The rise of the far right will bring Netanyahu back to power. Who are their extremist allies?


Jerusalem
CNN

Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appears poised to return to power, with partial election results suggesting he and his allies have won a clear majority of Knesset seats.

These allies include the far-right Religious Zionism/Jewish Power bloc, which appears to have doubled the number of seats it has, and could make the next government the most right-wing in Israel’s history.

Netanyahu’s other two likely coalition partners are the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party and the Sephardi religious party Shas, which have a long history of being in government. Both have traditionally sought support for their own communities and worked to maintain control of Israel’s religious establishment.

But this would be the first time that leaders of the Zionist/Jewish religious power could have control of government ministries.

The leaders of religious Zionism/Jewish power get much of their support from the settler movement: Jews who live primarily in the West Bank and believe that Jews should control the occupied territories.

Having them in positions of power, such as the ministries of Defense or Public Security, could make Israeli-Palestinian relations even worse than they are now.

Journalist Anshel Pfeffer, who has written a biography of Netanyahu, suggested before the vote that bringing Religious Zionism/Jewish power into government could mean the expansion of settlements, which are considered illegal under international law.

But that may be the price for joining Netanyahu’s coalition, he said.

“Maybe some settlements in the West Bank that were abandoned by Israel in the past, will be rebuilt, reoccupied?” Pfeffer said. “And maybe further steps towards some kind of annexation of the West Bank?”

The leaders of the party are the settlers themselves: Itamar Ben Gvir, who has been convicted of inciting anti-Arab racism and supporting terrorism; and Bezalel Smotrich, who once told Arab members of the Israeli parliament that they were “here by mistake because [Israel’s first prime minister David] Ben Gurion didn’t finish the job and kicked you out in 1948.”

This is when Israel became a state and when many Palestinian families fled or were driven from their homes to the land that became Israel.

Ben Gvir was seen last month brandishing a gun during stone-throwing clashes in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, telling Israeli police to shoot Arabs if they threw stones.

He opened a so-called “office” last year – in fact a small tent – in a patch of scrub in Sheikh Jarrah in order to assert the Jewish presence in the East Jerusalem neighborhood. This is the flashpoint where attempted evictions of Palestinian families by Jewish groups claiming ownership of the land have become rallying cries and symbols for the Palestinian cause.

Clashes there shortly after the tent was set up were one of the triggers for an 11-day war between Palestinian militants in Gaza and the Israeli Defense Forces last year.

A trained lawyer, Ben Gvir has argued settler cases all the way to Israel’s Supreme Court.

His ally Bezalel Smotrich can be just as combative.

He has argued, for example, that people should not hurt themselves when they hate someone.

“The most natural instinct, the most normal instinct of a normal man who loves those who love him and hates those who hate him, is not to turn the other cheek,” he said in defense of a bill that co-sponsored to deny entry. Israel to supporters of Israel boycotts.

When Smotrich talks about men loving men who love them, he doesn’t mean it in a sexual sense.

Smotrich has described himself as a “proud homophobe” and as a young man helped organize an anti-pride event called the Beast Parade, comparing homosexuality to bestiality.

He later told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz through a spokesman that he regretted doing so.

But as recently as September, he said that LGBTQ people deserved no more “recognition” than people who violated traffic laws.

“I want to drive through a red light and I want recognition,” he joked on an Israeli talk show, Haaretz reported.

Smotrich proposes drastic changes to Israel’s legal system and code, including abandoning the state’s ability to indict a public official for fraud and breach of trust.

Netanyahu faces exactly that charge in an ongoing corruption trial

Asked by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria about Smotrich’s proposal, Netanyahu demurred, saying, “I wouldn’t do anything that would affect me. I think my judgment is playing out as it is.”

Current projections show Netanyahu’s Likud party will be the largest in the likely coalition, likely commanding about 32 seats, and the man Israelis call “Bibi” says that means he will be in the driver’s seat .

Last month he told Zakaria that even if he associated with extremist parties, they would not set policies.

“I’ve had these partners in the past and they haven’t changed my policies one iota. I decide policy with my party, which is by far the biggest party in the country. And we’re a centre-right party and a responsible, but we will not adopt rules for government that we do not agree with,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu has not yet returned to the prime minister’s office, although the signs look very good for him.

Votes are still being counted, and the result will not be final until every one has been counted. At that time, election officials will be able to allocate seats to each party that won more than 3.25% of the national vote.

President Isaac Herzog will then give a mandate to form a government to the politician he believes is most likely to be able to build a coalition.

This process has been tortuous in the four elections since April 2019 that preceded this one. But if the latest projections are correct, Netanyahu should have a clear path to a majority government, and the power to move Israel significantly to the right.

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