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As Netanyahu Nears Victory, Israel’s Extremist Parties Celebrate

Benjamin Netanyahu’s near-certain victory in this week’s election in Israel won’t be confirmed until Thursday, but his far right allies are already savoring their rise to power.

Benjamin Netanyahu, right, in Jerusalem on Tuesday. With about two-thirds of the vote counted, Israel’s three main broadcasters were projecting that Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, would finish first. [Amit Elkayam for The New York Times]

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s once and likely future prime minister, was forced to wait on Wednesday after taking an almost insurmountable lead in Israel’s election, as officials delayed calling the election until all votes were counted.

But regardless of Mr. Netanyahu’s personal fate, his far right allies were already celebrating. The election result places their once-marginal groups and extreme ideologies at the heart of Israel’s discourse and political system.

An alliance of two religious ultranationalist parties, Jewish Power and Religious Zionism, will form the third-largest bloc in the next Israeli Parliament, giving the far right newfound power, influence and respectability. Jewish Power’s ideological antecedent was once shunned by Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud. Now, Mr. Netanyahu is almost certain to welcome its lawmakers into his government.

Domestically, analysts fear that would set the stage for spiraling interethnic tensions and a potential constitutional crisis. Internationally, it would risk straining Israel’s relations with its supporters and benefactors, like the United States, or new Arab partners like the United Arab Emirates. And it would challenge any remaining pretense that Israel seeks to preserve the possibility of a Palestinian state.

In the occupied West Bank, the alliance wants to accelerate Jewish settlement and remove any semblance of Palestinian autonomy. In Israel, it wants to overhaul the justice system, give politicians greater control over judicial appointments and weaken checks and balances on lawmakers.

“They want to change the system itself,” said Tzipi Livni, a former Israeli justice minister, in an interview. “Change the nature of Israeli democracy.”

Supporters of Mr. Netanyahu celebrating at Likud’s headquarters in Jerusalem on Tuesday. [Amit Elkayam for The New York Times]

The leader of Religious Zionism, Bezalel Smotrich, has described himself as a “proud homophobe,” said Jewish property developers should not have to sell homes to Arabs and supported segregated maternity wards for Arab and Jewish women.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Jewish Power’s leader, seeks to grant legal immunity to Israeli soldiers who shoot Palestinians and deport rival lawmakers he accuses of terrorism. Until recently, he hung a portrait in his home of Baruch Goldstein, who shot dead 29 Palestinians in a West Bank mosque in 1994.

As a teenager he was barred from serving in the Israeli Army because he was considered a security threat. He was subsequently convicted several times, including for incitement and support for a terrorist group. Recently, he described Meir Kahane, an extremist rabbi who wanted to strip Palestinian Israelis of their citizenship, as his “hero.”

“The time has come for us to be the landlords of our country,” Mr. Ben-Gvir said in a speech hours after the election.

In a brief statement to The New York Times before the election, Mr. Ben-Gvir said he had “no problem, of course, with the minorities here” — only with “whoever is a terrorist, whoever commits terror.” He has also sought to distance himself from Mr. Kahane, describing himself as his own man.

Mr. Netanyahu could also unexpectedly persuade some of his centrist opponents to join his coalition, ending his dependence on Mr. Ben-Gvir. Hours after the election on Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu sought to play down his opponents’ fears, promising to build “a national government that will look after everyone.”

But many are unconvinced: Since 2019, Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly helped forge electoral alliances between far-right groups, including Mr. Ben-Gvir’s, that at the time would have struggled to enter Parliament alone. His interventions helped validate Mr. Ben-Gvir and gave him a bigger platform at a time when his profile was limited.

Now, members of Israel’s Arab minority, which forms about a fifth of Israel’s 9 million citizens, are frightened.

Mr. Ben-Gvir’s visits to a Palestinian area of East Jerusalem gave momentum to unrest last year that then spiraled into an 11-day war between Hamas and Israel. He has regularly returned to the neighborhood since, and last month encouraged police officers there to open fire on Palestinians.

“Friends, they’re throwing rocks at us,” he said, pulling out his handgun. “Shoot them.”

“We feel threatened,” said Bashaer Fahoum-Jayoussi, a chairwoman of the board of the Abraham Initiatives, a nongovernmental group that promotes equality between Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens.

“We feel somehow that this vote is targeted, among others, against Palestinian citizens of Israel, and against Arab-Jewish partnership,” Ms. Fahoum-Jayoussi said.

“It is a very dark moment,” she added.

A polling station in Bnei Brak, Israel, on Tuesday. Regardless of Mr. Netanyahu’s fate, the results already constitute a watershed victory for a far-right alliance. [Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times]

The far right’s strong showing was linked to a corresponding fear among right-wing Jews.

When an independent Arab party joined an Israeli governing coalition in 2021, for the first time ever, it raised hopes of deeper Arab-Jewish partnership among some Jews and Palestinians. But to other Jewish Israelis, it was perceived as a threat to Israel’s Jewish character, just as a wave of interethnic riots earlier last year unsettled their sense of security.

Jewish Power’s rise was partly fueled by “a growing perception that public safety is palpably threatened since the 2021 riots, and that Jewish dignity is trampled by the presence of an Arab party in the coalition,” said Ofer Zalzberg, director of the Middle East Program at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute, a research group in Jerusalem.

Tomer Cohen, 46, a bus driver who voted for Mr. Ben-Gvir’s bloc, cited those security fears. “I want a Jewish state and not a state of all its citizens,” Mr. Cohen said.

Some analysts play down the most extreme aspects of Jewish Power and Religious Zionism’s platform and background, accepting at face value Mr. Ben-Gvir’s recent statements of moderation.

Their judicial proposals would simply bring Israel into line with other liberal democracies, said Avi Bell, a professor of law at the University of San Diego and Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, and also a senior fellow at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum.

“None of them are new, almost every one is recycled, and they are mostly proposals made by people on the liberal left over the years,” Professor Bell said.

Others said that the far right’s rise was hardly unique to Israel. Shlomo Avineri, a veteran political scientist and longtime critic of Mr. Netanyahu, compared the far right movements in Israel to those in the United States, Italy and Scandinavia.

“We are part of the world,” Mr. Avineri said. “We are in good bad company.”

But to some critics, there is something distinct about the Israeli far right that reveals something specific about Israel.

Odeh Bisharat, a Palestinian Israeli columnist for Haaretz, a left-leaning broadsheet, wrote on Wednesday that Mr. Ben-Gvir was not an outlier but an outcome of Israel’s 55-year occupation of the West Bank, which had gradually normalized the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that Mr. Ben-Gvir believes in.

“Ben-Gvir did not appear out of nowhere,” Mr. Bisharat wrote. “He is the legitimate son of a violent reality — oppression, land grabbing and incitement.”

If there was a silver lining to Mr. Ben-Gvir’s rise, Mr. Bisharat said in an interview, it was that it would be impossible for Israelis to disown Mr. Ben-Gvir, now that he seems likely to enter government.

“Now the mask has fallen,” Mr. Bisharat said.


(c) The New York Times 2022


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