The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Netanyahu’s far-right allies could escalate West Bank crisis, critics fear

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, center, Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, left, far-right Israeli lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich and leaders of all Israel’s political parties pose for a group photo after the swearing-in ceremony for Israeli lawmakers at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem on Nov. 15. (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)
5 min

TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu has finalized a deal with his far-right coalition partners granting the ultranationalist parties sweeping authority that could, critics say, herald new levels of bitter conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

On Thursday night, Netanyahu announced an agreement granting Bezalel Smotrich’s extremist Religious Zionism bloc oversight over the civil administration and COGAT, the Israeli agency for Palestinian civil affairs, which until now were under the Ministry of Defense.

The bloc, which is the second largest in the government and third largest in the Knesset, received at least 10 portfolios, providing them with budgets of hundreds of million of shekels and a national platform from which to promote their radical agendas.

Netanyahu needed the far right to win. Now he has to manage it.

The deal comes after weeks of marathon meetings and publicly leaked disputes between Netanyahu, who has for the past year and a half been angling to return to the premiership amid an ongoing corruption trial, and Smotrich, the staunchly pro-settler politician. His demand to helm the Defense Ministry had sounded the alarm across the political spectrum.

Opponents argue that elevating a Jewish supremacist — once suspected of terrorist activities and long openly hostile to the security collaborations with the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority — to the head of the Israeli army, would plunge an already combustible security crisis in the West Bank into an all-out war.

Smotrich, in the end, did not receive the Defense Ministry, but he did get a win. He and his radical bloc members, who have championed once fringe ideas like annexation of the West Bank, the expulsion of “disloyal Arabs,” and the establishment of new protocols enabling Israeli soldiers to shoot at Palestinian stone throwers, will have unprecedented control over the West Bank at a time of spiraling tensions.

The announcement adds to growing concerns this week among the Israeli defense establishment after Netanyahu appointed Smotrich’s second-in-command, the firebrand politician Itamar Ben Gvir, to serve as the head of a rebranded and expanded National Security Ministry.

The portfolio includes purview over a 2,000-member Border Police military unit in the West Bank, which previously belonged to the army, as well as control of Israel’s police, prisons, and the al-Aqsa Mosque esplanade in the heart of Jerusalem, a flash point for decades in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz has long criticized members of Religious Zionism for exacerbating the conflict in the service of ideological conviction.

“The irresponsible talk about changing the procedures for opening fire by politicians who have not spent even one minute on the battlefield, who have no experience in the matter, and that it will not be under their authority at all — is disturbing,” Gantz tweeted on Monday.

He was referring to Smotrich’s brief stint in the army and how Ben Gvir was exempted from military service because of his involvement in Kach, a radical Jewish supremacist movement that was classified as a terror organization by Israel, the United States, the European Union and several other countries.

“Netanyahu, you received a mandate to form a coalition, not leave our security in the hands of arsonists who support Jewish terrorism,” tweeted former defense minister Moshe Yaalon on Thursday.

Palestinian parents fear for their children as Israel’s far right rises

On the ground, the appointments are already fueling bloody confrontations.

In Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank that also hosts a belligerent and heavily barricaded Israeli settlement, an Israeli soldier was filmed last week saying: “Ben Gvir will make order in this entire place, you’re screwed it’s over. You’re done making this place into a whorehouse.”

Another soldier from the unit was filmed in the same incident beating a left-wing human rights activist who had come to visit a Palestinian family living near a group of Israeli settlers last month.

Israel Defense Forces’ top brass punished the two soldiers, a move Ben Gvir said sent “a very bad message.”

The formation of Israel’s incoming government coincides with the deadliest period for both Palestinians and Israeli in recent years. Since a spate of Palestinian attacks began last spring, the Israeli military has been conducting near nightly raids in the West Bank, especially in and around the area of Jenin, the hometown of several of the assailants.

On Nov. 23, two Israelis were killed in a bombing at two bus stations in Jerusalem. On Thursday, two Palestinian men were killed in an exchange of fire with Israeli soldiers near the Jenin refugee camp.

Defense experts say that, going forward, the Israeli government will need to exercise extreme caution to prevent further escalation.

“I fear for the fate of this country as we know it,” wrote former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

He said he will be among the “million who should go out into the streets … if Netanyahu harms the country’s national interests.”

Smotrich will also, according to Thursday’s agreement, alternate with Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, first serving as finance minister for two years, and thereafter as interior minister. Religious Zionism has additionally been granted the Ministry of Immigration, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and a newly created Ministry of National Missions, responsible for Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

“This is all a victory for Religious Zionism,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

He said Netanyahu’s greatest challenge will be managing Smotrich, Ben Gvir, and other Religious Zionism members, who, unlike his foes in the past, are staunchly ideological and devoted to changing the face of the country into one that promotes their idea of a Jewish State: conservative values, religious norms, and the exertion, by force if necessary, of Jewish sovereignty throughout the West Bank.

“This is a new kind of challenge,” said Plesner. “We’ve never had a government with such far-right and extremist politicians in such positions of influence.”