Liberal Israelis fear for the future of their democracy

IIt took Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Israel’s right-wing Likud party, five elections in three and a half years to form the stable coalition he so desperately sought. As he was indicted in 2019 for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, the country was in a cycle of elections between two groups, the “Yes, Bibi” (Netanyahu’s nickname) and “No, Bibi” blocs, neither of which was able to form a stable government.

But after the last ballots were counted and the results were announced last Thursday, the No Bibi bloc’s concern was no longer that a corrupt politician would once again stand at the head of the state. What now worries liberal secular Israelis everywhere is that the state of Israel may no longer be democratic.

The Yes Bibi bloc won an absolute majority thanks to the stunning success of Religious Zionism, a group of three ultra-right parties with various anti-democratic, Arab-hating, homophobic, religious, Jewish supremacist positions. It grew from six seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset to 15 to become the third-largest list in the Knesset and the second-largest in Netanyahu’s bloc. At the same time, voters pushed the Meretz Party, Israel’s 30-year-old Zionist left-wing party, out of the Knesset. What was left of the Israeli left was practically trampled.

Read more: Thousands of migrant workers have died in Qatar’s extreme heat. The World Cup forced a reckoning

Together with the Likud party and two ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu will soon form the most far-right, ultra-nationalist religious coalition in Israel’s history. Its 64 seats will have only nine female MPs and possibly two female cabinet ministers. The outgoing government had a total of 30 female MPs and ministers.

Israeli commentators have compared the country to Sweden, Hungary and Russia. Actually Victor of Hungary Orban greeted first Netanyahu, while US President Joe Biden did so only on Monday.

Jewish social media is filled with expressions of fear for the future. Many citizens have expressed their desire to leave the country. A meme Taunts about the election result went viral, with one reading: “Remember we’re turning the clock back 2,000 years tonight.” And according to the newspaper Idiot Achronot, Google Trends found that on the day after the election, the most searched terms were: foreign passport; Green Card; emigration; relocation; and “leaving the country”.

Ben Gvir and the legal reforms

Volunteers from the Jewish Power party hand out leaflets at a polling station in Nof HaGalil, Israel, November 1.  (Amit Elkayam—The New York Times/Redux)

Volunteers from the Jewish Power party hand out leaflets at a polling station in Nof HaGalil, Israel, November 1.

Amit Elkayam – The New York Times/Redux

Netanyahu can now breathe easy; since his bloc has an absolute majority, he can easily pass laws. And the Religious Zionist group – made up of the Jewish Power, National Union and Noam parties – agreed to remove from the criminal code the crimes for which Netanyahu is on trial. And there are other plans.

The state publishes its intention to legislate a a bill that would castrate Supreme Court and another that would allow politicians to appoint all judges, essentially ending checks and balances in the judicial system.

“There will be no Supreme Court,” political analyst Raviv Drucker said in a televised interview widely circulated on social media. “It’s becoming an advisory body.”

Itamar Ben Gvir, who leads the Jewish Power party, is the star of the list. A disciple of the Arab-hating Jewish supremacist Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned as a terrorist organization, Ben Gvir was previously seen as a fringe element in Israeli politics, a provocateur who visited Palestinian cities to incite violence between Arabs and Jews. He was convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization, and until he began running for the Knesset, he displayed in his living room photo of Baruch Goldstein, the American-Israeli who massacred 29 Palestinians praying at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994. The Israeli army refused to draft him because he was considered too extremist.

In 2021 Netanyahu legitimizes Ben Gvir persuading him to run with MP Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the National Union party, with the homophobic Noam party to pass the minimum threshold of 3.25% of all votes.

Liberals, a minority in Israel, fear Ben Gvir’s proposals, which, if passed, would affect Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. He wants citizens who do not pass a “loyalty test” to be deported. (A local radio station is online in August survey found that nearly two-thirds of Israelis supported the proposal.) Ben Gvir also wants to loosen security force rules on opening fire and legalize the death penalty against Palestinians. Finally he offers to grant immunity of Israelis physically harming or killing Palestinians accused of harming Israelis.

But its rules won’t go both ways. Zvika Vogel, a member of Ben Gvir’s party and a retired Israeli general, recently told the media, “An Arab who throws a stone a soldier should be shot in the head, a Jew who throws a stone at a soldier should be educated. There are fears that his presence in government will encourage the Israelis to use excessive force.

Jewish-Israeli fear and last year’s Jewish-Arab riots

Campaign preparation for Benjamin Netanyahu in Beer Sheva, Israel on October 20.  (Amit Elkayam—The New York Times/Redux)

Campaign preparation for Benjamin Netanyahu in Beer Sheva, Israel on October 20.

Amit Elkayam – The New York Times/Redux

In May 2021 Jewish-Arab riots broke out in a mixed Jewish-Arab Israeli city of Lod and spread to other cities in Israel. Two Jewish citizens and two Arab citizens were killed.

Many of Ben Gvir’s voters point to these riots as a reason to support him. In the Israeli media, Arab citizens were mostly painted as instigators, while organized Jewish attacks on Arab townspeople with buses full of gunmen watchmen were barely reported. The police too arrested hundreds of Arabs but very few Jewsgiving the impression that mainly Jews were the victims – despite the fact that hundreds of Jews attacked Arabs in the streets and in their homes.

Read more: The problems with the Israeli version of the murder of the reporter Shirin Abu Akle

The most striking example of impunity was the case of Moussa Hassouneh, a 32-year-old Arab father of three from Lod, who was shot dead by members of a religious Jewish pseudo-settler a community in Lod called Garin Torani. The the suspects were released for three days after they were taken into custody and the case was later closed. A video recently revealed that a government minister was pressuring the police not to investigate.

Ben Gvir and other right-wing activists used the May 2021 riots to portray Palestinian citizens of Israel as the fifth column or internal enemy. They promoted the idea that Israeli Jews lacked “personal security” and that “Arab lawlessness was widespread.” After the riots, the requests for firearms jump from around 9,500 per year to nearly 20,000 in 2021.

of Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai accused Ben Gvir, organizer of the Jewish vigilantes, for inciting the riots. Now Ben Gvir demands to be named Minister of Public Security, after which the Police Commissioner will have to answer to him. The commissioner has already sent his aides to Ben Gvir to ask him for ‘forgiveness’ for the things he said, Yedioth newspaper reported.

The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin

On Sunday, Israel marked 27 years since the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a young far-right ultranationalist Israeli Jew who opposed the creation of a Palestinian state. A few weeks before his murder, Ben Gvir stole the hood ornament from Rabin’s car, telling the cameras: “We got to his car, we’re going to get to him.”

The killing of the man who agreed to make peace with the Palestinians was the beginning of the end of the peace process he had set in motion. For some Israelis, the elevation of Ben Gvir was a similar landmark.

“This place doesn’t feel like home the way it used to,” The Times of Israel social media editor Sarah Tuttle-Singer wrote on Facebook. “Instead of a shared society, democracy and decency. 1 in 7 has no problem with it being a supremacist nation where minorities living here feel at best unwelcome and at worst insecure. And my heart breaks because I really love this country – my country. I love [its] people – my people.

“But I can’t imagine sitting in [Jerusalem outdoor market] and a sense of the incredible lightness and joy that I had once already felt. I’m not entirely sure what to do with it right now.”

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