Coalition negotiations continue in Israel after the fifth election in less than four years. And the signs are ominous for the future of Israeli democracy, for women’s equality, for religious pluralism, for LGBTQ+ rights, for peace and for coexistence.
Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist party, will be a major player in the new government, as will the leaders of two parties with whom he ran in an electoral slate: Itamar Ben Gvir, head of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), and Avi Maoz, head of the religious extremist faction Noam.
Smotrich will apparently have unprecedented influence over the growth and governance of West Bank settlements. The explosive issue of “who is a Jew” – which determines eligibility for immigration under the Law of Return – will fall in part to Maoz, who wants to delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions and narrow the parameters under which an immigrant is permitted under the Law of Return from grandchildren of Jews to those born to Jewish parents. In addition to determining Jewish identity, Maoz has a preoccupation with homosexuality and has promised to ban Pride Parades and oppose equality for gay Israelis. (Netanyahu has said he won’t allow Maoz to diminish gay rights.) Netanyahu has promised to hand Maoz control over a NIS 2 billion budget (about $790 million CDN) for “external programming” in public schools.
Yair Lapid, the outgoing prime minister, railed against this allocation.
“If we don’t stop them, Avi Maoz and his unenlightened gang will put unenlightened, racist, extremist, misogynistic and anti-LGBT content into our children’s schools,” said Lapid.
Ben Gvir and his party call for the expulsion of Arabs they deem disloyal and he has suggested that the anti-Zionist religious sect Neturei Karta should be put “on a train.” Ben Gvir’s party advocates the absorption of the West Bank which, by necessity, would eliminate either the Jewish identity or the democratic nature of Israel – and we do not need to speculate on which Ben Gvir would be willing to discard.
The three horsemen have endorsed banning public transit and sports on Shabbat, eliminating a department that promotes women in the military, and snatching the power to appoint judges from a nonpartisan panel and putting it in the hands of politicians, in addition to a host of other far-right policy fetishes.
“This Israel is not going to be governed by talmudic law,” Netanyahu said in defence after attacks on his coalition agreements. This is precisely the direction his partners are headed, however, and the very fact that he was moved to make such a disclaimer is proof of how dangerously close the new government will be to crossing a religious-secular divide that the pioneers of the state consciously erected.
The jigsaw puzzle parliament is not Netanyahu’s fault – any prime minister was going to have to cobble together a mismatched majority. What is Netanyahu’s fault is the particularly rancid aspects of the coalition. Seeing the unlikelihood of the most hateful and divisive minor parties reaching the electoral threshold in the previous election cycle, Netanyahu personally intervened to urge them to band together to get into the Knesset. An historical precedent is worth reiterating: when the fundamentalist Rabbi Meir Kahane was elected to the Knesset in 1984, the entire chamber stood up and walked out when he spoke. By contrast, when Kahane’s ideological descendants were facing electoral oblivion in 2020, Netanyahu stepped in to help ensure their success. There are many cases in Israel (and other divided parliamentary democracies) where the extremist tail wags the more mainstream dog. In this case, to mix canine metaphors, the ostensibly mainstream leader laid down with dogs and woke up with fleas.
The controversies in Israel have already swept across the ocean. Diaspora Jewish communities are aflame in concern and condemnation. The longstanding divides between Israeli and Diaspora Jews are already being exacerbated – and the new government hasn’t even been sworn in.
The most stalwart voices of Diaspora Zionism are issuing warnings. Abe Foxman, longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, came out of retirement to harrumph that his support for Israel is not unconditional. The usual suspects in the anti-Israel camp are crowing that their prognostications have proved spot-on. But, more worrying, are middle-of-the-road Jewish and non-Jewish voices who are looking at developments and wondering what it is they defend when they defend Israel. The multi-partisan support Israel has largely enjoyed in the United States, Canada and some other places will be further challenged by Israel’s nationalist, anti-pluralist and generally extremist policies.
In this space, we have repeatedly said that it is up to Israelis alone to determine what defence strategies are necessary to preserve life and limb against terrorist and other threats in Israel. It is Israelis who put their lives and the lives of their children on the line in national defence.
That exclusivity does not extend to policies like teaching homophobia in schools or limiting the role of women in the military – and it certainly doesn’t extend to policies, like the Law of Return, that directly affect Diaspora Jews.
People who care about the pluralist, democratic, inclusive Israel that was dreamed of and built by generations who came before us have a right – an obligation, in fact – to rail against what appears to be on the horizon for the country we care so deeply about, are invested in so much, and count on for Jewish safety and survival.