You’ve heard of Bibi and Ben-Gvir – now meet the rest of the new government

(Flash90)

Nate Orbach

+972 Magazine  /  December 29, 2022

Members of Netanyahu’s coalition are coming with a plethora of radical agendas, from neutering the Supreme Court to ‘deleting’ parts of Gaza.

Israel’s new coalition — the most right-wing in the country’s history — has been finalized. Benjamin Netanyahu will return to Balfour Street as prime minister. Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism party, will be finance minister with an expanded portfolio over Israel’s administrative bodies in the occupied West Bank; and his running mate, Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), will be the national security minister overseeing the police on both sides of the Green Line — a role created specifically for him.

These party leaders have been the focus of the media and public conversation during the election campaign and the subsequent coalition negotiations, and rightfully so. Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister in the state’s history, is facing prison time for corruption and hopes to “reform” the legal system to shield himself from prosecution; Smotrich and Ben Gvir have both risen to prominence with unabashedly racist statements and policy proposals, threatening to accelerate Israel’s colonization policies and further strip the rights of anyone who opposes them.

But these prominent figures are not alone in the pursuit of their ideological goals. In fact, with so much attention being paid to the party leaders, most of the other 61 members who make up the incoming coalition — and who largely share their leaders’ anti-Palestinian, anti-LGBTQ+, and anti-democratic worldviews — remain largely unknown both locally and abroad. It is these figures, old and new, who will do much of the actual work of governing; indeed, Netanyahu is powerless without them.

Some of these lawmakers are first-timers in the Knesset, having previously worked as rabbis or activists. Others are career politicians who have long supported the radical ideas that will likely now become law. Here are just a few of the people comprising the new government.

‘A phenomenon that destroys the human race’

Avi Maoz has been a Knesset member since 2021 and is the leader of the Noam party, a faction within the Kahanist Religious Zionism slate, which advocates for anti-LGBTQ+ policies. Maoz, who is one of a few hundred Jewish settlers living in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem, has vowed to push for the reinstatement of “conversion therapy” (a psychological practice that tries to “cure” people of their homosexuality) and the banning of the Jerusalem Pride Parade. Maoz has been quoted as saying, rhetorically, “If there’s nothing wrong with people attracted to the same sex, what’s wrong with people attracted to children?”

A political advertisement for Noam which aired in the weeks leading up to the election captures Maoz’s ideology. It argues that since the dawn of Judaism, “THEY have sought to destroy us” — “they” being Nazi Germany, Egypt under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Reform Jews, and the LGBTQ+ movement, according to the ad.

One of the new MKs elected alongside Maoz on the same Religious Zionism slate is Amichai Eliyahu. The scion of a prominent religious-Zionist family, Eliyahu’s father, the Chief Rabbi of Safed, was barred from entering the United States, likely because he was indicted for incitement to racism. Both father and son are well known for their opposition to LGBTQ+ rights. In a 2018 op-ed titled “The LGBT Terror,” the younger Eliyahu wrote: “without blood, sweat, or tears, they declared the establishment of the state of ‘LGBT-stan’ in the land of Israel… A state in which it is forbidden to speak out against a phenomenon that naturally destroys the human race.”

Moshe Solomon, another member of Religious Zionism entering the Knesset for the first time, has expressed similar views on the LGBTQ+ community. In a 2015 interview, he stated that, “I don’t think [homosexuality] is okay. A gay man is a problem. It’s a problem. It’s a problem.”

For Ofir Sofer, another freshman MK from Religious Zionism who will serve as aliyah and integration minister, charged with overseeing Jewish immigration, the massive body of evidence demonstrating the physical, emotional, and societal harm directed at the LGBTQ+ community is irrelevant. Instead, he has focused his energy on warning about what he claims is the physical danger that queer people pose to the wider population: “The violence committed by the LGBT community is illegitimate… [the violence] prevents people from expressing their opinions.” Sofer did not provide any examples demonstrating this purported “violence.”

Expanding Jewish domination

The new coalition is expected to enact a wave of new policies targeting Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories. While previous governments have largely been wary of pursuing de jure annexation of the occupied territories (save for East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which the Knesset formally annexed in 1980 and ‘81, respectively), some in the new coalition are eager to bring forward plans to further formalize Jewish domination between the river and the sea, often justifying it through racist and supremacist language.

Miki Zohar, who has been a Likud MK since 2015 and will serve as the culture and sports minister in the upcoming government, openly expresses ideas of primordial Jewish supremacism. In a 2018 radio interview, he claimed that the Israeli public will never believe that Netanyahu is guilty of corruption because it “belongs to the Jewish race, and the entire Jewish race is the highest human capital, the smartest, the most comprehending. The public knows what the prime minister is doing for the country and how excellent he is at his job.”

Zohar has also been open about his plan to further codify Jewish supremacy over Palestinians into law. In 2017, he argued that the two-state solution is dead and that the only path forward was annexation and apartheid, warning against the idea of offering full citizenship to Palestinians in the occupied territories because it would grant them the right to vote.

Under his plan, by contrast, Palestinians “will get all of the rights like every citizen except for voting in the Knesset” — unless they serve in the Israeli army (there is no such condition for Jewish citizens). When pressed as to why millions of Palestinians would choose to serve in the military, Zohar clarified, “I promise you they won’t serve in the army. They will let go [of] the option to vote. They won’t vote in the Knesset.”

Much more common than plans like this one, however, are calls for repression and state-imposed violence against Palestinians. Another new MK, Almog Cohen of Otzma Yehudit, is one of those riding the far-right wave that swept the recent election, particularly among the Jewish population in the Negev/Naqab where he lives.

Prior to his foray into electoral politics, Cohen was a right-wing activist based in Be’er Sheva. He gained notoriety last spring for assembling an armed group — “The Committee to Save the Negev,” also known as the “Barel Force” — that claims to defend Jewish residents from Bedouin violence. He is very open about what his project means: “You know what? Let’s call it what it is: a militia,” he said. “Sounds extreme? Do you know how many decorations and certificates we’ve received from the State of Israel? At least 30.”

Cohen, a former police officer, was supported by the Be’er Sheva municipality and the local police in his attempt to assemble the militia. In the aftermath of the election, the municipality announced that it would grant Israeli students in the area scholarships worth NIS 10,000 (almost $3,000) to volunteer in the group. When asked if there is a difference between a Jewish and a Bedouin child, Cohen firmly answered that there is no difference; when asked if there is a difference between a Jewish and a Bedouin woman, however, he replied: “No comment.” On Wednesday, Cohen was appointed deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, where he will be tasked with overseeing the new government’s policies in the Naqab/Negev.

‘We’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget’

Cohen is joined by longtime Likud MK and former Israeli envoy to the UN Danny Danon in his approach to retaliatory and disproportionate violence against Palestinians. A decade ago, Danon advocated for a hardline strategy against rocket fire from the Gaza Strip: “for every missile that falls in our southern towns, we retaliate by deleting a neighborhood in Gaza.”

Other Likud politicians take a similar violent position. In May, after Palestinian students at Israeli universities staged protests in honor of Nakba Day, Yisrael Katz — a longtime Likud member who has held various high-ranking government positions — threatened Palestinians on the floor of the Knesset: “Remember ‘48, our independence war and your Nakba… If you don’t calm down, we’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget… You will lose everything you have.”

These Likudniks now have more ideological allies than ever in the new coalition. Echoing Ben Gvir’s notorious call, “If [Palestinians] throw stones, shoot them,” Zvika Fogel, another freshman MK for Otzma Yehudit and a former IDF general, reportedly said: “An Arab [Palestinian] who throws a stone at a soldier needs a bullet in the head, a Jew who throws a stone needs to be educated.” Fogel has also expressed support for killing Palestinian children who may pose a security risk to Israel. Yitzhak Wasserlauf, also of Religious Zionism, similarly told Israel’s Channel 12 in an interview: “when they throw rocks, you have to shoot; when they throw Molotov cocktails, you have to respond with shooting.”

According to Aryeh Deri, co-founder and leader of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas party who will serve as both interior and health minister in the upcoming government, physical violence from the state against Palestinians is not enough. In a Shas advertisement released in the lead-up to the November election, Deri bragged about his work in previous governments to strip Palestinians in Israel of their citizenship if they are convicted of “terrorism” (like his fellow lawmakers, Deri does not define the term). “This is the best deterrent: revoke their citizenship. This is what they are most afraid of — more than destroying their houses, by the way. This is the Shabak’s [Shin Bet’s] most effective tool.”

Fogel agrees: “If I had proof that [a Palestinian citizen of Israel] rejected the State of Israel — deported. I said this even before I joined Oztma Yehudit. We don’t have another way of defending ourselves. Enough with being nice, that does not work in the Middle East. It doesn’t work in our neighborhood.”

Overriding the courts

Perhaps the most important of the coalition’s lower-tier members of Knesset is Simcha Rothman. First elected in 2021 as part of Religious Zionism, Rothman has been crucial in developing the coalition’s plan to undermine the Israeli Supreme Court by declaring that a simple Knesset majority can “override” the judges’ decisions. Rothman founded an organization a decade ago called Meshilut [a Hebrew term meaning “governance,” which has become a euphemism for asserting greater control over Palestinians] promoting his goal of returning “power to the people,” and published a book further explaining his position.

While his arguments are rooted in the rhetoric of democracy and justice, he has been clear that the effect and goal of the “override” will be to nix what the right regards as the court’s left-wing rulings, and to clear a path for the newly empowered far-right to enact whatever legislation it chooses. Likud officials recently announced that the “override” clause will be a central goal once the coalition is assembled. Moshe Gafni, the leader of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism (UTJ), recently said: “without the override clause, there is no coalition, the matter is over… we need a weak Supreme Court.”

Rothman has been clear about what the effect of this shift will be. “Every issue… is connected to the Supreme Court,” he said in an ad released in the lead-up to the election. According to him, housing prices have risen because the court prohibited construction of settlement outposts in the West Bank; South Tel Aviv is “overwhelmed by illegal infiltrators” — i.e., African asylum seekers — because the court blocked the government’s attempts to deport them; BDS laws, reform Jews, the supposed undermining of Orthodox control of everyday life — the Knesset cannot address any of these issues because of judicial review, he argues.

Rothman didn’t wait long to bring about that shift. He is an outspoken supporter of a clause in his party’s final coalition agreement that would allow businesses and doctors to refuse service or treatment to certain customers — namely LGBTQ people — on the basis of their religious conscience.

Yariv Levin, who is a long-time Likud MK, the current Knesset speaker, and will serve as the new government’s justice minister, agrees that disempowering the Supreme Court will enable the right to actualize its goals. In particular, he hopes to defang the courts in order to fully settle the occupied territories with Jews and disregard the rights of Palestinians. In a 2018 op-ed, he lamented the court’s approval of the eviction of the Jewish settlement of Gush Katif in Gaza and others in the northern West Bank as part of Israel’s “disengagement” from the strip in 2005. Levin also criticized the rare rulings that rerouted the West Bank separation barrier away from the land of Palestinian farmers in limited cases.

Miri Regev, another senior Likudnik known for her controversial tenure as Culture Minister, agrees that the court is a major roadblock for the right. In 2012, she participated in a protest against Sudanese asylum seekers in Tel Aviv, at which she described them as “a cancer,” the blame for which lies with “the leftists who fought in the Supreme Court, shame on them, who stopped the deportations.”

If the new coalition is successful in passing the “override” bill, the policies proposed by the MKs above — deporting asylum seekers, revoking citizenship of “disloyal” Palestinian citizens, gutting LGBTQ+ rights, unencumbered settlement of Palestinian land, allowing gender segregation in public spaces, and physical violence against anyone deemed a threat — would likely be enacted without obstacle.

That right-wing politicians have long held such violent and discriminatory views, and regularly exploited them rhetorically for political gain, is not news. Now, however, these politicians have full control of the state apparatus, and upon nullifying the judiciary, can ensure that they face no external check on their rightward march. With little internal ideological dissent, the coalition can easily transform their words into reality.

Nate Orbach is a writer from Boston who is currently based in Jerusalem