Shortly after Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to make Itamar Ben-Gvir Israel’s new national security minister, Israeli soldiers were filmed clashing with leftwing activists in Hebron, a flashpoint city in the occupied West Bank.
One soldier was filmed hurling an activist to the ground, then punching him in the head. A second was recorded delivering a blunt warning to the Israeli activists, who had come to city to show support for Palestinian residents attacked there by Israeli settlers the week before.
“Ben-Gvir is going to put things in order here,” he said, referring to the radical ultranationalist who will soon oversee Israel’s police. “You’re done making a mess . . . I decide what’s legal here.”
The episode sparked outcry. The first soldier was suspended, the second jailed for six days, and Israel’s military said it would not tolerate soldiers “abusing their position of authority”. But it also reinforced fears, here and abroad, about the dynamics that could be unleashed by what is set to be the most rightwing government in Israel’s modern history.
Having emerged victorious last month from the country’s fifth election in three-and-a-half years, Netanyahu is on the cusp of returning to the prime minister’s office where he has spent 15 of the past 26 years. He has until December 21 to finalise his latest administration. But its contours are already clear.
In addition to Netanyahu’s Likud, the future coalition will include two parties representing Israel’s deeply religious ultra-Orthodox community, and three far-right groups that ran as an alliance in last month’s election; one headed by Ben-Gvir, another led by his fellow ultranationalist Bezalel Smotrich, and Noam, the vehemently anti-LGBT party of Avi Maoz.
To its supporters, the incoming government is a chance to end three years of political stalemate and bolster security, as well as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape Israel and fortify its Jewish and religious identity.
But secular and liberal Israelis are horrified by the anti-Arab, homophobic and sexist rhetoric of some of its key figures, as well as plans to dismantle judicial checks and balances. They fear this government could have far-reaching implications for Israel’s democratic institutions; for its civil society; and for Palestinians — in Israel and in the Palestinian territories that Israel has occupied since 1967.
“More than half the coalition’s members come from a world view with different priorities, and different ways [of defining] national identity, and the relations between religion and state and democracy than those that prevailed in even previous rightwing governments,” says Daniel Shapiro, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, and former US ambassador to Israel.
“They could over-reach, run into internal divisions and international tensions, and the next election could produce a rebound. But there’s no question that this government is a break from what has come before.”
For Netanyahu — whose political career seemed in jeopardy when he was ousted from office last year while battling corruption charges in a trial that is still ongoing — the comeback is a triumph.
Shunned by former allies, he brokered the alliance between Israel’s far-right parties whose third place in last month’s vote helped clinch the seats he needed to return to power.
But even before the government has taken office, the political bill for that manoeuvre has become apparent. This week, the incoming administration embarked on a legislative blitz to fulfil promises made by Netanyahu to his future coalition partners.
The legal changes underscored the influence far-right parties will wield in the new government, with Ben-Gvir set to hold enhanced powers over the police, and Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party set to control agencies that regulate civilian life in the West Bank.
Among the other changes is an amendment allowing people with criminal convictions whose jail sentences have been suspended to serve as ministers.
Once enacted, it will enable one of Netanyahu’s key allies, Aryeh Deri, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and was convicted earlier this year of tax fraud, to head the interior and health ministries.
For critics, the amendment is emblematic of broader concerns about the incoming government’s approach to legal norms.
Among its priorities is a sweeping judicial overhaul that members of the incoming coalition have said should enable lawmakers to “override” High Court rulings with a simple majority and give politicians control over appointing judges. Some coalition members have also proposed scrapping the offence of breach of trust — one of the charges that Netanyahu is fighting in his corruption trial.
Netanyahu and his allies have denied the changes will affect his trial, where he is also battling charges of fraud and bribery. They argue the overhaul is needed to rein in an overly activist judiciary that has used powers it was never formally granted to push a partisan leftwing agenda.
But his opponents see the proposed changes as akin to the assaults on judicial independence by authoritarians in Poland and Hungary that have dismantled checks and balances. And they fear that without them, protections for minorities and the civil society groups who support them could ended up being trampled.
“If the judiciary is seriously undermined, it will take years to fix,” says Noa Sattath, head of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “And if an override law is passed, it will effectively mean that only the minority will really be subject to the law, because the majority will always be able to change it.”
Netanyahu has insisted his government will rule in the interests of all Israelis and dismissed criticism of his incoming administration by its political opponents as “lies”.
“The outgoing government that has lost the people’s trust is not ready to accept the election results,” he wrote on Facebook on December 12. “The policy [of the new government] does not include any harm to the rights of LGBT people, the secular public or any citizens in the state of Israel.”
His partners have a more extreme history. Smotrich once described himself as a “proud homophobe”, and has backed separating Jewish and Arab mothers in maternity wards. Maoz — who will control some extracurricular activities in schools — has claimed a woman’s greatest contribution to society is marrying and raising a family. In 2019, his Noam party likened liberal Jews, leftwing activists and gay rights campaigners to Nazis and Palestinian suicide bombers, claiming all “want to destroy us”.
A dream of security
The most sensitive question, however, is how the new government will manage tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
The West Bank is on course for its bloodiest year since 2005, according to the UN, and Israel’s mixed Jewish-Arab towns are still recovering from an eruption of intercommunal violence during the war between Israel and militants in Gaza last May that laid bare the deep faultlines in society.
In his new role as national security minister, how Israel approaches this task will partly be determined by Ben-Gvir.
A disciple of Meir Kahane, an extremist rabbi who wanted to strip Arab Israelis of citizenship, Ben-Gvir was convicted in 2007 of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organisation. Until a couple of years ago he kept in his house a picture of a Jewish supremacist who gunned down 29 Palestinians in a mosque in Hebron.
During the election campaign, he wooed voters with pledges to expel Palestinians deemed traitors and to ease open-fire rules for Israeli security forces. Shortly after the vote he drew censure from the US for attending a memorial for Kahane in Jerusalem.
For Jewish voters unsettled by last year’s violence, however, Ben-Gvir’s hardline stance struck a chord. “In the last year the situation was tough,” says Noam Dreyfuss, a national religious community leader in Lod, a city that witnessed some of the worst sectarian violence last May. “And Ben-Gvir managed to sell people a dream [of a new approach to security].”
At the Kahane memorial, Ben-Gvir was greeted like a hero — before briefly being booed when he tried to distance himself from some of Kahane’s most extreme views. “I want [Ben-Gvir] to change [the open-fire rules] so that we can be safer, you know?” said Amikan from south Tel Aviv, who said he loved Kahane. “We need a strong leader like him. Hopefully Ben-Gvir can be this.”
But for Israel’s Palestinian citizens, the power that will be wielded by Ben-Gvir — who shortly before the election appeared at a stand-off between Jewish and Arab youths in East Jerusalem, brandishing a gun and urging police to fire at Palestinian stone-throwers — is an alarming prospect.
“Everything that happens between an Arab and a Jew will become a national dispute rather than a conflict between two people,” says Mohamad Abu Shreki, who works for the municipality in Lod. “Ben-Gvir will only add this oil to this fire.”
In Jerusalem, Efrat Meyer is also worried about the future. Meyer heads the Max Rayne Hand-in-Hand high school, where Jewish and Arab children study side-by-side. In the past, that alone has been enough to become a target: in 2014 the school was hit by an arson attack by Jewish youths, and anti-Arab slogans were daubed on its walls.
Nearly a decade on, Meyer says that, in some ways, the political climate feels bleaker. The arson, she says, was a narrow attack against “the possibility of Jews and Arabs standing together”. Now, she feels like “the liberal side, the secular and human rights” are under threat.
In the West Bank, the stakes are also high. Palestinians see the territory as the heart of a future state. But Israel’s 55-year occupation, accompanied by relentless building of settlements — considered illegal by most of the international community — has made such a prospect vanishingly remote.
Over the past year the territory has become increasingly volatile. Following a series of Palestinian attacks in Tel Aviv, Be’er Sheva and other Israeli cities that began in the spring and have since killed 31 Israelis, Israel’s military has been carrying out near-nightly raids in the territory. According to UN figures, Israeli forces had killed 135 Palestinians there by the end of November this year. Attacks by settlers on Palestinians have also ramped up.
Hanging over the West Bank is the question of annexation. Netanyahu considered annexing swaths of it during his previous stint in power, but dropped the plan as Israel signed deals normalising ties with some Arab states, and formal annexation is not on the table.
But Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, who both live in settlements, have demanded steps that analysts and Palestinian officials say will create just such a reality. Among them are the expansion of settlements and the legalisation of dozens of outposts that even Israel does not recognise.
“What they are interested in is trying to squeeze us, to put us in very populated areas with no chance of expansion on our land, and . . . to use the land around the cities and to construct and to develop infrastructure to be part of the state of Israel,” says Husam Shakhshir, the deputy mayor of Nablus, one of the West Bank’s largest cities.
Adil Shadid, a political analyst from Hebron, expresses similar fears. “They want to annex the West Bank without saying it, so that the Americans, maybe the Europeans, maybe the Arabs do not confront this and stop it.”
Diplomats say western capitals are still deciding how to approach Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, with some pondering quiet no-contact policies. Officials from the US, Israel’s most important ally, have made clear they will oppose steps that bury the chance of a Palestinian state or risk inflaming tensions.
“We’re very focused on the status quo on the Temple Mount,” says Thomas Nides, US ambassador to Israel, referring to the flashpoint holy site in Jerusalem sacred to both faiths, and known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif. “And we’re very focused on keeping the two-state solution alive. Things that dramatically change the composition of that would obviously be of great concern to us.”
Netanyahu, for his part, has sought to play down the influence that his allies will have over the coalition’s policy, both in Israel and beyond.
“I have a record in general of having two hands on the wheel. And I ultimately decide policy . . . In the first instance, in the last instance,” he told NBC News this month. “I’m going to safeguard Israeli democracy. I’m going to bring peace categorically . . . That’s what I’m coming back for.”
Some observers think Netanyahu could indeed end up being less dependent on his far-right allies than the concessions he has made during coalition negotiations suggest, especially if the coalition passes legislation that ends up resolving his legal woes.
“His dependency on Israel’s rightwing and religious parties is fuelled considerably by his personal situation” says Shalom Lipner, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who served in the prime minister’s office under leaders including Netanyahu.
But others argue that the electoral success of the far-right parties — which won 10.8 per cent of the vote in last month’s election — and Netanyahu’s lack of alternative partners mean that their leverage over Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is likely to endure.
“Netanyahu has generally tried to avoid decisive action one way or another in the Israeli-Palestinian arena and manage the pressures internationally as well as domestically, and find a balance,” says Shapiro.
“But unlike in several previous governments, he doesn’t have parties on his left that he can use to balance those on his right. And Smotrich is not looking to find a balance. He’s looking to drive this as far as he can, and he’s just been given a lot of tools to affect the situation on the ground in a very profound way.”