Israel’s far-right ultranationalists have become the new power brokers. For the foreseeable future, the government of the Occupation State will include openly fascist parties. The likes of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich are likely to be handed important ministerial positions that will further entrench Israel’s illegal occupation. Nevertheless, despite their ascendency, the all too familiar “double denial” essential to preserving support for Israel, is unlikely to cease any time soon.
There has been some outrage and concern but nothing to suggest a change in Western policy towards Tel Aviv. “The whole world is worried,” Israeli President Isaac Herzog said following the news that Ben-Gvir will be appointed minister in the new government expected to be led by Benjamin Netanyahu. According to the Guardian, Herzog’s statement was caught by a microphone that he apparently thought was off as he held consultations with an ultra-Orthodox political party about the next government.
“You have a partner who the entire world around us is worried about. I have also said this to him [Netanyahu]. This is really not for publication. I don’t want to cause problems,” Herzog said at the end of the meeting. “You are going to have a problem with the Temple Mount. That is a critical issue,” Herzog said, referring to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
Herzog’s concern stems from a recent meeting with US Secretary of State Tony Blinken and the national security adviser where he was told that the administration of President Joe Biden is unlikely to engage with Jewish supremacist politicians like Ben-Gvir. It’s worth stressing that Israel is not suddenly a more racist state as Herzog’s concern perhaps suggests. The party to which Herzog belongs came last and only managed to win four seats. The general trend in Israel has been that while parties which profess to favour peace with Palestinians have become politically insignificant, Jewish supremacists have been on the ascendency for decades to now become the major power brokers.
It’s also worth stressing that the concerns expressed by the Israeli president are less to do with the seemingly permanent foreclosing of peace and more about the embarrassment felt by so-called liberal Zionists of having to defend a state led by ministers that openly call for ethnic cleansing and expulsion of non-Jews from historic Palestine. The likes of Herzog have been useful in presenting the more palatable face of Israel’s founding ideology to the rest of the world. They have been instrumental in disguising the racist and settler-colonial spirit at the heart of Zionism.
Redemption was meant to come in the form of peace with the native Palestinian population. But the contradiction at the heart of Zionism has always meant that in the tug of war between democracy and human rights on one side and the preservation of Jewish supremacy on the other, ethnonationalism was always going to win. The wall-to-wall consensus amongst human rights group that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid should have been a wakeup call. But instead, what we saw since the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) published their reports is further indication that when it comes to Israel and Palestine, supporters of the Occupation State would rather bury their heads in the sand than face reality.
Perhaps the political ascendency of Jewish Power may shake supporters of Israel in a way the apartheid label has failed to. Indications are that for some sections of the Jewish community in the diaspora, that is indeed the case. The Jewish News described the election results as its “worst fears” coming true. “Never in the Jewish state’s history has hatred wielded such power,” the paper said, adding: “Over the coming months we will likely see Israel do things that, if it were any other country, we would condemn without hesitation.”
Its Editor Richard Ferrer described the results as a watershed moment so much so that it would alter the nature of Zionism. “Theodor Herzl must be turning in his grave,” he said. “The Jewish Diaspora wants a modern, inclusive and diverse Israel it can be proud of. Giving bigots, who violate basic human decency, influence in government will alter Zionism and the Jewish world’s relationship with the Jewish state in ways we can only imagine.”
Ferrer went on to suggest that there was no place left to hide for liberal Zionists. “It pains me to suddenly occupy the same space as those who are looking for any excuse to obsessively bash Israel,” he acknowledged. “But that’s where socially liberal Zionists find themselves today – standing in opposition to Ben-Gvir and Smotrich and screaming, ‘not in our name.’ Our conscience, our love for the Jewish state, demands we speak out, even if our cries are taken advantage of by the usual suspects.”
The shock and upset expressed by Ferrer were not universal. “Britain’s bond with Israel will outlast the far-right,” said the Jewish Chronicle, adding: “It is not for us to demand how Israelis vote or to make pre-conditions on our support for Israel.” Pro-Israeli commentators also downplayed the ascendency of ultranationalists in Israel by arguing that the rise of Jewish Power is part of a global spike in support for far-right politics. “Israel is not the only country to have veered towards the far right – this is not an isolated thing,” JC Editor Jake Wallis Simons is reported saying. “You can continue to support Israel while condemning some of its politicians.”
While it’s tempting to compare the rise of Jewish Power in Israel to similar trends across the world, the two are not the same. Immigration, rising crime, culture wars pitting minorities against each other and the lack of economic opportunity, are generally accepted as the reason for the rise is populism in Europe, US and elsewhere. This cannot be said for Israel. Right-wing populists, like India’s Narendra Modi, exploit these social and political cleavages to be more like Israel, an ethno-nationalist state. No major political party in Israel questions this basic ethno-nationalist structure of the country, not even Herzog or the so-called peace camp. Israel from its very founding has instituted laws that are accepted by the left and the right of the country. Elsewhere the very same issues are heavily contested by parties across the political spectrum.
“In Israel today, the political battle isn’t between group supremacy and equality under the law,” as US columnist Peter Beinart argues, “It’s over how group supremacy can best be upheld.” Pretending that the debate between the left and right is the same in Israel as it is elsewhere is not only shameless, it is dishonest as it is deceitful.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.