Faced with criticism on whether the United States should trumpet its “unbreakable bond” with an incoming Israeli government headed by fascist parties, lawbreakers and homophobes, the Biden administration has squirmed.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken observed defensively this month that Washington would “gauge the government by the policies and procedures, rather than individual personalities”.
What suffering might have been avoided had the US previously been prepared to judge Israel based on policy? Not least, the necessary pressure might have been exerted to prevent 2022 from becoming the bloodiest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2005.
US administrations have been only too ready to accept from Israel’s leadership any security rationalisation or placatory promise
But, despite what Blinken says, Israeli governments are never held to account for policy, whether it be illegal settlement-building, the 15-year siege of Gaza and its regular bombardment, or house demolitions in East Jerusalem.
Instead, US administrations have been only too ready to accept from Israel’s leadership any security rationalisation or placatory promise – and declare the most unlikely Israeli prime ministers “peacemakers“.
But Blinken’s observation was preposterous for a further reason.
How exactly can the “personalities” in the new government – the most religious and far-right in Israel’s history – be divorced from its policies?
Consider one such “personality” in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition. In a recent interview with Channel 4, Zvika Fogel not only demanded the scrapping of “proportionality”, the cornerstone of international humanitarian law, but then specified: “If it is one Israeli mother crying, or a thousand Palestinian mothers crying, then a thousand Palestinian mothers will cry.”
Fogel’s view is not surprising. He belongs to the fascist Jewish Power party. Before he became a politician, he served in several senior roles in the Israeli military, including being in charge of Southern Command, which covers Gaza. Over the years, he enjoyed plenty of scope to implement his worldview.
A tight leash?
It is not clear yet whether Fogel will get a government job. But his boss in Jewish Power, Itamar Ben-Gvir, certainly will.
Netanyahu needs to keep sweet Jewish Power and its sister parties: Religious Zionism and Noam. Running together, they won the third-largest tally of votes in last month’s general election. Despite wide support, they represent the interests of the most unhinged, violent elements within the settler movement.
Until this electoral upset, Ben-Gvir was best known for repeated incidents of thuggery and racist incitement.
He has been filmed attacking Palestinian shopkeepers in Hebron and brandishing his personal firearm at Palestinians. In 2007, he was convicted of supporting a terror organisation, the outlawed Kach party of the virulent anti-Arab racist Rabbi Meir Kahane.
Ben-Gvir averted any danger of a second conviction by rebranding Kach as Jewish Power. Now the terror organisation is in government.
Netanyahu understands only too well that he has embarrassed his US superpower patron by getting into bed with openly fascist parties.
This is why last week he did his best to play along with Blinken’s pretence. “Coalitions make interesting bedfellows,” Netanyahu told the US radio station NPR, adding: “They [Religious Zionism] are joining me. I’m not joining them.”
He argued that Ben-Gvir had “modified a lot of his views” since his 2007 conviction – and that in any case, as prime minister, Netanyahu would keep him on a tight leash.
“With power comes responsibility… I certainly will ensure that that will be the case,” he reassured.
Except that is not how it has looked from the way the coalition negotiations have unfolded – not in the least. Netanyahu needs Ben-Gvir propping up his government far more desperately than Ben-Gvir needs to serve as a nondescript rightwing cog, or a placeholder, in another Netanyahu government.
This is going to look like no other Netanyahu cabinet. The new prime minister will be far weaker, far less dominant than the Netanyahu we are used to.
Give away the store
Netanyahu’s top priority is subverting the Israeli legal system so that his current trial on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges can be brought to a halt. A conviction and jail sentence would finish his political career.
Religious Zionism shares Netanyahu’s goal. They want to destroy what they consider a “leftist” Supreme Court, leaving the way unimpeded to create an even more strictly Jewish society, both religiously and ethnically.
But whereas Netanyahu is looking out chiefly for himself, Ben-Gvir is a zealot. He campaigned on a promise to shake up Israeli politics and drive it even further to the ultra-nationalist, religious right. Given his self-cultivated image as a fearless political bruiser, Ben-Gvir cannot be seen backing down.
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