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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK

The Guardian view on Israel’s threat within: rightwing extremism in government

Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich stand behind the Israeli PM Yair Lapid in the Knesset last month.
The Likud chairman, Benjamin Netanyahu (left), and the Religious Zionist party leader, Bezalel Smotrich, stand behind the Israeli PM, Yair Lapid, in the Knesset. Photograph: Tsafrir Abayov/AP

The crisis in the Holy Land is once again at “boiling point”, with blood being spilled on both sides. Tor Wennesland, the UN’s peace envoy, did not mince his words to the security council this week. The rising death toll in the West Bank, the worst since 2006, is roiling the waters. Since January, about 140 Palestinians have been killed in this territory, nearly all by Israeli forces. Palestinian attacks targeting Israelis have left 30 dead.

Days earlier, Mr Wennesland had been “horrified” by the fatal shooting of an unarmed Palestinian man during a scuffle with an Israeli border police officer. The macabre video of the killing revealed he was right to be alarmed. Yet rather than upbraiding the officer for a public execution, the incoming national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, from the far-right Jewish Power party, hailed him as a hero.

The Religious Zionism bloc, led by Mr Ben-Gvir and the Jewish supremacist Bezalel Smotrich, is now the third-largest group in the Knesset. Harbouring racists and homophobes, it was the big winner in last month’s elections. The losers were Israeli democracy and the Palestinians. Yaakov Katz, editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, has good reason to call Mr Ben-Gvir “the modern Israeli version of an American white supremacist and a European fascist”. Mr Ben-Gvir, who has been convicted of racist incitement and support for terrorism, already has tense relations with Israel’s Arab minority. As he has repeatedly pledged to relocate Bedouins and Palestinian Israeli citizens to neighbouring Arab states, much worse could be in store for them.

The proximate cause for violent extremists in Israel’s government is Benjamin Netanyahu. On trial for corruption – charges that Mr Netanyahu denies – he seems willing to pay any price to end the cases against him. In return for an assault on Israel’s justice system through new legislation advanced by his far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies, Mr Netanyahu appears to be reshaping government to their advantage – notably handing over virtually untrammelled powers in the occupied territories. He seeks to ride the radical wave surging through Jewish Israeli society. About 60% of such voters now consider themselves rightwing – up from 46% in 2019. Among young Israelis, support tops 70%.

These trends should worry Israel. Since 1967, the country has given itself plausible deniability over deepening an illegal occupation in the West Bank by claiming the region was under an apolitical, military-administered legal regime that respects international law. This, said successive Israeli governments, was a temporary solution until a permanent deal was reached with the Palestinians. Putting Mr Smotrich’s party in charge threatens to expose this as a charade, confirming that Israeli occupation is a form of apartheid.

Mr Netanyahu appears to be betting the world will blink first. His friends in the Gulf are sticking by him. The Biden administration says it will judge the new government by its policies, not its personalities. But the far-right march to their own drum. Mr Smotrich supports the annexation of the West Bank, the expansion of settlements and the demolition of Palestinian homes. Mr Ben-Gvir plans a provocative ministerial “visit” to Haram al-Sharif, site of the third-holiest shrine in Islam, under the pretence that Israeli Jews are struggling for their religious rights. If such words become deeds, then a Palestinian uprising – a third intifada – won’t be far away. This is a dismal thought, but it seems to be where the unfortunate evolution of Israeli politics is heading.

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