Extreme Takeover: Why Many Are Calling Israel's New Government the 'Most Racist' in History

News & Politics

With the announcement that hard-right Avigdor Lieberman would soon use his powerful position as Minister of Defense in the Israeli cabinet to advance additional anti-democratic legislation, members of the old Israeli political establishment could scarcely contain their apprehension. “Lieberman is the new Kahane,” read the title of an op-ed by a former two-time Israeli minister, a reference to the founding father of Israel’s first fascist party.

Israel is not a democracy anymore,” lamented the former Speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, at a huge protest in Tel Aviv, the heart of the Israeli left. At the same mass rally, a liberal lawmaker called the coalition the “most racist government in Israel’s history” and assailed the leader of the centrist Labor Party for his willingness to work in partnership with Netanyahu. About 15,000 citizens answered the call of organizers that night, assembling for a raucous “Emergency march: Standing up for democracy while we still can.”

But that was over five years ago. The former Israeli minister who called Lieberman the “new Kahane,” Yossi Sarid, is now dead. The liberal lawmaker who named Netanyahu’s government the most racist in history, Nitzan Horowitz, has since retired from parliamentary politics. Today, warnings of the increasing racism pervading Israeli society and guiding its populist leaders come not from members of the left-wing Meretz Party, but rather from decorated Israeli generals, including many notorious for their involvement in atrocities against Palestinians.

In a Holocaust Memorial Day speech three weeks ago, the Israeli army’s deputy chief of staff warned that the country was beginning to resemble Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Last week, the army’s former chief of staff resigned his post as defense minister, claiming that the country had been taken over by extremists. And on the weekend, a third former chief of staff, defense minister and prime minister responded to this resignation with the charge that Israel “has been infected by the seeds of fascism… and it’s just the beginning."

That these ominous warnings are emerging from trusted alumni of Israel’s security establishment and not the country’s few remaining bleeding heart liberals demonstrates how the national discourse has shifted to the hard right, and how the Israeli left has disintegrated into insignificance.

The progressives who organized a protest this past Saturday night against Lieberman’s imminent admission to the coalition only managed to draw about 300 participants. This figure amounted to only one-50th the size of the crowd that the Israeli left had fielded in Tel Aviv to demonstrate against Lieberman’s anti-democratic machinations back in January 2011.

Since that time, Israeli citizens have gone to the polls twice more to elect Knesset representatives, in 2013 and 2015. At each opportunity, people have voted in a government even more racist than the last. Last week, Netanyahu announced he would expand his slim coalition by reintroducing Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party to the government, increasing its racist quotient even further.

Filmed West Bank shooting put chain of events in motion

In recent years, Netanyahu doubled funding for Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank, and ordered the demolition of Bedouin villages within Israel so that Jews-only townships could literally be built atop their ruins. He rounded thousands of non-Jewish African refugees into desert detention centers and deported thousands more back to the tortures they fled from. He launched two separate full-scale attacks on Gaza, killing over 1,000 civilians, including hundreds of women and children while reducing much of the territory to ruins.

Despite all of these developments, Israel has continued to enjoy the enthusiastic backing of its premier patron, the American government. Even when Netanyahu publicly declared on the eve of the most recent national election that he opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, Washington continued ahead with fantastical plans to reignite the long-dead “peace process.”

The Obama administration is now offering to increase U.S. military aid to Israel from $3 billion a year to a whopping $4 billion a year, but the signing of the deal has been delayed due to Netanyahu’s refusal. Indeed, the prime minister has demanded that the record figure be increased up to $5 billion a year.

If it were not for the intrepid actions of a humble shoemaker two months ago, grumblings about the government’s incessant march to the far right would still be left to Palestinian activists, their international allies and progressive Jewish partners who are dismissed by Israeli leaders as self-haters and worse. As a witness to a horrendous but all too common scene, the Palestinian resident of the West Bank city of Hebron set off a chain of events that would remove the mask from the Netanyahu government and expose the extent of Israel’s downward spiral.

On March 24, Imad Abu Shamsiya captured on high-quality video an Israeli army medic executing in cold blood an injured and immobilized Palestinian man who presented no physical threat to anyone around him. When the damning footage Abu Shamsiya had passed on to human rights campaigners went viral, careening through the foreign media, it exposed a political rift that has apparently been brewing for some time in the Israeli government. This past weekend, Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of Israeli daily Haaretz, called the video “the dynamite that blew up the Netanyahu-Yaalon government."

Israeli reactions to the execution removed the mask of liberalism

During the first 48 hours following the video’s release, the incident held the attention of foreign media outlets. Put on the spot to defend Israel’s undeserved reputation as a democracy that respects human rights, Netanyahu first condemned the killing.

But as global interest dwindled, Netanyahu reversed course, publicly empathizing with the shooter and his family. The traditional base of Netanyahu voters began taking to the streets to express solidarity with the medic, and leaders of Knesset factions to the right of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party began openly advocating on his behalf. As prominent hawks demanded amnesty for the medic while their rank-and-file embraced him as a hero, Likud loyalist and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon resisted the far-right rhetoric and continued to condemn the medic’s actions.

To be sure, Yaalon is not now and has never been a leftist, not by a longshot. As army chief of staff, he compared Palestinians to a cancer that must be treated with chemotherapy, and as defense minister he supported segregating West Bank buses by race and religion. Serving in Netanyahu’s cabinet, he called the Israeli anti-settlement activists of Peace Now a “virus” and accused the army whistleblowers Breaking the Silence of committing “treason.” Worst of all, Yaalon personally directed Israel’s merciless 2014 attack on Gaza, Operation Protective Edge.

How could such a man suddenly find distasteful the execution of a single Palestinian, especially one who was accused of attacking Israeli soldiers before he was felled and later killed?

Condemning the medic-executioner enabled Yaalon and other members of Israel’s old guard to profess egalitarian values and portray themselves as civilized, even while their hands dripped with Palestinian blood. In the words of Mekomit Magazine analyst Haggai Matar, the difference between the Israeli officials like Lieberman who support the actions of the medic-executioner and those who oppose his actions like Yaalon is the following:

“The former already dropped all the masks, the pretension to ‘purity of arms’ and ‘enlightened occupation’, while the latter want to return to the days in which you could both rule over millions of human beings under a military regime and also feel like a light unto the nations. To both operate separate legal systems and send children to the army, to kill and be killed in the name of the settlements, and for those kids to also not be racist, heaven forbid. To continue all of that, and to also not be criticized for it by the international community.”

Yaalon eventually came to the defense of the army deputy chief who had compared rising racism in Israel to Germany in the 1930s and doubled down on his dissent by encouraging army brass to go public with their ethical concerns, even if they aren’t shared by the government of the day.

To quash internal resistance, Netanyahu announced that he would terminate Yaalon as Defense Minister and replace him with Lieberman, a far-rightist whose open hatred of Palestinians and eagerness to expel them from the country, if not outright execute them, is well-known and well-documented.

Lieberman named Defense Minister-in-waiting, Glick made Member of the Knesset

Like the rest of the coalition government’s non-ultra-Orthodox partners, Lieberman was a Netanyahu protege who eventually emerged from under his boss’s wing to found his own party, a vehicle for votes that could be brought under Netanyahu’s premiership in exchange for important ministerial appointments.

When Israelis last went to the polls in the spring of 2015, multiple members of Lieberman’s party were under investigation for using the powerful positions they had been appointed to for their own economic interests. On election day, Israeli voters reduced the party’s representation in the Knesset by more than half, from 13 seats to just six. At that time, Lieberman’s weakened hand and damaged image made him a less desirable political partner. But after just a year on the opposition benches, the voting pubic seems to have forgotten all about Yisrael Beiteinu’s financial scandals.

As a condition for his inclusion, Lieberman has demanded that the government agree to implement the death penalty—only for Palestinians, never for Jews. And though his voter base is fiercely secular and often disenfranchised by religious rules that forbid citizens who aren’t full-blooded Jews from marrying, Lieberman has agreed to forego his civil marriage bill and give in to Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners on matters of synagogue and state. Lieberman’s arrival will compound Netanyahu’s already anti-Palestinian policies, and it won’t slow down the government’s gallop toward religious fanaticism.

An apocalyptic messianist enters government

Yaalon’s decision to quit the Knesset altogether means he will be replaced in parliament by the next legislator on the Likud list: Temple Mount activist Yehudah Glick, who counts himself a member of the Likud’s hardline “Jewish Leadership” faction. During Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, the faction’s leader called to ethnically cleanse the strip of Palestinians and for Jews to recolonize it in its entirety.

But even more frightening than Glick’s territorial ambitions are his dominionist initiatives. In recent years, Glick has been the public face of a vigorous political campaign to expand Jewish access to the al-Aqsa mosque compound, considered the holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina, and the last place in the country which is still nominally controlled by Muslims. Glick skillfully depicts this demand as a modest push for Jewish prayer rights, while he passionately preaches for a Jewish temple to be built on the hallowed ground and for daily animal sacrifices to replace those Jewish prayers.

While mainstream Orthodox Judaism holds that the construction of a Jewish temple on that same site where another Israelite temple existed 2,000 years ago can only follow from an act of god, radical messianists hope to jumpstart that process. In recent years, Glick has worked with Miri Regev, a right-wing stalwart who currently serves as Culture Minister, and many more hardline lawmakers to increase the Jewish presence on the mosque compound, hoping to create a critical mass of support for a plan to apply full Jewish control over the site.

The constant forays by Glick and his followers into the Al Aqsa compound, usually under the guard of Border Police who restrain and attack Palestinian protesters, has helped bring tensions in Jerusalem to a boiling point and played a critical role in inspiring the ongoing Palestinian rebellion.

While Israel’s deposed Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon was neither a friend of Palestinians nor a partner for peace, his departure signals the end of an era in which Israeli leaders could have at least been expected to mouth platitudes about the military’s moral code. Now Netanyahu must contend with his new coalition members, from the demagogic Lieberman to the zealot Glick.

Just before his swearing in as a new member of Knesset, Glick took another trip to the Al Aqsa compound. In a private meeting, Netanyahu pulled Glick aside to express his anxiety: “This is the last time you do this to me,” the prime minister exclaimed.

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