Opinion | Who’s Afraid of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich?

Israelis elected this government, so give it a chance

Israel’s most recent election results, in which the Israeli people slammed the door on left-wing politicians and completely voted out the extreme left-wing Meretz party, have allowed it to create the most right-wing government in the nation’s history.

Predictably, the political losers are up in arms. Former Prime Minister Yair Lapid called on supporters to “stop the insanity” and “fight for our country,” against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supposedly relinquishing “all that is holy and dear to the citizens of Israel” to “the most extreme and wild group in Israeli society.” Outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz created an “action forum” calling itself “The Struggle for the Character of the State” and declared, “We will not be silent. We will fight together for the character of the state in education, the judicial system, and the IDF.” MK and former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot called for “mass protests against Netanyahu if he enacts the expected coalition agreements.” The reaction hasn’t stopped at Israel’s borders: “If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it,” Abe Foxman, former head of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Jerusalem Post.

I find it astonishing and more than a little ironic that all this leftist hand-wringing for Israel’s democratic values is expressed in calls for mass demonstrations, which sound to my ears like a very undemocratic attempt to overturn election results.

With 13 Knesset seats between them, the coalition’s new kingmakers are Betzalel Smotrich of the far-right Religious Zionism Party and Itamar Ben-Gvir of Jewish Power. Clearly, many Israelis support their agenda. But what exactly is it? And is it as dangerous to Israel’s democracy as its opponents would have us believe?

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Both Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are Israeli-born and religious (although Ben-Gvir’s family was secular) and both may have been radicalized by experiencing terrorist attacks as youths during the intifadas. Ben-Gvir became a Kahanist and has been arrested some 53 times on various charges, though convicted of only a few (including incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organization). Both are self-described family-values advocates and oppose a Palestinian state.

One item high on their agenda was to give Smotrich’s party more direct oversight of construction and security in the West Bank, currently under the control of the Defense Ministry and the IDF.

Netanyahu maintains that his goal is to ‘restore balance.’

The Civil Administration that currently directs security and civilian life in Area C—the West Bank zone where about 300,000 Palestinians and nearly half a million Israeli Jews live—has been the target of bitter complaints for years from Smotrich’s constituents, who say it has failed to control terrorism and allowed illegal Palestinian construction while restricting construction by Israelis.

Regavim, a pro-settler NGO cofounded by Smotrich, claims illegal Palestinian construction in Area C increased by 80 percent in 2022, with more than 5,500 illegal structures, some of which it describes as “palatial residences,” “sprawling holiday resorts” and “high-rise residential and commercial towers.” Smotrich has called for retroactive authorization of some 70 settlements in which 25,000 Israelis currently live illegally in Area C, as well as bureaucratic streamlining that could facilitate bringing in many more.

Netanyahu’s opponents are probably most upset about his proposed high court override law, which would curtail the ability of Israel’s judiciary to strike down laws passed by the Knesset that it deems incompatible with Israel’s Basic Laws (which function as a de facto constitution). Israel’s judiciary has used this power to strike down more than 22 laws and reverse rulings in many important areas, including human rights, freedom of assembly and protest, detention of asylum seekers and migrants, and property rights in the West Bank. Netanyahu maintains that his goal is to “restore balance.” If unchecked legislative power is a danger to democracy, is not unchecked judicial power equally dangerous?

A final agenda item was to bring the Noam party, an outspoken opponent of LGBTQ rights, into the coalition by putting its head, MK Avi Maoz, in charge of a new “Jewish Identity” office with control of some education programs. “Anyone who—with intentional concealment and obfuscation—tries to brainwash the children of Israel with their agendas, without the knowledge of the parents, is the darkness,” Maoz recently declared to the Knesset, amid boos. There is pushback: A coalition of mayors in Israel has already declared it will unite to prevent Maoz from deciding school curriculum.

Evidently, our new government will differ radically from the old one. Rather than reacting with terror, one might prefer to see it as a robust manifestation of a flourishing democracy, governed by the ever-changing will of the people, for better or worse. As for me, given how long these coalitions seem to last, I doubt any lasting harm can be done until the next Knesset is formed. And maybe, just maybe, some changes will be for the better.

Naomi Ragen is a novelist and playwright living in Zichron Yaakov, Israel.

Opening picture: Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich (Photo credit: Wikimedia) 

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