

The Independent  /  February 28, 2023

The few dozen residents of Avigayil, a little Jewish settlement outpost in the arid, rocky South Hebron Hills had something to celebrate last week. The Israeli government gave it legal status for the first time in the two decades it has perched on its hilltop deep in the occupied West Bank.

All settlements, swallowing ever more of the land Palestinians want for their own state, are deemed by most democratic governments, including Britain’s, as illegal in international law But Avigayil, like eight other outposts similarly “authorized” last week, was illegal even in Israeli law, and indeed had been slated for demolition in the early 2000s by the then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

This legalization, along with a pledge to build homes for 10,000 more settlers than the 475,000 already in the West Bank. followed recent murders by two lone Palestinians in East Jerusalem of at least ten Israelis including two children. The foreign ministers of Britain the US, France, Germany and Italy then announced their “strong opposition” to a “unilateral action which… “will only serve to exacerbate tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Avigayil neighbours Al-Mufakara, a Palestinian village uneasily nestled now between Avigayil and another outpost, Havat Maon, It was easily visible from Al-Mufakara when I was there 16 months ago to report on an incident involving settlers, some armed, advancing from the direction of both outposts, which had left a trail of damaged houses, cars, water tanks, solar panels – and six injured Palestinians, including a three year old boy. The incident was a reminder of what such outposts mean for local Palestinians—none of whom had anything to do with the Jerusalem killings.

It can’t be proved either way, but it seems unlikely that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have ordered such a sudden settlement expansion so early in the administration he formed in December – his third and easily the most right wing in Israel’s history – had it not been for the Cabinet presence of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, respectively National Security and Finance ministers.

Both men are themselves ultranationalist settlers, religious, with a long record of anti-Palestinian views. dedicated to a “Greater Israel”, annexing, the West Bank.

Ben-Gvir first came to public attention in 1995 when a few weeks before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a far-right Israeli zealot, Yigal Amir. Ben-Gvir was televised brandishing an emblem from the prime ministerial Cadillac declaring: “We got to his car and we’ll get to him too.” Smotrich has called for the legalization of all 77 outposts—and the outlawing of Palestinian political parties inside Israel.

Back in 2021, Netanyahu, still one of the world’s most adept politicians, persuaded Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party and Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party to run a joint candidates’ list thus ensuring that they passed the threshold for the Israeli parliament, known as Knesset, membership under the country’s pure proportional system. The manoeuvre finally bore fruit in the victory for his right- wing bloc in last year’s election.

But the pair have exacted a heavy price for joining Netanyahu’s coalition. Remarkably, Ben Gvir, who was exempted from army service because of his past membership of the eventually-banned Kach and with a conviction for inciting racism, is in ministerial charge of the police. Netanyahu also awarded Smotrich control of the military’s wing responsible for civilian issues in the occupied territories, including the settlement project.

On one level the settlement expansion is merely more of what has happened before under successive governments, albeit more inflammatorily – at a time when violence is already at a higher level than at any time since the end of the second intifada in 2005.

More than 150 Palestinians and 30 Israelis were killed in 2022 alone and armed Palestinian groups are now active in the northern West Bank. Despite a recent government pledge to the US to reduce incursions into Palestinians cities, the Israeli military launched a major operation in Nablus on Wednesday which killed 11 Palestinians, including six militants and four civilians, and injured scores of others. Then even as Israel, Palestinian, and American officials were meeting in Jordan in a bid to prevent further escalation, two Israelis were killed in a Palestinian weekend attack in the West Bank. This was followed by a settler rampage through the town of Hawara, next to Nablus, in which one Palestinian was reported killed and dozens of others injured.

What is wholly new is that much of middle Israel is in revolt against Netanyahu’s third government in a way it never was against his first two.

It isn’t primarily the Palestinian issue which has brought level-headed, mainstream politicians like former foreign minister Tzipi Livni to declare of the government, as she did nine days ago at one of the many demonstrations that have poured onto the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: “This madness has a name. It is no longer signs, but the thing itself – fascism.”

There are several facets of the Netanyahu program which have prompted a phalanx of political, judicial, former intelligence and military leaders to join the mainly – but not only – secular mass of Israeli protesters against what they fear will become an autocracy in all but name. But the most immediate are measures set to severely weaken, critics would say neuter, the Supreme Court. These are opposed in polls by a majority of the Israeli public, and on Monday brought tens of thousands of demonstrators to the streets, some blocking the homes of Knesset members, as one of them passed its first reading.

The package drafted by Netanyahu’s justice minister Yariv Levin would include allowing a parliamentary majority of one to reverse any ruling by the court against a government decision. It would give the government total control over the selection of judges. It would virtually stop the judges annulling any semi-constitutional “basic laws” decided by parliament. And it would remove the test applied by the court of “reasonableness” to government measures.

The court is hardly the “overmighty” bastion of leftism depicted by its opponents; it approved, for example, the bitterly contested nation state law which demotes Palestinian Israeli citizens by downgrading Arabic as an official language, and stipulating that self-determination is a right “unique to the Jewish people”. And last year it ruled that the threatened eviction of 1,000 Palestinians from their homes in the southern West Bank, purportedly to make way for a military firing zone, could go ahead. But what makes its emasculation a grenade detonated in the heart of Israel’s unicameral political system is that the court is the only check on the executive and the parliamentary majority it routinely commands.

The most eminent past president of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor, has offered to go before a “firing squad” if it would stop what he sees as an existential threat to Israel’s democracy. A former military chief of staff Dan Halutz has suggested that young Israelis might refuse compulsory army service, saying “draft dodging in a democracy is one thing, and draft dodging in a dictatorship is another”. Another critic is Avichai Mandelblit who, though appointed by Netanyahu as attorney general, indicted the Likud leader on three corruption charges, which Netanyahu denies (the trial, which began in 2020, is still ongoing).

This month Mandelblit touched on what many of Netanyahu’s opponents – on the streets as well as in the corridors of power – see as a motive for the assault on the judiciary. Pointing out that Netanyahu had previously resisted appointing Levin, whose views on the court were well known, Mandelblit publicly suggested the move was linked to Netanyahu’s legal situation.

Either way, the government is having a rougher ride than it expected. Besides the wave of protest at the assault on the judiciary, the fanaticism of Smotrich and Ben Gvir has met some unexpected opposition from Israel’s security establishment. The former faces a power struggle with Defence minister Yoav Gallant over control of the occupied territories.

Meanwhile, the police commissioner Kobi Shabtai has so far resisted Ben Gvir’s calls for the use of multiple arrests and water cannon against (Israeli) demonstrators. And he is said to have warned Ben-Gvir that his demand for even tougher operations against Palestinians in East Jerusalem than those already under way (collective punishment to Palestinian eyes) can only inflame the atmosphere ahead of what promises to be a dangerously volatile Ramadan, beginning next month.

These tensions underline how hard it is to separate Israel’s domestic politics from its control of the occupied territories. Yet involvement in the demonstrations of even Palestinians who live in and are citizens of Israel proper (around 20 per cent) has been negligible.

Protest organizers have shunned the presence of Arab speakers or Palestinian flags for fear of alienating the minority of right-wingers – and even settlers – who have joined the protests. And though they would almost certainly suffer most under the present government, many Palestinians see them as an internal Israeli issue. Moreover, from recent experience of his predecessors, many fear that even the fall of the Netanyahu government would not ease, let alone lift, the daily oppressions of life under occupation.

Much may yet depend on Washington which, with its annual $3.8bn aid package, has huge – if very rarely deployed – potential leverage over Israel’s government. With its hands full elsewhere – in Ukraine foremost – the Biden administration has been notably reluctant to engage with the region.

But in an unusual if guarded statement to The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman this month, Joe Biden nevertheless stressed the importance of an “independent judiciary” and the need to build “consensus” for “fundamental changes”.

Anthony Blinken, US secretary of state, has repeated his displeasure over the legalization of the settlement outposts. But intense diplomatic activity went into preventing the UN Security Council voting this week on a resolution condemning the settlement expansion, in order to save the US from deciding whether to deploy its veto, as it so often does on Israel’s behalf. Instead, the Security Council contented itself with a “presidential statement” – which was still denounced by Netanyahu’s office – apparently in return for Israel promising a (very temporary) freeze on legalizing still more outposts. This, of course, while maintaining its well-developed plans for demolition of scores of Palestinian homes in rural areas of the West Bank.

But it is still an open question whether the US may eventually feel forced to apply the brakes if the Netanyahu government continues down its present reckless path. Within Israel the most contentious measures are currently those to weaken the court. There is anecdotal evidence of companies in Israel’s fabled high-tech sector contemplating departure, or at least of inward investment threatening to diminish.

This may be partly why Israel’s president Isaac Herzog is still hoping – albeit unbankably – to secure a negotiated compromise over the judicial changes. For now, Netanyahu is buffeted on one side by the demonstrators and much of the Israeli establishment, and on the other by the religious and far-right forces that he himself summoned up, which are now increasingly threatening to lurch out of his control.

Donald Macintyre is a British freelance journalist and author, formerly a political editor and foreign correspondent on The Independent