The Israeli Government Goes Extreme Right
The country’s longest-serving prime minister is returning to power—and bringing radicalism with him.
In 2015, an Israeli police investigation into Jewish extremism uncovered a wedding video that shocked the public. In the clip, a group of far-right revelers were captured celebrating by stabbing a picture of a Palestinian baby who had been murdered in a recent firebombing in the West Bank village of Duma, perpetrated by a settler extremist. The guests at this affair drew from the furthest reaches of the Israeli right, and included a lawyer named Itamar Ben-Gvir. Several of the participants—including the groom—would later be convicted for incitement to violence and terror.
Dubbed “the wedding of hate,” the incident was excoriated by leaders across the Israeli political spectrum. “The demonic dance with the picture of the murdered baby represents a dangerous ideology and the loss of humanity,” said an up-and-coming settler politician named Bezalel Smotrich. “The shocking images broadcast tonight show the true face of a group that constitutes a threat to Israeli society and Israel’s security,” declared then–Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We will not accept people who violate the state’s laws and do not see themselves as bound by them.”
This coming week, if all goes as planned, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich—who ran together as allies in the latest Israeli election—will be sworn in as ministers in the country’s new government, led by none other than Benjamin Netanyahu.
As these men ascend to power, their ideas will soon drive policy. As one of their campaign slogans pointedly put it, “What you vote for is what you will get.”
The cerebral Smotrich is less known outside Israel than the theatrical Ben-Gvir, who was a disciple of the infamous extremist Meir Kahane and is prone to brandishing a pistol at nearby Arabs. But although the two men differ in style, they agree on much of substance, particularly when it comes to Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up about 20 percent of the country’s population. In recent years, Smotrich has advocated segregating Jews and Arabs in Israel’s maternity wards, lamented that “illiterate” Arabs were stealing university slots from Jewish applicants, and labeled Arab lawmakers as “enemies” who are “here by mistake.” Smotrich is also a longtime proponent of turning Israel into a theocracy governed by religious law, and once described himself as a “proud homophobe,” though he disavows such language today. He is now expected to assume authority over Israel’s presence in the West Bank, including its settlements and the Palestinians living around them. At the same time, Ben-Gvir—who was rejected by the Israel Defense Forces for his radicalism—is slated to become the country’s national-security minister, which oversees the police.
The rise of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir is emblematic of a fundamental shift in Israeli politics: The extreme has entered the mainstream. Once marginal figures, the two men now represent the Israeli Parliament’s far-right vanguard, holding 14 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and comprising nearly a quarter of the new coalition. Other members of the incoming administration include a future finance minister who was previously convicted of financial fraud; a housing minister who owns an illegally partitioned home; and a member of the security cabinet who opposes military service for his own ultra-Orthodox community.
This constellation of characters is the result of November’s Israeli election, which saw the country’s electorate once again split down the middle into pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps. But this time, thanks to a quirk of the Israeli political system, multiple anti-Bibi parties fell beneath the electoral threshold, which resulted in Netanyahu and his right-wing religious allies obtaining 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats despite winning just half of the vote. In practice, this means that though the Israeli far right garnered just 10 percent of ballots, it is now in position to exercise outsize authority in a coalition that cannot function without its support.
“The government established here is dangerous, extreme, irresponsible,” Yair Lapid, Israel’s outgoing prime minister, warned in a televised address last night. “This will end badly.” Referring to Ben-Gvir, he asked rhetorically: “Show me a state in the world where the man responsible for the police is a violent criminal with 53 indictments and eight convictions for serious offenses.”
“We will fight for the rule of law,” concluded Lapid, who has inveighed for years against the rise of the radical right. “We will fight for the rights of women and the LGBT community. We will fight for the values of the IDF. We will fight for the education of our children. We will fight for a tolerant Jewish identity which is not used as an excuse for discrimination and racism.”
The new government has not yet been sworn in, but that fight has already begun. Hundreds of schools across the country have announced that they will refuse to work with Avi Maoz, a hard-right parliamentarian slated to oversee part of the education system. Placed in charge of a “Jewish Identity” agency by Netanyahu, Maoz recently called to cancel Jerusalem’s Pride parade and to bar women from serving in the Israeli military.
To hear Netanyahu tell it, there’s nothing to see here, because whatever the boasts and backstories of his newfound allies, he and his party will be the ones calling the shots. “The main policy or the overriding policy of the government is determined by the Likud and frankly, by me,” he told the journalist Bari Weiss last month. “This Israel is not going to be governed by Talmudic law. We’re not going to ban LGBT forums. As you know, my view on that is sharply different, to put it mildly. We’re going to remain a country of laws.” Spokespeople from Netanyahu’s party have been dispatched to reassure foreign journalists and dignitaries that business will continue as usual. Pay no attention to the extremists behind the curtain. “They are joining me,” he told NPR. “I’m not joining them.”
In Israel, however, Netanyahu’s conduct has often been at odds with his overseas media message. Even as he began signing coalition agreements with his ultra-Orthodox allies to subsidize yeshiva students and effectively exempt them from the economy and military service, he told the podcaster Jordan Peterson that he opposed such “lavish welfare spending” and that it was a problem that “the ultra-Orthodox community … didn’t work, they just had a lot of children, which the private sector had to pay for.” This doublespeak has not gone unnoticed. “Netanyahu talks responsibly in English and acts irresponsibly in Hebrew,” charged the outgoing defense minister, Benny Gantz. “In English he says, ‘We won’t harm any rights of minorities,’ while in Hebrew he acts to pass an override clause to bypass judicial defenses of minorities.”
Even taken at face value, Netanyahu’s protestations of moderation prompt an obvious question: If he does not share the values of his own coalition members, why did he recruit them into his government in the first place? Why didn’t he build a government with the country’s center and left parties, many of whom served under him in the past? The answer is simple, if entirely unacknowledged in his international interviews: He opted for the far right because they were the only ones willing to co-sign legislation to abrogate his ongoing corruption trial. Enabling extremists was Netanyahu’s only play to maintain power.
The political risks of this strategy are apparent. Members of Netanyahu’s own Likud party are already chafing at the plum positions he has gifted to the far right and the ultra-Orthodox. At the same time, polls show that the Israeli public overwhelmingly opposes many proposed policies of the incoming coalition, such as its proffered reforms to the Supreme Court and its socially conservative efforts to legislate Orthodoxy in the public sphere. Civil-society organizations have long been preparing to counter the far right’s agenda.
But even if Dr. Frankenstein ultimately finds that he cannot control his monster, Netanyahu will have succeeded in rescuing himself from prosecution, the consummate political survivor living to fight another day. In the meantime, if the current coalition results in the hobbling of the country’s judiciary, the repression of its minorities, or the erosion of its democratic institutions and international standing, it’s a price Netanyahu is willing for Israelis to pay.