Orthodox settlements top priority for Netanyahu - GulfToday

Orthodox settlements top priority for Netanyahu

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accompanied by members of his Likud Party in masks delivers a statement before entering the district court in Jerusalem.  File/Associated Press

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by members of his Likud Party in masks, delivers a statement before entering the district court in Jerusalem. File/Associated Press

Israel could pay a high price if its longest serving prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, succeeds in forming a new government which includes the extreme right-wing Jewish Power and Religious Zionism Parties. Both have been given ministries which could define Israel in future years. To reward Netanyahu — who is currently on trial for corruption, fraud, and breach of trust — these parties advocate revoking an Israeli law which mandates prosecution for Knesset members accused of crimes. This step could save Netanyahu jail time if convicted.

Netanyahu has concluded a deal which is set to give an upgraded National Security Ministry to Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Jewish Power party who dwells in the Kyrat Arba settlement near al-Khalil (Hebron). This ministry will take charge of the 2,000-strong Border Police and create a new national guard with the aim of further militarising the occupation of Palestinian citizens of Israel, West Bankers and East Jerusalemites.

Netanyahu has also created two new ministries. The successor of the outlawed racist US Kach movement, Jewish Power, also received the Heritage Ministry, which oversees religious sites, and the Negev and Galilee Ministry which regulates settlement expansion.

Finance minister candidate Religious Zionism’s leader Bezalel Smotrich, a resident of the West Bank Kedumim settlement, demands the transfer from the Defence Ministry to finance of the “Civil Administration” which exercises control over the West Bank. He seeks to promote the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank with the aim of ensuring that Palestinians have no territory for the independent state they demand in accordance with the internationally-agreed but never implemented “two state solution.”

However, by putting forward this demand, Smotrich has ignored the fact that the West Bank “Civil Administration” is not run by civilians but by the military. The “Civil Administration” is in charge of planning, construction, and infrastructure such as roads, water, and electricity.

The generals in charge have always promoted government plans for Israeli settlement while the armed forces have systematically penned Palestinian West Bankers into 166 urban and rural en- claves. These are scattered across 40 per cent of the West Bank and surrounded by the 60 per cent of the West Bank fully controlled by Israel. The Israelis have squeezed Palestinians into these enclaves by allocating 70 per cent of this exclusively Israeli-held area Israel’s expanding to settlements which are branded illegal under international law.

By making the switch from military to civilian central government control would constitute de facto annexation and normalisation of the occupation. Netanyahu has, so far, refused to make the change as this would impact Israel’s relations with the US, Europe and many other countries which continue to back the “two-state solution” and seek an end to the century-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This has entered a new “hot” phase with Palestinians resisting Israeli army raids during an Israeli crackdown in the West Bank and mounting attacks in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

On the domestic front, the other coalition partners of Netanyahu’s right-wing secular Likud bloc, with 32 seats in the Knesset, are his traditional allies: Western Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism (UTJ) with seven seats and Oriental Sephardi ultra-orthodox Shas with 11 seats. Jewish Power and Religious Zionism have 14 seats. This line-up gives Netanyahu 64 seats and a possible four years in power.

To form a coalition with these parties and stay in power, Netanyahu will have to give in to the religious leaders’ demands as his coalition partners hold as many seats as his Likud bloc. While Netanyahu has previously partnered with UTJ and Shas, the Strong Israel/Religious Zionism duo will be militant additions to the new Netanyahu government.

The leaders of the Likud’s partners have shown determination to use the leverage they have to secure their agendas. This is certain to accelerate the transformation of Israel from the secular Zionist Jewish democracy created by the founders of the state into a country dominated by religious ultra-Zionist Jewish parties.

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid scolded voters for abandoning his secular party, warning that Israel would face major changes.

During the seven and a half decades of Israel’s existence, Israelis have experienced all too frequent tussles between secular and religious, Orthodox and modernist Conservative/Reform streams of Judaism, and Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. Israel has two chief rabbis, one Western Ashkenazi and the other Oriental Sephardi who follow quite different traditions. Fifty per cent of Jewish Israelis identify as Orthodox while over 50 per cent of Israeli Jews are of mixed Sephardi/Ashkenazi descent.

The ultra-Orthodox sub-grouping, which constitutes 13 per cent of the population, is a law unto itself.

The rabbinates decide “who is a Jew,” particularly among immigrants (and eligible to become Israelis), what Israelis consume by consecrating kosher food, how Israelis behave during the sabbath and celebrate feasts, and whether ultra-Orthodox men who study sacred texts receive family subsidies and whether they must serve in the military.

During the outgoing secular government, the grip of the religious establishment weakened but under Netanyahu’s new regime, the rabbis are certain to reassert their control in these areas and extract increasing funding from the state coffers, particularly for Orthodox settlements in the West Bank.

Newcomer Strong Israel and Religious Zionism are parties dominated by the settlement movements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They have risen to power because Israeli colonists now number a relatively united and determined 620,000 in a politically fractured Jewish population of seven million. As a result, the balance of power in Israel has moved across the Green Line that formerly divided the Israel of 1948 from the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967.

Settlement expansion and tightening control over the Palestinians will top the agenda for Netanyahu’s new coalition if and when it is formed. This is likely to spur Palestinian resistance and alienate many Western leaders who simply want the longstanding Palestinian-Israeli problem to go away. But these leaders will do nothing just as their predecessors have done nothing to rein in Israel since its establishment by war 75 years ago. The situation can only get worse.

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