By James M Dorsey
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s far-right, Jewish nationalist, ultra-conservative coalition government threatens to put the Jewish state on a collision course with Jewish Diaspora Jewry and could weaken or undermine a pillar of Israeli national security: unquestioned US support.
The looming crisis with two of Israel’s crucial constituencies, the United States and Jewish Diaspora, stems from Netanyahu’s embrace of the far-right and willingness to sidestep the rise of anti-Semitism among Christian nationalists and Evangelicals, two groups that constitute the mainstay of US grassroots support for Israel.
Details, leaked to Israeli media, of the coalition agreement between Netanyahu’s Likud party and five ultra-nationalist and ultra-conservative religious parties provide a roadmap to multiple potential crises Israel and the new government could encounter. The agreement entails policies that would legitmise racism, impinge on the secular nature of the state, curtail democratic checks and balances, and pursue annexation of occupied territory and Judaisation of Palestinian-populated areas of Israel proper.
Under the agreement, the parties intend to pass legislation that will end a ban on individuals who incite racism from serving in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. They also plan to extend exemptions for the teaching of core subjects like English and mathematics in ultra-conservative religious schools, increase the funding of ultra-conservative religious schools, legalise public funding of gender-segregated events, and grant parliament the right to override Supreme Court decisions.
The coalition partners also agreed to introduce the death penalty for perpetrators of political violence and legalise wildcat settlements hitherto described by Israeli governments as illegal. The accord further involves a vague consensus to move towards annexation of parts of the West Bank occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war and draft plans to Judaise the Galilee and Negev, areas within Israel’s pre-1967 borders that are home to significant Palestinian communities.
Critics will take heart from potential timebombs that could blow the coalition apart at any point after it takes office even though it is a far more cohesive alliance than the unwieldy partnership of its predecessor that was led by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett.
The timebombs include legal obstacles to passing a law that would fortify exempting religious seminary students from military service, definitions of the authority over the police of the incoming national security minister and of another hardliner’s powers in managing the occupation’s civil administration of the West Bank, the level of increased funding for religious seminaries, and Netanyahu’s hesitancy to move ahead with understandings that would curtail the rights of non-Orthodox Jews because of the virulent response from American Jews and potential opposition to the measures by Russian Jewish segment of his electoral base.
With the announcement of his government, Netanyahu rejected suggestions by prominent Israelis and American Jews, including Dan Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, to form a coalition of centre-left parties. The alliance would cancel the prime minister’s trial on corruption charges to keep the far right out of power.
Some Israeli analysts argue that was never an option because Netanyahu is a changed man. “The 73-year-old Likud leader is no longer the ‘responsible adult’ in the room that he was perhaps a decade ago when he rejected calls from within his own party to weaken Israel’s judiciary. He has adopted a conspiratorial worldview, leads a party that has shifted dramatically to the right, and is completely beholden to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox politicians, who have grand plans to turn Israel into a more fundamentalist and less democratic society,” said Haaretz columnist Amir Tibon.
Seven years ago, Netanyahu was outraged when police discovered a video of an Orthodox wedding on which attendees celebrated by stabbing a picture of a Palestinian baby was murdered in a firebombing by an ultra-nationalist.
At the time, Netanyahu condemned the revellers as “the real face of a group that poses danger to Israeli society and security.” Netanyahu has nominated one of the wedding’s attendees, Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben-Gvir, as national security minister, in his newly announced government.
Netanyahu is betting that his pledge not to govern based on Jewish religious law and tighten Israeli cooperation with the United States against China will appease the Biden administration and his Jewish critics. That is likely a slippery slope at best. Moreover, compounding potential upsets in Israel’s foreign relations is a potential crisis in dealings with Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab states that initially concluded peace treaties with the Jewish state, if members of the new government act on their promises.
Ben-Gvir, the incoming national security minister, promised that one of his first acts would be to visit Jerusalem’s Temple Mount or Haram ash-Sharif and authorize Jewish prayer on the site. Such moves would infuriate Jordan, the custodian of the Muslim holy sites. At the same time, Avi Maoz, the minister in charge of shaping Jewish identity, has described Egypt as an “enemy state.”
To position itself as the Arab country with the most influence in Israel and a potential facilitator between the Netanyahu government, Palestinians, and other Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates, the Arab state that spearheaded the recognition in 2020 by Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, took a different tack. It became, together with Bahrain, the first nation to legitimise Ben-Gvir by inviting him, even before the formation of the Netanyahu government, to attend a national day celebration at its embassy in Tel Aviv. Days later, UAE ambassador Mohamed Al Khaja visited Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, another far-right Netanyahu coalition partner, in his office in Jerusalem.
The outreach signalled that it would be business as usual after the UAE had initially unsuccessfully sought to convince Netanyahu not to include Ben-Gvir in his Cabinet. Changing tacks, the UAE has opted to bet on sustaining its past accomplishment of stopping Mr. Netanyahu from implementing some of his most provocative policies. In 2020, the UAE successfully made its recognition of Israel conditional on Netanyahu dropping plans to annex parts of the West Bank.
The UAE and Bahrain’s engagement with the Israeli far-right acknowledges Israeli political trends but sits uncomfortably with the divergence in attitudes of Diaspora Jews and Israelis towards Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and Palestinians and non-Israeli Jews’ concerns about the new Israeli government. Ties to Diaspora Jewry is a pillar of Emirati soft power.
For a majority of Jews, Netanyahu’s swing to the right amounts to turning Israel into a Jewish state that emphasizes relationships with far-right groups irrespective of their attitudes towards Jews rather than with Jewish communities regardless of their political leanings. There has been a deeply rooted rot in Israel’s relationship to Diaspora Jewry, particularly Jews in the United States, who, together with Israeli Jews, account for 80 percent of Jews worldwide. (IPA Service)
By arrangement with the Arabian Post