Pictures: EPA – Re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (centre) and his Likud party are set to form a coalition government that includes the far-right Religious Zionism Party whose leaders, Bezalel Smotrich (left) and Itamar Ben-Gvir (right) are notorious for racist rhetoric and incitement to violence against Palestinians, says the writer.
By Na’eem Jeenah
A state that was founded on and perpetuates racism, colonial dispossession and genocide has just elected its most racist, most colonialist and most genocidal government ever. Welcome to the Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu and Itamar Ben-Gvir!
For this election, Netanyahu’s Likud party made a deal with a few smaller parties, including the religious right-wing parties such as Shas, a long-term ally of Likud, and the Religious Zionism Party, which received the third largest number of votes. The two leaders of the Religious Zionism Party, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich have become notorious for their racist rhetoric, incitement to violence against Palestinians, and calls for “disloyal” Israelis to be deported.
Ben-Gvir is also a follower of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose party, Kach, was banned in Israel for its extremist racism. He and a number of his followers were also convicted of terrorism in the US.
Among other acts of terror, he admitted to bombing the Soviet mission in New York and the Soviet cultural mission in Washington. In the recent past, his US supporters have joined white supremacist groups.
Ben-Gvir is notorious for having threatened Yitzhak Rabin two weeks before the Israeli prime minister was assassinated by another Jewish extremist, for having scores of charges against him for hate speech, and for glorifying the Israeli-American who massacred 29 worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in 1994. He has consistently incited racists to attack Palestinians, especially in Jerusalem, and last month pulled a gun on Palestinian protesters and told the police and his followers to shoot Palestinians.
Though Netanyahu was Israel’s longest-serving prime minister ever, having previously spent 15 years in the post, and is himself a right-winger, the new racist extremist coalition will give his government a different character to the past. The Religious Zionism Party expects to garner two critical ministries and has been campaigning for defence, foreign affairs, justice, and finance.
Netanyahu lost the last election, in 2021, partly because of a plethora of corruption charges that he faced; his court case on these charges is still pending.
The alliance between Netanyahu and this new extremism – which was previously banned even in Israel – will have serious consequences for Israel domestically, for Palestinians in the Occupied Territory (millions of whom have been refugees for more than seven decades because of Israel’s ethnic cleansing), for the region and internationally.
Domestically, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich hope to use their leverage in government and in parliament, the Knesset, to ingratiate themselves to Netanyahu and thus get free rein for their extremist agendas. They hope to get the attorney general fired, and thus have corruption charges against Netanyahu dismissed; close the space for various freedoms, targeting especially journalists,
Palestinians and political dissidents. But their biggest targets will be Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who make up 20 percent of the Israeli population, and Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, which has been under Israeli occupation since 1967, making the occupation, arguably, illegal under international law.
They and Netanyahu also agree on building new and expanding existing settlements in the West Bank, including in Jerusalem. All these settlements are illegal under international law. Non-Jewish religious sites in Jerusalem, especially Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other Muslim and Christian sites will likely see their integrity and independence undermined and the Israeli government incrementally taking control over them, as it depopulates East Jerusalem of its Christian and Muslim Palestinian residents, a process that has already started.
The Israeli government and its Jewish population refer to Israel as a “Jewish state”. Yet half of the 15 million people over whom the Israeli government exerts direct control are Palestinian, and not Jewish. The vast majority of these Palestinians are not allowed to vote for Israel’s government; are given few rights (and even those are not respected); have lived under Israeli military, not civilian, rule for decades; and constantly face demolition of their homes, land theft, imprisonment, military courts and the denial of basic rights. With the new government, these conditions will worsen, not improve.
A number of foreign governments have expressed disquiet over Israel’s new governing coalition. Even many US politicians who have always been pro-Israel have threatened not to engage with any Israeli ministries headed by leaders of the Religious Zionism Party.
However, this is not sufficient. These same politicians have facilitated the creation of Israel as an apartheid state, have supported its colonisation of Palestinian lands and lives, and have turned a blind eye to Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing. They even ignore the reports of Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights organisations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as the reports of the UN Human Rights Council and successive UN Special Rapporteurs on the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
Until Israel’s foundations as a racist state are not addressed, it will increasingly pose a threat to justice and peace of its own citizens, the region and the world.
* Na’eem Jeenah is the Executive Director of the Johannesburg-based Afro-Middle East Centre.