The New Israeli Government damages Jewish National Interests

Last Friday, the Likud signed an agreement with the Kahanist party, Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), to give it an expanded range of responsibilities in the new government, covering the Public Security Ministry, the Development Ministry for the Negev and Galilee and a Jewish Heritage Ministry.

It is likely that Itamar Ben-Gvir will now run the Israeli police. He has moved from the periphery, as a participant in the incitement against Yitzhak Rabin before his assassination and part of the far-Right community of activists from which Yigal Amir emerged, to the heart of government.

The new representatives of Otzma Yehudit in the Knesset will be given posts in Netanyahu’s sixth administration. Almog Cohen, who remarked that “we have learned from Putin what leadership is”, will become a deputy economy minister. Yitzhak Wasserlauf, who has suggested that the Reform Movement has “brought enormous destruction to American Jewry”, will take the Negev and Galilee portfolio.

Amichai Eliyahu, who will head the Jewish Heritage Ministry, has periodically condemned the LGBTQ+ community. Zvika Fogel, the former head of Southern Command, will become chair of the Internal Security Committee. He famously made a distinction between Jewish and Arab stone throwers: “An Arab who throws a stone at a soldier should be shot in the head; a Jew who throws a stone at a soldier should be educated.”

Avi Maoz, the solitary representative of the Noam party component of “Religious Zionism” in the Knesset, opposes the inclusion of women in the IDF. He also wants the abolition of the Yeholam unit, an advisory group on womens’ rights in the army because it introduces “foreign” values into the IDF. 

Any agreement with Bezalel Smotrich’s party will probably see the transfer of control of the West Bank Civil Administration, responsible for construction, infrastructure and security coordination as well as any illegal outposts. The 500,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank will no longer be the responsibility of the military. Similarly, it appears that responsibility for the Mishmar HaGvul, the Israeli Border Police, will be transferred from the IDF to Ben-Gvir’s new ministry.

Will Israeli protests and demonstrations in the West Bank now be subject to Ben-Gvir’s whims? Last week, two IDF soldiers, members of the Tzabar battalion of the Givati Brigade, were suspended for beating up an Israeli protester, a member of the veteran religious organisation Bnei Avraham, in the Tel Rumeida district of Hebron. The observant protester was told: “Ben-Gvir will make order here … all you do here is finished”. One soldier was suspended, the other, sentenced to ten days imprisonment. Ben-Gvir, in response, attacked the decision to condemn the soldiers’ actions.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that many Diaspora communities are apprehensive about all these developments. The inclusion of Kahanists in the government of Israel will undoubtedly accentuate the widening gap between a liberal Diaspora and an illiberal Israel. This will concern American Jews, who have continually voted for the Democrats since the New Deal of President Roosevelt in the 1930s. Many remember the bitter clashes with the erratic and unprincipled New Yorker Meir Kahane during the 1960s.

The views expressed by Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are seen as totally inimical to normative Jewish values as understood in the broadest sense in the Diaspora. In Britain, the doughty Dame Margaret Hodge MP, the nemesis of Jeremy Corbyn and the Corbynistas, has voiced her concern for Israeli democracy. Even conservative elements within Jewish communities, usually docile and silent, are now beginning to talk openly about this situation.

Like Ben-Gvir, Smotrich took part in the protests of the far-Right in 1995 before Rabin’s murder. Smotrich was involved in the roadblock demonstrations in the summer of that year and was held for six weeks by the authorities.

When Smotrich visited Britain last year to galvanise support for his world outlook, he was told by the Board of Deputies of British Jews that he exuded “despicable views and a hateful ideology”. He was told in no uncertain terms to “get back on the plane and be remembered as a disgrace forever. You are not welcome here”.

Individuals affiliated to Bnei Akiva, however, did meet him in London. Ohad Tal, the Secretary-General of World Bnei Akiva, was elected as the 12th slot on the Religious Zionism ticket. This brought howls of protest from within the international youth organisation and calls for him to resign — all this signified the deepening division within religious Zionist circles.

Some 40 members of the pro-Netanyahu bloc are orthodox Jews — 61% compared to 17% of the Israeli population. Yet the Netanyahu bloc vote actually decreased by almost two per cent compared to the last election in March 2021. Netanyahu understood that every single Right-wing vote counted.

In his view, no party should falter at the 3.25% threshold for Knesset representation. The three parties of the far Right — National Union-Tkuma, Otzma Yehudit and Noam — came together under the brand name of “Religious Zionism” and won 14 seats. A few days ago, this alignment was disbanded and the parties went their own way. The Kahanist Otzma Yehudit boasts six seats in the new Knesset. In contrast, 289,000 anti-Netanyahu bloc votes were lost because they did not amalgamate for the sole purposes of getting elected.

All of this came about because religious Zionists had lost their political home. In the absence of the defunct Yamina of Naftali Bennett, the traditional adherents of the National Religious Party were little more than shipwrecked victims in the political firmament, awaiting salvation. Bezalel Smotrich proved to be that saviour. He seemed to be the politician who could offer a familiar political home to religious Zionists despite his periodic outlandish and often reactionary comments.

There was also a sense that there have been security lapses as evidenced by the two bombs in Jerusalem recently. This dovetailed with the unease that Bennett was willing to sit in a government with the Left and the Islamist Ra’am. This was not what religious Zionists voted for. So they held their noses and voted in droves for Religious Zionism. Even religious kibbutzim voted for Smotrich and Ben-Gvir; 30% of the vote of Kibbutz Sa’ad went to Religious Zionism.

Just last week, Ben-Gvir spoke at a memorial meeting for Meir Kahane in Israel and praised his work for Soviet Jewry — for whom he did surprisingly little. At the Brussels Conference for Soviet Jewry in February 1971, Kahane turned up unannounced to proclaim himself an apostle of radical action for Soviet Jewry — and many young Jews were taken in by his inflammatory rhetoric. Many in the US saw his Jewish Defence League as the answer to the infirmity of Jewish leadership.

In contrast, Jewish students in Europe 50 years ago strongly opposed Kahane and this may be a portent of the shape of things to come whenever Ben-Gvir speaks publicly to Diaspora audiences — if, of course, governments allow him to enter their countries despite his past incitement to violence. Young Diaspora Jews will organise and demonstrate — they will not be bystanders.

It is significant that the Union of Jewish Students in the UK has pointed out the double standards on maintaining a studied silence: “We feel compelled to vocally denounce the potential inclusion of far-Right ministers within the next government of Israel … if we as a community call out the far Right in Britain and elsewhere, we must not turn a blind eye to the far Right in Israel.”

This is also great dismay in the Diaspora that Netanyahu will put into practice his long-held desire to enact a libertarian approach to governance — that he should not be constrained by rules and laws. If he succeeds in his stated aim of marginalising the judiciary and making it subservient to political control, he would remove a system of checks and balances which keeps executive power in place. As Dina Zilber, a former attorney-general, sarcastically told the Israeli media: “Let’s have obedient advisers, castrated artists, a bridled media and a disciplined nation.”

There is also the possibility that Netanyahu’s trial in Jerusalem will be overturned and that his government in future will appoint judges to the Supreme Court rather than the current system of a committee of legislators, judges and lawyers. The tyranny of the majority can clearly enact a hammer blow to democracy as Ben-Gvir desires. Last week, 130 lecturers and faculty members of Israeli law schools signed a petition of protest.

It will be recalled that Ariel Sharon was shunned by successive US administrations, choosing not to meet him in official locations. There are concerns that the next Netanyahu coalition will be far more ideological than the centre-Right/far-Right government of Yitzhak Shamir between 1990-92. And there have already been warnings from the Biden Administration and specifically Secretary of State Blinken about a future descent into acrimonious US-Israel relations.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Diaspora Jewry will be how to present Israel to the general public. The Teheran daily, Kayhan, claimed that Iran’s 6-2 defeat by England in the World Cup was due to its team’s deep unease caused by the machinations of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

While this can be ridiculed to the applause of all, the presence of Itamar Ben-Gvir in an Israeli government cannot be so easily dismissed. It is a bountiful gift to the BDS campaign worldwide. Public relations on behalf of Israel will logically have to promote alternatives to Netanyahu, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir to ensure support for the state of the Jews. We are all “Peace Now” now.

On another level, it seems that in other countries we have been witnessing the first signs of a pushback against the propagators of populism. Trump has fared badly in the mid-term elections, Putin is being confronted by Zelensky’s forces which have retaken Kherson, and Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have been confined to the rubbish heap of history.

Netanyahu’s return to the prime minister’s office bucks this trend. Many Jews around the world hope that his tenure in office will be extremely brief. However, this will not be attained by private handwringing and public statements. The Diaspora should work concretely and methodically in an active political sense to openly oppose figures such as Ben-Gvir and Smotrich — their presence in an Israeli government damages the national interests of the Jewish people worldwide.

Plus61j 2 December 2022

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