Israel election: West must turn back on Netanyahu’s neofascist government

Western nations should respond to this outrage by declaring Smotrich and Ben-Gvir to be personae non grata

By Richard Silverstein
2 November 2022

A far-right coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu has triumphed in Israel‘s national election. As ballots were being counted on Wednesday, his alliance of ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist parties was on track to secure 65 seats. This gives them a majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats and offers Netanyahu, already the country’s longest-serving leader, a sixth term as prime minister.

The road to victory took some twists and turns. One of Netanyahu’s most masterful strokes was to unite a previously fractured far-right political field. The Religious Zionism alliance, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, provided the biggest shock of the election cycle, doubling its vote total from the last round and confirming the ascendancy of its firebrand Zionism.

Religious Zionism is an avowedly Kahanist alliance, explicitly endorsing violence against Palestinians and seeking not only to expand the settlement enterprise, but to rebuild the Holy Temple. While Meir Kahane, who was assassinated in New York in 1990, never lived to see the triumph of his Judeofascist ideas, his disciples have completed the task.

Still, Netanyahu’s majority is fairly tenuous. He will need to keep all of his allies in check and horse-trade over ministerial seats, a process that involves back-scratching, sycophancy and greased palms. Likud’s leader has a special knack for this sort of political jockeying; he is the ultimate inside player. But if he fails at this process, his government could fall, as the centre-right coalition that preceded him did.

And just because Netanyahu is an expert at political poker doesn’t mean he’s a consummate politician. That stature is reserved for leaders who possess a vision and seek to implement it. For Netanyahu, taking a position on an issue is not important, unless it serves his personal interest of maintaining power. His slogan might as well be: “L’etat, c’est moi.” While that might suffice in a monarchy such as that of Louis XIV, it’s an unusual phenomenon in an ostensible democracy.

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Among western liberals, democracy is an end in itself. But in Netanyahu’s case, it is a means to something far more important: self-preservation. He is like the shark who will die if he stops moving. Above all else, he must be at the top of the pyramid looking down.

Serious blow to Palestinians

Beyond the ruling coalition’s loss, this week’s election had one major loser: Palestinian parties. In 2020, when four Arab-majority parties united as the Joint List, they won 15 seats, making them the second-largest opposition grouping. But this time, they could not agree on a candidate list, and the alliance fractured. The Hadash-Taal faction was projected to win just five seats in this week’s vote, striking a serious blow to the Palestinian community.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, on the other hand, have come out on top. A former Shin Bet deputy chief once said that Smotrich, who was protesting against the evacuation of Israeli settlements in Gaza, had plotted to blow up vehicles on a major highway in 2005, but he was arrested before he could carry out the attack. Smotrich has denied the allegations.

Ben-Gvir, meanwhile, might be considered the “spiritual leader” of the so-called hilltop youth illegal settlers, who are known to terrorise Palestinians. One of these youths once accused Ben-Gvir of condoning such attacks, while being extremely careful to keep his fingerprints off of them – allegations that Ben-Gvir has denied.

A decade ago, Ben-Gvir told a TV interviewer that he fervently believed not only in rebuilding the Holy Temple, but in destroying al-Aqsa Mosque to do so. His home featured a memorial image of Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of the 1994 Ibrahimi mosque massacre, in which 29 Palestinians were killed.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, or their designated appointees, will likely take up senior cabinet posts in the new government, angling for positions in which they could dominate internal security affairs. There, they would have the capacity to lobby for mass expulsions of Palestinians and major military operations sowing fear, hatred and death. Palestinians would become, as former Israeli army chief Rafael Eitan once mused, like “drugged cockroaches in a bottle“.

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The ideology driving Smotrich and Ben-Gvir does not seek stability. It seeks conflict, because this brings closer the decisive moment when Israel triumphs and Palestinians face abject defeat. Then, right-wing extremists can either force them into exile, or permit them to remain only if they accept the status of virtual peonage.

Cold status quo

Much of the world is under the mistaken impression that Israel is a democracy. It is not, and it never really has been. But any last vestige of it disappeared during the 15 years Netanyahu was prime minister.

Netanyahu abhors real democracy, because it permits his rivals to exercise the power he arrogates to himself alone. Taking a page from the Trump/Maga playbook, ahead of the vote, Likud designed social media and political messaging to cast doubt on the integrity of the electoral system. Thus, in the event of victory, Netanyahu could cast himself as the leader to save Israel from catastrophe; in the event of defeat, he could rail against the corruption and fraudulence of Israel’s entire political system.

As another French king, Louis XV, said: “Apres moi, le deluge.” Netanyahu wants to sow chaos during his rule, allowing him to step forward as the nation’s saviour.

But the election results do not bode well for Israel’s relations with the US, where Congress members have expressed misgivings about the extremist composition of Netanyahu’s coalition. One way to circumvent such opposition would be to appoint less-objectionable far-right figures to key posts, avoiding the lightning rod of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.

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Netanyahu has not had good relations with Democratic presidents, including Joe Biden, who is famously pro-Israel, and who has said: “If Israel did not exist, we would have to invent it.” I don’t expect we’ll hear those sorts of Hosannas in future. And I wouldn’t expect any invitations to the White House.

This new Israeli government will depress American Jewish support for Israel and embolden progressive Democrats, already restive over attacks by the Israel lobby. We can expect increased calls to limit or end the $3.8bn annual US aid package to Israel. Congressional weapons packages may encounter even stronger opposition.

A cold status quo suits Israel just fine. It preserves frigid relations with the Palestinian Authority, refusal of negotiations, and continued settlement-building and theft of Palestinian lands.

Western nations, including the US and UK governments, must respond to this outrage. They must denounce the entry of outright fascists into government, and declare Smotrich and Ben-Gvir to be personae non grata, refusing them entry into their countries. If every democracy in the world were to shut its door, this would be a powerful statement of resistance to tyranny.

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