Conceding to extremists, Netanyahu hatches intolerant, alienating, vulnerable Israel
OpinionGuest Columnist

Conceding to extremists, Netanyahu hatches intolerant, alienating, vulnerable Israel

He is giving toxic provocateurs more power than they could have imagined and is set to take a wrecking ball to our judiciary. It’s a recipe for disunity and national weakness

Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich (R) with the party’s spiritual adviser Chaim Druckman in 2022. (Courtesy via The Times of Israel)
Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich (R) with the party’s spiritual adviser Chaim Druckman in 2022. (Courtesy via The Times of Israel)

Day after day, as he negotiates the staffing and agenda for his incoming coalition, Benjamin Netanyahu is openly preparing to turn Israel from a remarkable democracy, the only one in the region — with all the healthy strains of a powerful political echelon rubbing up against the brakes of a liberal judiciary — into something approaching untrammeled rule by a narrow, relatively homogeneous, hardline majority.

Day after day, he is concertedly awarding ever more power to extreme ideologues who he and we all know will abuse it.

His conduct since his Nov. 1 election victory is shocking, indeed incomprehensible — even taking into account the complications of forging a government among radical, emboldened egotists. And the consequences are potentially devastating.

What we are witnessing, in short, is a moment of destiny for Israel, a moment of drastic, fateful, fundamental change.

The three incendiary provocateurs
With the simply unthinkable imminent appointment of Itamar Ben Gvir as the minister of national security, Netanyahu has agreed to place a reckless, oft-convicted rabble-rouser in charge of Israel’s police force.

Less than two years ago, even though he had himself brokered the political merger that would enable Ben Gvir to enter the political mainstream and become a member of Knesset, Netanyahu recognized that the Otzma Yehudit leader was “not fit” for ministerial office. Ben Gvir’s views and activities — as a Kahanist disciple who had spent years urging the expulsion of Arab Israelis; who had kept a picture of Baruch Goldstein, the Hebron mass killer, on his living room wall; who had been excluded from IDF service because of the danger he posed as a young provocateur known for boasting in a TV interview, as he brandished the Cadillac symbol ripped off Rabin’s car, that he and his circle could “get to” the soon-to-be assassinated prime minister — were manifestly incompatible with responsible governance.

Now Netanyahu is days away from giving Ben Gvir control over the very police force that arrested him, investigated him and saw him convicted in 2007 of the crimes of support for a terrorist organization and incitement to racism, a force whose commander accused him of fanning the flames of 2021’s deadly Arab-Jewish violence in Israel’s mixed cities and East Jerusalem.

Moreover, the terms of their deal will reportedly see Ben Gvir entrusted with more authority than any previous minister of police, with a capacity to influence policy and priorities, and thus potentially undermine the independence of the force, in breach of existing laws and codes. The Knesset will thus have to pass fresh legislation in order to empower him.

It remains unclear whether this pyromaniacal figure, who urges eased open-fire rules for the security services, has pushed for full Jewish prayer rights atop the Temple Mount, and whose party’s last known published manifesto called for annexing the West Bank without giving Palestinians voting and other rights, will also be given control over Border Police units that operate in the West Bank, as he has demanded.

Already, Ben Gvir is utilizing his ostensible new legitimacy by undermining and challenging Israel’s military establishment, campaigning this week against the IDF’s punishment of a soldier who taunted a left-wing activist in Hebron.

Netanyahu is also negotiating to install Bezalel Smotrich, an arguably still more uncompromising far-right ideologue, as minister of finance, having initially entertained the notion of making him minister of defense. Again, the conferral of such significant responsibility on so dependably incendiary a political activist ought to be beyond consideration.

Smotrich was held for three weeks by the Shin Bet Security service for an alleged terrorist plot — to target Israeli drivers on the Ayalon Highway — in protest of 2005’s Gaza disengagement. A self-described “proud homophobe” who helped organize a so-called Beast Parade against the Jerusalem pride march, he too wants to annex the biblical Judea and Samaria without anything resembling equality for Palestinians, is hostile and dismissive to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, and ultimately seeks to turn Israel into a theocracy, its judicial system based on the laws of the Torah.

In the run-up to the Nov. 1 elections, Smotrich presented a detailed program for judicial reform that would render the High Court of Justice toothless, both by neutering justices’ capacity to protect individual rights from assault by the political majority of the day — with the so-called override clause — and by giving the governing coalition sufficient votes on the selection committee to choose those judges in the first place.

As in the case of Ben Gvir, it remains unclear whether Netanyahu will also grant Smotrich his outrageous demand for the remaking or dismantling of the Civil Administration that oversees the disputed West Bank. The changes that Smotrich seeks, and seeks to oversee, in this context — via the transfer of authority over the Civil Administration from the Defense Ministry to his command — would appear to represent de facto annexation, and would render Israel more vulnerable than ever before to international criticism, censure and potential sanction, to the delight of its enemies and despair of its allies.

Finally, among the ultra-nationalist ideologues, Netanyahu has negotiated to establish an authority for “Jewish identity,” based in the Prime Minister’s Office, to be headed by Avi Maoz, the sole Knesset member from the tiny Noam faction, who has the support of just a few tens of thousands of Israelis and who only squeezed into parliament thanks to the Netanyahu-brokered alliance on the far-right.

Maoz’s new authority will have an initial NIS 100 million budget (some $29 million), rising to NIS 150 million in year two, and a staff of 15. Under the published terms of the coalition deal, the homophobic, anti-pluralist and anti-Arab Maoz will, deplorably, be handed control over outside programming in the nation’s schools, giving him direct responsibility for some of what is taught — a function hitherto, naturally, filled by the Education Ministry. This arrangement was denounced by the outgoing education minister on Wednesday as “a moral disgrace.”

Maoz and Noam are also deeply hostile to non-Orthodox Judaism, making the notion of entitling Maoz as the deputy minister in charge of Jewish identity for the government of Israel particularly alienating for the millions of non-Orthodox Jews around the world, many of whom feel immensely connected to Israel.

Common to all three of these “religious Zionists” is the malignant, un-Jewish misconception that being the “chosen people” indicates that we are somehow better than and entitled to oppress inferiors — Judaism as supremacism. But Judaism is not a supremacist religion. Our tradition, rather, is that we have been entrusted with a code of moral behavior that we are obligated to live by and disseminate, at the heart of which, to quote Hillel, is the imperative: “That which is hateful unto you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary.” To quote Netanyahu himself, asked by Bari Weiss in an interview on Wednesday whether he believes the Jewish people are chosen: “Yes. In the sense that we have brought to the world the idea of morality.”

Many of the policies that Ben Gvir, Smotrich and Maoz advocate are a direct negation of Hillel’s core principle, of authentic Judaism. Now, these three are aiming to implement them.

Neutered judiciary, empowered ultra-Orthodox politicians

There is more, much more, playing out with bewildering speed, and with potentially ruinous consequences — for Israel as a democratic state, for Israel as the homeland for all Jews, for Israel as a strong economic force, for Israel as a unified nation, for Israel as a nation capable of defending itself in this hostile region. So rapidly are new arrangements and new demands being unveiled in recent weeks, with such far-reaching impact, indeed, that it has become difficult to even keep track.

In his negotiations with the two ultra-Orthodox parties, for example, Netanyahu has reportedly agreed to cement the exclusion of ultra-Orthodox males from military service, with no requirement for alternative national service either. Long sought by Haredi politicians who evidently want to consign their constituents to lives of hardship and poverty — and to betray the Orthodox Jewish tradition where the community supports the brightest would-be Torah scholars and the rest fulfill the obligation to work for a living and provide for their families — this blanket exclusion has been struck down by the High Court as discriminatory. Once the aforementioned override clause is in place, however, there would be no impediment to the legislation.

Many non-ultra-Orthodox Israelis have long railed against the inequality — objected that they and their children risk their lives to protect the country in mandatory military service while the ultra-Orthodox do not, and that their taxes are channeled to subsidize a sector of the electorate many of whose males don’t go to work. (The Likud has also reportedly agreed to a request from the ultra-Orthodox parties to sharply raise the stipends that the state grants to yeshiva students, to a sum that is slightly higher than soldiers in non-combat units receive.) The entrenchment and full application of that arrangement can only widen the fissures between ultra-Orthodox Jews and other Israelis, with perilous implications for Israeli unity and resilience, including as regards the near-consensual current readiness among non-Haredi Israelis to perform military service.

Moreover, Netanyahu had promised ultra-Orthodox leaders even before the elections that he would provide government funding for ultra-Orthodox schools that do not teach a core curriculum including math and English — thus denying many young ultra-Orthodox Israelis the skills to find fulfilling employment even if they want it.The ultra-Orthodox leaders, some leaders on the far-right, and Israel’s two, state-funded chief rabbis, meanwhile, are pushing with increasing fervor to amend Israel’s Law of Return, which grants the automatic right to citizenship to those with at least one Jewish grandparent. The amendment they seek — and which Netanyahu’s Likud is said to be opposing — is to remove this so-called grandchild clause, so that the right to citizenship would be largely limited to those who are halachically Jewish — that is, via matrilineal descent.

Again, forgive the repetition, this should be simply unthinkable, since it constitutes a betrayal of a foundational Israeli purpose — the Jewish state preparing to close its doors to would-be citizens who see themselves as members of the Jewish people, and who are often persecuted as such.

Netanyahu has reportedly already agreed to a demand from his nascent coalition allies to revoke the High Court ruling that recognizes, for the purpose of citizenship, conversions to Judaism in Israel performed under the aegis of the Reform movement. He is also being asked by them to back legislation enabling gender separation at state-funded public events.

Exuding weakness
Scrutinizing the looming likely demolition of so many of Israel’s core components by the wrecking ball of the nascent Netanyahu-led coalition, what is so mystifying is that the alarming appointments he is about to make, and the damage he and his ministers are about to inflict, are not being inescapably imposed upon this most canny and skilled of politicians. Instead, he is conceding more prominent positions to the leaders of his allied parties, awarding them more authority, and consenting to more legislative changes, than the political reality necessitates.

This recalls the same kind of baffling weakness that saw him abandon the solemnly negotiated “Western Wall compromise” in 2017, when under resistible ultra-Orthodox political pressure — except now to vastly more drastic effect. (An oft-advanced assertion that Netanyahu is heavily influenced in his dealings with the ultra-nationalists by his son Yair, who takes provocative public positions well to his father’s right, is too disturbing to contemplate.)

Ben Gvir might not be rushing to join Netanyahu’s government at any cost, but he would not have required additional powers as police minister in order to sign on. His dizzying ascent to a ministerial post where he gets to control the force — an outrageous turn of events, and one to which the Netanyahu of less than two years ago would not have consented — would have been more than sufficient.

Smotrich is a resolutely obdurate campaigner — whose refusal to join a coalition that relied on support from the Arab Islamist Ra’am party condemned Netanyahu and his allies to the opposition after the 2021 elections — and would always be a tougher negotiating adversary. But Netanyahu veritably invited Smotrich to maximize his demands, immediately after the elections, by signaling that his previously stated intention to keep the Defense, Treasury and Foreign ministerial portfolios in the hands of the Likud party no longer held. Since those most prominent jobs were now on offer, Smotrich unhesitatingly went for the Defense post, and when this proved unreachable he is now playing hardball for the Treasury job, plus those far-reaching Civil Administration responsibilities.

As for Maoz, who directly represents almost nobody but alienates almost everybody, his single vote is no make-or-break for Netanyahu’s coalition, and he could have been offered almost any take-it-or-leave-it position. Yet it merely required him to publicly complain that Netanyahu had yet to negotiate with him, and hours later he was sitting face-to-face with the presumed incoming prime minister. And rather than fobbing him off with a minor position, Netanyahu chose to confer upon him the “Jewish identity” role — granting a title indicating an oversight role for all Jews in Israel, with implications for all Jews everywhere, to a hitherto marginal figure whose views are anathema to the overwhelming majority of our nation.

Breaking faith with his own personal history
Yes, Netanyahu has become more hawkish over the years, as have many Israelis since the Second Intifada, amid the rise of Hezbollah and Hamas in territories vacated by Israel and in the face of abiding Palestinian rejectionism. And yes, Netanyahu has plainly been marked by his corruption trial, convinced that he has been unjustly indicted for actions he either denies outright or insists do not constitute wrongdoing.

But Netanyahu was always a great Israeli patriot — the scion of a devotedly Zionist family, who lost his heroic, beloved brother in military action at Entebbe, and himself performed courageous, life-threatening military service in the IDF’s most elite unit. And he is not Israel’s longest-serving prime minister by accident; for three years in the 1990s, and for an extraordinary 12 years from 2009 to 2021, he led this country with sufficient skill and popularity as to retain the support of a majority of the electorate, and to remain, in survey after survey after survey, by far the favored choice for prime minister.

He did not shrink from the use of force, but he was no military adventurer.

Though advocating at least partial annexation of the West Bank — some 30% including the Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley — he froze that plan when it became clear the Trump administration would not support it. And he deep-froze it, albeit with considerable reluctance, in order to embrace what became the Abraham Accords, Israel’s 2020 normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and (still a work in progress) Sudan.

He also respected the independence of Israel’s judiciary, and pledged to defend that independence, knowing that in an Israel with no constitution, no bill of rights, a parliament that a homogeneous coalition can utterly dominate, and no term limits on its leaders, a robust and effective judiciary is a vital brake on government excess and abuse, an essential element in our democracy’s delicate system of checks and balances.

Netanyahu is adamant that the concerns about the direction he is about to lead Israel, and about the objectives of those he is empowering, are unfounded. “I’ve often heard these doom projections, but none of them materialized,” he told Weiss on Wednesday. “I maintained Israel’s democratic nature. I maintained Israel’s traditions. Israel is not going to be governed by Talmudic law. We’re not going to ban LGBT forums. As you know, my view on that is sharply different, to put it mildly. We’re going to remain a country of laws.”

But Netanyahu has already weakened Israel’s democratic hierarchies by battering away at the police and state prosecution, and deepened Israel’s internal rifts with his relentless demonization of his political opponents. The coalition whose agreements he is now finalizing, the ministers he is about to elevate to powerful office, and the agenda he is setting and enabling, are impossible to reconcile with his latest assurances, and break faith with so many of the principles at the core of his military and political careers.

He is the ex-Sayeret Matkal (IDF special reconnaissance unit) officer preparing to entrust a new, expanded National Security Ministry to an inflammatory upstart whose main security and police expertise is as a criminal convict. He is the commander-in-chief who contemplated giving an expansionist idealogue and terrorism suspect the ultra-sensitive Defense portfolio. He’s the secular Jew sending Israel down the road to theocracy at the urgings of ultra-Orthodox and hardline Religious Zionist proponents. He’s the declared democrat readying to dismantle the pillars of democracy with an override clause that neuters our judiciary. And that’s a radical “reform” he doesn’t even clearly need in order to complete his coalition (the justices are unlikely to intervene if the law is changed to enable Shas’s Aryeh Deri to return as a minister despite his suspended jail term) or to escape his trial (the justices would be unlikely to intervene if, as they intend to, his colleagues abolish the charge of “fraud and breach of trust” at the heart of all three cases against him).

What Netanyahu is concocting is not the “normal” preparation for a new government, with leaders and an agenda at odds with the preceding, defeated coalition. It is, rather, a recipe for an unrecognizable Israel — more internally divided; much less democratic; more religiously intolerant; more male-dominated; its “people’s army” no longer as consensual and above politics; self-defeating in its potential policies regarding the Palestinians, and at odds with much of Diaspora Jewry. It is a recipe for a self-defeating Israel which, if carried through to its full potential excesses — and I stress if — risks rendering the country unsustainable as it descends into internal discord, deepening regional friction, fraying international support, and mounting diplomatic, economic and military pressure.

All of this is frankly unfathomable. Yet it is unfolding before our very eyes. Only Netanyahu can prevent it. Yet it is Netanyahu who is choosing to hatch it. PJC

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of “Still Life with Bombers” (2004) and “A Little Too Close to God” (2000), and co-author of “Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin” (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

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