News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - War / Peace - Israel Israel: Cracks in the Facade

Some 75 years after the state’s founding, many Israeli citizens fear for their country’s democracy



Markus Bickel,

In the so far largest demonstration against the newly elected right-wing government in Israel and its anti-democratic plans, some 80,000 people were on the streets in Tel Aviv on January 14, 2023.
Some 80,000 people took to the streets of Tel Aviv on 14 January 2023 in the largest demonstration against Israel’s new right-wing government to date. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

The word echoed over and over again across Tel Aviv’s Habima Square: “De-mo-cra-ti-ya! De-mo-cra-ti-ya!” Tens of thousands of Israelis were protesting in mid-January for the second consecutive Saturday evening against the right-wing religious government’s accession to power. Under umbrellas, they set about presenting the positive side of Israel to the world — and, perhaps more so, to themselves — for at least one evening.

Markus Bickel directs the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Tel Aviv Office.

Translated by Joseph Keady and Gráinne Toomey for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

The new government, which was sworn in on 29 December 2022, consists of six ministers from a multi-party alliance of three smaller far-right parties that are homophobic, racist, and anti-Palestinian, nine ministers from the ultra-religious parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and 15 ministers from Benjamin Netanyahu’s national-conservative party Likud. They are bound together by their contempt for the judiciary and the separation of powers. Critics such as Yael German, who resigned from her position as Israeli ambassador to France in protest, accuse them of rejecting “democracy, human rights, and the rule of law”.

All pretences have been abandoned, however, with two key ministries in Netanyahu’s sixth cabinet since he was first elected prime minister in 1996 now led by far-right pro-settlement leaders. Itamar Ben-Gvir of the party Jewish Strength and Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionist Party are the two most powerful men in the new ruling coalition after Netanyahu.

Of the government’s 30 ministers, six belong to the far-right Religious Zionism settler bloc and nine are members of ultra-orthodox parties. That brings the number of ministerial posts held by right-wing religious figures to 15 — the same number of cabinet posts as Likud. For the first time in Israel’s history, secular representatives do not have a majority in the ruling government.

This represents a fundamental test for a country built on a compromise made in 1948, just before the state was founded, between the religious and nationalist Zionist factions that defined the status quo. It is one of the reasons why the descendants of Israel’s founding Zionist generation took to the streets in Tel Aviv. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated against the government on the first two weekends after it took power in late December. The optimists among them hope that the democratic movement will keep growing.

A Decade of Right-Wing Agitation

A closer look at a decade of right-wing agitation supported by Netanyahu raises doubts about such optimism.

Despite the fact that his Likud party did not have a majority in parliament between 2009 and 2021, Netanyahu’s cabinets became increasingly intolerant until Yair Lapid, the current Leader of the Opposition, was able to bring together enough of his centrist and right-wing opponents to push him out of office. However, Lapid’s “Change” government did not remain in power for long. The experiment lasted from June 2021 to December 2022, and only came about because Mansour Abbas of the conservative Islamic United Arab List joined the Jewish centre-right coalition.

There are no Israeli-Palestinian politicians in the new government. Even Netanyahu, who is now regarded as a moderating force, has designated them as an “existential threat” bent on “annihilating us all” in the past. Netanyahu has been a crucial driver behind the debasement of the 1.9 million Palestinian Israelis. The Nation State Law, passed by the Knesset in 2018, ensured that Arabic would be abolished as an official state language. This led many young Palestinian voters to choose to boycott elections.

Like the leaders of authoritarian Arab states in the region, Netanyahu regards governing as a winner-take-all scenario: whoever prevails in the elections gets everything, the opposition nothing. This is another reason why the liberal middle class took to the streets of Tel Aviv.

The key impetus behind the protests is their anger about the fact that their own taxes will be used to expand the religious sector. Ultra-orthodox figures such as Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri of Shas has taken an axe to the already segregated education system, with the aim of giving preferential funding to religious schools and ending the expansion of classrooms in secular institutions.

Finance and Security Ministries in the Hands of the Right

In early January, more than 150 mayors from across the country signed an urgent letter to Netanyahu in response to these measures. Leaders in the military-industrial complex are also worried; hundreds of former officers recently expressed concern that Ben-Gvir’s takeover of the Ministry of National Security represents a national security risk.

The 46-year-old Jewish extremist was barred from joining the army when he was 18 because he had been found guilty of incitement to hatred. Now, he is in charge of the border police, which supports the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) enforcement of the West Bank occupation regime. After his visit to the Temple Mount at the start of the year, it is only a matter of time before Ben-Gvir looks for another confrontation with the Palestinian Authority (PA).

All political observers in Israel and Palestine anticipate a third, extremely violent intifada. They only disagree on what form it will take and who will lead it.

For Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, smashing the PA is an explicit goal. He has supported annexing large portions of the West Bank for years. In 2005, he helped lead the violent settler protests against the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip ordered by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Israel’s domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet kept him in custody for three weeks before releasing him.

He became more widely known in Israel a year later when he and a group of like-minded nationalist religious individuals held a bizarre counter-event called the “Beast Parade” in opposition to Jerusalem’s gay pride parade.

Smotrich refuses to negotiate with the PA in Ramallah and denies the existence of a Palestinian people. In the past, he has made various proposals that the Palestinian population be “transferred” to Jordan or other Arab states and that they be expelled by force in order to establish territorial contiguity under Jewish hegemony. When journalists asked him in early January about the economic welfare of the Palestinian Authority, he responded by asking, “Why should I be interested in ensuring their existence while they continue to incite terrorism?”

Hand-In-Hand with Occupation Forces

In his first official act as finance minister, Smotrich reduced taxes on sweetened beverages and disposable tableware. Ultra-orthodox families purchase both in higher quantities than other sections of the population, which has led, on the one hand, to higher rates of obesity in religious milieus and, on the other, to excessive use of plastic plates and utensils on holidays and Shabbat.

Smotrich’s constituents have him to thank for that: roughly 700,000 of them fall somewhere on the nationalist religious spectrum. Unlike the ultra-orthodox, they do not fundamentally reject service in the IDF.

Instead, they work hand-in-hand with the soldiers of the occupation forces to expand settlement outposts in the West Bank — outposts that are illegal under both international and, thus far, Israeli law. As finance minister, Smotrich wants to provide substantial resources to bolster this infrastructure.

A ministry post in the Ministry of Defense was created specifically for him, making him the highest-ranking government official responsible for coordinating the occupation regime with the army and international organizations. This could soon make him the most hated representative of the right-wing government — at least among those Palestinians, Israelis, and international figures who are still hanging onto the goal of a regulated two-state solution.

That is not an objective for the new government. On the contrary, the coalition agreement states, “the Jewish people has an exclusive and unassailable right to all territories in the land of Israel, in Galilee, in the Negev, in Golan, in Judea and Samaria”. Judea and Samaria is the Israeli government’s official designation for the West Bank, where the settler movement has significantly expanded its power in recent years — with the active support of the army and at the expense of the Palestinian population.

Nowhere does the coalition agreement mention negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, the 87-year-old president of the Palestinian Authority.

Given that Smotrich is also in charge of issuing construction permits in the occupied territories, more Palestinians may move out of the West Bank’s Israeli-controlled Area C in the coming years and into Area A, which is administered by the PA. One reason for this is that, between 2019 and 2021, Israeli security forces there destroyed Palestinian houses eight times more frequently than Israeli houses for lack of construction permits. Thus, the likelihood of a viable Palestinian state continues to decline.

Instead, it is a stated goal of the new government to gradually incorporate large portions of Area C, which makes up 60 percent of the West Bank. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir envision 1 million Israelis living there by 2030.

Netanyahu’s prior governments have already invested billions in roads to connect the roughly 132 settlements and 147 outposts with one another, giving rise to a widespread network of privileged infrastructure for Jewish residents on Palestinian land, without any prospect of equal treatment — two legal systems within a single territory.

This development has long since shattered the hope that the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995 held a blueprint for an independent Palestinian state. The reality is a Palestine composed of enclaves that are scarcely economically viable and politically highly explosive — confronted with the power of the far-right settlement movement that is now in control of the government for the first time.

The shock over this historical turning point struck what is at best a cautiously nascent Israeli pro-democracy movement hard — as did the shock of recognizing that the colony was fighting back, more than half a century after the beginning of the occupation. Centrist and even left-wing parties like Meretz and the Israeli Labor Party have been deluding themselves for far too long that they can ignore the boomerang effect on the Israeli heartland from the domination of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem that began in 1967.

It has long been impossible to overlook the warning signs: the Nation State Law of 2018, for example, defined Israel as the “national state of the Jewish people”. After the interdenominational riots in May 2021, it was primarily Israeli-Palestinian rioters who were held legally accountable, not Israeli Jews who had participated. The fact that no Palestinian speakers have yet appeared at the events at Habima Square speaks volumes.

Weakening the separation of powers is also important to Ben-Gvir and Smotrich for another reason: to accelerate the creeping annexation of settlements in the West Bank.

Israel’s middle class is almost completely disconnected from developments in Nablus, Jenin, Hebron, and Ramallah. In recent years, its members have hardly been more determined to keep their daughters and sons from military service, in the occupied territories at least.

A generation that now largely votes for the Right has grown up right before the eyes of veterans of the 1967 and 1973 wars: one in five recruits between 18 and 25 voted for Ben-Gvir’s party Jewish Strength. Its party programme reads like a call for civil war against the Palestinian population, including annexation.

On the night of the Right’s historic victory in November 2022, Ben-Gvir’s supporters chanted “death to terrorists”. Until recently, his home was adorned with a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish extremist who shot and killed 29 Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994.

The Dwindling Left and the End of the Two-State Solution

For the time being, Israel’s once proud Left, which was in government 30 years ago and negotiated the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), has been condemned to irrelevance.

During its year and a half in the coalition government under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his party Lapid, the social-democratic party Meretz threw almost all its principles out the window and opposed neither the construction of additional illegal settlements nor the persistent violence against Palestinian civilians by settlers and the Israeli army. That is in addition to the egotistical manoeuvres by the left flank of the mostly centrist anti-Netanyahu alliance, which came about through a one-vote majority in the Knesset in the spring of 2021.

Their actions cost the ideologically diffuse “government for change”, united under the motto “anyone but Bibi”, control of the parliament — even though Netanyahu’s camp only received about 100,000 more votes out of the 4.5 million that were cast. That loss was also due to the fact that Meretz and Labor watched passively as more settlements were approved in 2021 than in previous years and IDF violence against civilians in the West Bank escalated.

In the meantime, all political observers in Israel and Palestine anticipate a third, extremely violent intifada. They only disagree on what form it will take and who will lead it. The members of civil society who organized the 1987 general strike and months-long protests are now, 35 years later, either worn out by the ongoing occupation or in prison — even in prisons run by the PA, which large swaths of the population regard as stooges of the Israeli occupation.

In the meantime, the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel — a goal that has been pursued since the 1990s — has become an empty phrase for the Zionist Left and definitively settled by the right-wing electoral victory. Meretz failed to get into the Knesset, where four representatives from the social-democratic Labor Party and five for the centre-left, Palestinian-dominated United Arab List now make up the last noteworthy left-wing dissenting voices against the right-wing and centrist mainstream — nine of the Knesset’s 120 members.

The right-wing nationalists will use their parliamentary dominance in their campaign against the rule of law. But weakening the separation of powers through substantial attacks on the various branches of the judiciary is also important to Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Strength and Smotrich’s Religious Zionism for another reason: they are using it to accelerate the creeping annexation of settlements in the West Bank or, to put it another way, to connect previously Palestinian territories to the Israeli heartland.

The over 600,000 Jewish settlers were courted during the election campaign with the slogan “Settlements and Sovereignty”. Now the expansion of Israeli sovereignty has been designated a “battle for Area C” — and that comes after a year with more deadly attacks by occupation forces than any other since the Second Intifada 20 years ago.

The first settlement outposts that were established without official approval may be legalized within the next few weeks. Soon, there will be nothing left of the two-state solution once anticipated by the Oslo Accords.