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Netanyahu Assembles the Most Racist, Extremist Cabinet in Israeli History. How Did This Happen?

The rise of Itamar Ben-Gvir and his fascist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party shocked the world. But this development in Israeli politics was a long time coming.

Ben Marenlensky

December 21, 2022
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An Israeli soldier casts an early vote at an army base near the Israeli Kibbutz Kerem Shalom near the border with Gaza Strip, October 31, 2022
Image: AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

After a brief hiatus in the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party won the November 1 election and are now in talks with the other right-wing parties to form a coalition government. Netanyahu, considered center-right in Israeli politics, has a history of working with far-right politicians, including those openly calling for genocide. However, his sixth government is shaping up to be the most racist, extremist government in Isdraeli history, in large part due to his inclusion of Itamar Ben-Gvir, a notorious legal defender of far-right terrorists. Until 2020, Ben-Gvir hung a photo of Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinians in a Hebron mosque in 1994, in his living room.

Ben-Gvir leads the Otzma Yehudit party, the ideological descendants of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahane was so extreme that he was banned from the Israeli Knesset in 1988 and his Kach party was deemed a terrorist organization by Israel, the EU, Canada, and until recently, the United States. However, Otzma Yehudit has been running in Israeli elections since 2013 and finally gained a seat in 2021. This year, they ran as part of an electoral alliance with the Religious Zionist Party led by Bezalel Smotrich, and Noam, a minor party led by Avi Maoz. The alliance won an unprecedented fourteen seats (including six for Otzma Yehudit), making them the third-largest faction in the Knesset. The Labor Party, once a dominant force in Israeli politics, has been reduced to four seats, and the social-democratic Meretz has been wiped out of the Knesset entirely.

During coalition talks, some speculated that Netanyahu might try to form a coalition with the “centrist” parties — Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid and National Unity led by Benny Gantz — out of fear of rebuke from the Biden administration. However, any hope for a “normal” Israeli government proved to be illusory. Netanyahu not only offered Ben-Gvir his preferred position of Public Security Minister, he expanded the portfolio to include oversight of the Border Police in the West Bank. Other Otzma Yehudit members were given control of the Negev and Galilee Ministry, the newly-created Heritage Ministry, Deputy Economy Minister, and other positions. Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich was given the position of Finance Minister, which he said he’ll run according to Jewish scripture. Netanyahu didn’t need to include Noam in the coalition, but created a new Jewish Identity Ministry anyway to include Avi Moaz, who campaigned on banning Pride parades and increasing gender segregation at public events.

Considering Israel’s brutal treatment of Palestinians even under “center-left” governments, the prospect of an Israeli government with Kahanists in the cabinet is truly nightmarish. Ben-Gvir is already proposing extremist policies, such as relaxing open-fire regulations to allow IDF soldiers to shoot anyone holding a rock or Molotov cocktail. Last October, during one of his provocations in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, he brandished a gun and encouraged Israeli police to shoot at Palestinians throwing rocks, just one night after threatening to “mow them down” himself. Even though he claims to have “moderated” his views (he only supports deporting “disloyal” Arabs instead of all of them), his appointment is bound to have explosive consequences.

How Did We Get Here?

Liberal Zionists were shocked by Ben-Gvir’s rise, some claiming that this isn’t “my” Zionism, or that Ben-Gvir’s views run “contrary” to Israel’s core principles. However, just as Trumpism didn’t simply appear out of nowhere, Ben-Gvir’s rise was an inevitable result of long-term processes in Israeli society. The Zionist movement always had an uneasy relationship with fascism, opposing it in many cases for obvious reasons, but also signing the Haavara Agreement with Hitler to transfer thousands of German Jews to Palestine. Zionist organizations like the Board of Deputies of British Jews were some of the only Jewish organizations to oppose the global boycott of Nazi Germany.

At the time, most Zionists considered themselves Labor Zionists or “practical” Zionists, and many supported a binational state with the Palestinians. Right-wing Zionists who wanted maximum territorial gains for Israel were deemed “revisionists” and condemned to the fringes of the Zionist movement. Under the leadership of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, they formed the paramilitary organization Irgun, which bombed the King David Hotel in 1946. They collaborated with the even more extreme Lehi (which at one point sought an alliance with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany), to carry out the Deir Yassin massacre, killing upwards of 107 Palestinians. The Revisionist Zionists performed poorly in early Israeli elections, never winning more than 14% of the vote until 1965.

Despite the dominance of Labor in early Israeli politics and general support for minority rights throughout the Jewish world, the Zionist colonization of Palestine — including the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 — ushered in its own logic that profoundly affected the consciousness of Jewish workers. Instead of struggling against bosses and landlords, it became possible for Jews to acquire land and resources by settling Palestine and expelling the local population. In these conditions, it wasn’t international class solidarity, but racism, militarism, and support for US imperialism that came to predominate. The Histadrut, Israel’s main federation of trade unions, played a key role in this project. Under the banner of “Hebrew Labor,” they violently removed Arab workers from cities and replaced them with Jewish workers.

The struggle between settlers and local residents intensified when Israel conquered the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), the Golan Heights, Sinai Peninsula, and Gaza in 1967. Israelis were encouraged to claim as many hilltops as possible, then the military would come to protect them. Today, there are over half a million Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories, and make up the main voting base for Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit. Just like Manifest Destiny in the United States and the Great Trek across South Africa, the settlement of the West Bank didn’t foster class solidarity, but bitter hatred between Israeli settlers (who view Palestinians as an obstacle) and Palestinians struggling for existence. It has a conservatizing effect across all of Israeli society, as many Israelis — from Haifa to Tel Aviv to Eilat — have family in the West Bank or otherwise feel solidarity with their nation-building project.

The “peace camp” Zionists have proved themselves completely incapable of responding to these developments. The Oslo Accords satisfied no one, as they only gave the Palestinian Authority certain administrative privileges without ending the occupation. Just nine months into its implementation, Israeli support for the Oslo I Accord dropped to 35%, and on November 4, 1995, a far-right Zionist assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The “peace process” has only gone downhill since.

Today, no one realistically believes the two-state solution is on the horizon, and the idea is opposed by the majority of Israelis and Palestinians. In their struggle for relevance, the “peace camp” Zionists resigned themselves to try and make changes around the margins, but even this proved outside their grasp. The ideologically incoherent anti-Netanyahu coalition that formed last year was wracked with chaos and collapsed after a single member quit. In August, they bombed Gaza incessantly, killing 49 people including 17 children. Conditions didn’t improve for Israeli workers either, with rent soaring 10% in a single year. It’s no surprise that Israel’s working class and youth have turned away from these parties, searching for “anti-establishment” alternatives on the far-right.

Where To Go Now?

Today, 49% of Israelis support Ben-Gvir’s appointment as National Security Minister, with only 46% opposed. 64% of Israelis support his legislation to deport those “disloyal” to Israel. Last year, 72% of Israelis supported Israel’s bombing of Gaza. The Israeli left barely exists, and its demands are usually limited to cost-of-living questions. As Left Voice previously reported, Netanyahu has expertly used the occupation to diffuse these protests, arguing that if you can’t afford rent in Tel Aviv, you should settle the West Bank.

In this situation, socialists should avoid economistic slogans like “Israeli and Palestinian workers unite and fight.” Even though all workers broadly share an interest in fighting capitalism, the day-to-day reality of the occupation pits Israeli workers against Palestinians and gives them land in exchange for carrying out its expansionist agenda. A Palestinian might understandably not want to “unite” with Israelis if their main interaction with them is through the barrel of a gun. As an oppressed nation, the needs and demands of Palestinian workers should be placed front-and-center.

In the same vein, socialists shouldn’t shy away from radical slogans like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” for fear of alienating Israeli workers. The slogan is an expression of Palestinians’ desire for freedom from Israeli state violence, no matter how many Zionists claim it’s a call for genocide. It’s not socialists’ job to bend to Israeli workers’ worst prejudices, but to raise the working class’s consciousness and explain that a free Palestine isn’t a threat to Israeli workers, only capitalists and their collaborators who profit from and enforce apartheid. As the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine put it, the goal is to “create a people’s democratic Palestine, where Arabs and Jews would live without discrimination, a state without classes and national oppression, a state which allows Arabs and Jews to develop their national culture”.

Liberals wish for a return to the old Zionism, where politicians would offer humanistic phrases while carrying out ethnic cleansing. Now, the mask is off, and Zionist rhetoric is as racist as its policies have always been. There is no turning back — “peace camp” Zionism is gone for good. In this situation, we need to recover the radical anti-Zionist traditions of the early Palestine Communist Party, the 1936 Palestinian general strike, and later developments such as Matzpen. They warned where this settler-colonial project would lead. Netanyahu’s extreme-right cabinet is a rotten fruit grown from a rotten tree, one that needs to be cut down at the root. 

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