If a prize was to be awarded for the most important yet least reported story in the media in 2022, it might well go to the news outlets that failed to report on the escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians, which is now combining with the likely impact of the incoming far-right government in Israel.
The explanation for the neglect is domination of the news agenda by the war in Ukraine and, more culpably, fear by part of the media that any criticism of Israel will be attacked as anti-Semitic. This attitude is more common today in Britain than the US, while the reverse used to be the case.
The latest grim episode in this extremist shift in Israel came this week when prime minister designate Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded in forming a governing coalition in which many senior posts will be filled by religious and ethno-nationalist zealots.
‘A government of darkness’
The membership of Netanyahu’s new cabinet reads like a list of ingredients guaranteed to deepen repression of the Palestinians and divide Israeli society. Openly anti-Arab ministers are given enhanced security powers over Palestinians. Anti-secularists will set the rules for secularist Israelis. Judicial restraints will be curtailed.
“He managed to assemble a government of darkness,” tweeted Avigdor Lieberman, a secular nationalist politician and former ally of Netanyahu on the news of the new coalition agreement.
What makes the ultra-nationalism of the new government so potentially explosive is that it takes office when Israeli-Palestinian relations are becoming more confrontational by the day. Some 150 Palestinians and 31 Israelis have been killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem this year. Israeli police on Friday shot dead an Israeli-Arab who is alleged to have rammed them with his car in central Israel after first opening fire. A day earlier, a Palestinian was mortally wounded when Palestinians exchanged fire with Israeli soldiers who entered Nablus on the West Bank to escort Jewish worshippers to a site known as Joseph’s Tomb in the Palestinian city.
The new Israeli cabinet
Netanyahu, in winning a majority in the general election on 1 November, has normalised the presence of religious and nationalist fanatics at the centre of Israeli government. Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of the Jewish Power party, is to be security minister – a newly created post placing him in charge of the national police force.
A religious settler from Kiryat Arba close to the West Bank city of Hebron, Ben Gvir was convicted in the past on charges of inciting racism and supporting terror. He is notorious for threatening Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s life just a few weeks before the latter was assassinated in 1995, and for hanging in his home until recently a photograph of Baruch Goldstein, who shot dead 29 Palestinians as they worshipped in Hebron in 1994.
Other ministers in the new Israeli cabinet include Bezalel Smotrich, a West Bank settler leader who believes Israel should annex the occupied territory, and is set to receive widespread authority over West Bank settlement construction. Previously he has supported the segregation of Jews and Arabs in Israeli maternity wards, governing Israel according to the laws of the Torah and for Jewish property developers to refuse to sell land to Arabs.
‘A total mess’
Under new legislation he is to get enhanced powers on the West Bank that were previously held by the Defence Ministry. Another Netanyahu ally, Avi Maoz, who is head of a small religious, anti-LGBTQ faction, is to control parts of the country’s national education system. Only in the last few weeks have the implications of what is happening in Israel and the occupied territories begun to sink in abroad. In an article titled “What in the World is Happening in Israel?”, Thomas L Friedman, the most influential of American columnist writing on Israel, concludes that the arrival of Netanyahu’s ultrareligious, ultranationalist government is combining with long term political, demographic and social trends to produce chronic instability at every level.
“If you ask me,” he writes, what “is the most likely outcome [of the present situation] – a total mess that will leave Israel no longer being a bedrock of stability for the region and for its American ally, but instead, a cauldron of instability and a source of anxiety for the US government.”
Netanyahu is playing down such dire predictions, claiming “I didn’t hand over great powers in Judea, Samaria, the West Bank, not at all. In fact, all the decisions will be made by me and the defence minister.” Significantly, this calming declaration was swiftly followed by a row-back admitting that Netanyahu was indeed transferring authority on the West Bank, notably on settlement construction and policing, to his far-right coalition allies. The confusion about who is in charge confirms Friedman’s thesis that a great and dangerous “mess” is in the making. Netanyahu insists that he can restrain his extremist partners and has done so in the past. But that may actually be his problem as his new cabinet colleagues regard him as wholly untrustworthy and likely to renege shamelessly on pledges and alliances whenever it suits his interests. They will make every effort to show that they exercise real authority under the coalition agreement which explains why it took so long to negotiate.
But it is not only the suspicions of his coalition partners that may make Netanyahu’s devious manoeuvring less effective than in the past. History has moved on for both Israelis and Palestinians. The two-state solution has long been a sham, with half a million Jewish settlers on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. The pretence that this option still has life in it, so far as it ever did, is simply a convenient piece of hypocrisy enabling the US and European powers to pretend that diplomatic progress is feasible.
Violence and force
The political reality is that for decades the balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians has been so skewed in favour of the former that many Israelis – and non-Israelis – no longer believed compromise to be necessary. Yet, in one crucial respect, perception of Palestinian weakness was deceptive, because the Palestinians today make up slightly more than half the 14 million people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Divided geographically between the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and Israel itself they may be, but in practice this separation creates multiple points of possible friction, each of which might detonate into protests and resistance.
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