Trouble ahead as Israel swears in new government

Benjamin Netanyahu smiles

Israel’s new coalition government was sworn in on 29 December.

Amir Cohen UPI

The advent of Israel’s new coalition government, sworn in on Thursday, presents a problem: How best to describe it?

Rightist? Ultra-rightist? Ultra-ultra-ultra rightist? Extremist? Racist? Aparthei…er…dist?

Any and all of these descriptions could accurately apply.

This is a government that intends to “legalize” settlement outposts – that is, make them legal under Israeli law rather than international law, under which all settlements in occupied territory are illegal.

It considers, in the words of Israel’s perennial prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that the “Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel.” Those areas apparently include the Golan Heights and “Judea and Samaria,” better known as the West Bank – all occupied territory.

Asserting one set of people’s primacy over another in any context, but especially in an area with population parity, while unashamedly sticking a middle finger up to international law would normally be considered extremist at best, or, conservatively, outright racist.

The problem with applying these epithets is they create a sense that this new government is somehow a departure from past Israeli governments.

It is not.

Same as the old boss?

It’s not long ago that Israel was set to annex swathes of occupied territory, under a previous Netanyahu-led government, when former US president Donald Trump was in charge.

Trump’s “peace” plan was widely derided and annexation plans were shelved, even if Israel won US recognition for its 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights, in contravention of international law, which forbids the acquisition of territory by force.

That didn’t deter the formation of an anything-but-Netanyahu coalition that may have included an “Arab” party but was also led by Naftali Bennett, a former head of the Yesha council, which oversees Israel’s settlements in occupied territory, who opposed equal rights, promoted settlement construction and bragged about “killing Arabs.”

Such policies are also not merely a recent phenomenon. Israel’s annexation plans for the West Bank began the minute Jewish settlement there got properly underway, which was immediately after the 1967 occupation. After all, why move civilians – if armed settlers can be described that way – into militarily occupied territory if there is no intention of holding on to that territory?

In terms of 1967 occupied territory, the new government promises more of the same. Perhaps more loudly and more obviously: The assertion that this territory is the “exclusive and unquestionable” property of the Jewish people certainly goes further than even Israel’s discriminatory nation state law.

But the same nonetheless. Will Israel formally annex more territory? It might, though Netanyahu, as usual, talks a bigger game than he plays, and he has already tried to “reassure” allies that it will be business as usual.

Blurring the lines

There is some difference. The expansion of powers of the new “national security” ministry under Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the supremacist Jewish Power party, includes more control over Israel’s police (watch out, Palestinians inside the 1948 boundaries!) as well as the transfer to the ministry of the so-called Border Police, usually deployed against Palestinians in occupied territory.

This is another blurring of distinction between Israel inside 1948 boundaries – minus the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza – and the 1967 occupied territories, all, remember, the “exclusive” domain of the Jewish people. Moreover, Ben-Gvir’s open support for Jewish prayer at the al-Aqsa mosque compound is bound to become a source of serious tension.

The appointment of Bezalel Smotrich, of the Religious Zionism party, also Jewish supremacists, as finance minister means settlers will also not lack for cash.

In addition, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir have lobbied to increase government control over Israel’s judiciary. This paves the way for the potential cancellation of still ongoing corruption charges against Netanyahu, as well as ending a (clearly badly observed) ban on parliamentarians who incite racism.

The transfer to the defense ministry, meanwhile, of the power to appoint legal counsel to the branch of the military overseeing the occupation is a further step toward unifying Israel with the West Bank. It also signals “a significant step towards annexation and towards consolidating Israel’s apartheid regime in the West Bank,” according to several human rights groups in Israel.

Further afield, Iran now again finds itself in the crosshairs. Netanyahu has appointed Tzachi Hanegbi as head of Israel’s security council. Hanegbi, a veteran Iran hawk, has already said Netanyahu would authorize a unilateral strike on Iran should Washington and Tehran fail to reach a nuclear agreement.

Hand wringing

Expect much hand wringing from Israel’s western allies, whose support for Israel and asserted commitments to international law are in constant contradiction.

The focus will be on Washington – the EU is a longstanding payer, not a player, and in any case was never too bothered by earlier Netanyahu governments.

No doubt, US President Joe Biden will consider the new coalition a headache.

But Biden is staunchly pro-Israel. When he called Netanyahu to congratulate him on his election victory he told him: “We’re brothers. We’ll make history together.”

The US also has far bigger things on its plate with Russia and Ukraine the immediate priority and China the long-term one. Absent serious conflagration – and assuming Netanyahu is not interested in opening up any division with the US and can exert control over people like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich – pursuing the usual annexation-by-stealth apartheid policies could suit both parties.

Israel’s newfound Arab friends may also find their position harder to defend. And suggestions that Saudi Arabia might sign a normalization agreement to stave off impending annexation should be harder for Riyadh to contemplate given the little impact on Israel’s behavior the “Abraham Accords” have had.

Palestinians will pay the price, as usual. And perhaps the Palestinian Authority will pay the ultimate price. Reduced to the role of dispenser of international aid and security subcontractor, the PA leadership has long been taken for granted by Israel, ignored by international actors and disdained by most Palestinians.

Pain ahead

The fate of the PA – a state-in-waiting with no statehood on the horizon – will be questioned with increasing regularity and may soon reach the inevitable conclusion.

Whether or not the PA collapses under the weight of its own irrelevancy, Palestinians will have to rely on (substantial) global popular support and hope that Israel’s supremacist government will accelerate what has so far been a glacial but significant shift in popular perceptions in the US, not least among American Jews.

There may also be a glimmer of hope in the International Criminal Court’s assertion that it will move forward with a war crimes probe, if it ever gets around to it.

Will the ICC begin proceedings against Netanyahu for the crime of apartheid? Will Israel annex all or parts of the West Bank? Will the PA collapse? Will Israel bomb Iran?

These questions and many others will be answered in the weeks, months and (possibly, but unlikely, given the average lifespan of an Israeli government) years ahead.

One thing at least is certain: there will be more pain for Palestinians, even if Israel’s friends and supporters will find it increasingly hard to present a coherent defense of Israel’s “values.”


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Omar Karmi

Omar Karmi is an independent journalist and former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.