As Israel heads toward elections in November, it is hard to ignore a new reality: The country’s domestic political agenda has practically disappeared. Very little of the public debate in today’s Israel revolves around traditional domestic issues which helped define the differences between the country’s political parties. Instead, current news out of Israel highlights the continuing expansion of the country’s international relations, and the increasing focus on the building of governing coalitions either supportive of or opposed to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following the next election.
In some respects, this new reality is not surprising. The government of Prime Minister Yair Lapid is a temporary, caretaker government. It does not have sufficient Knesset support to direct policy or promote an agenda. As a result, there is little point in Knesset members or their parties advancing proposals that seek to address social, economic or other domestic concerns that have little or no chance of passage. Instead, party survival and party prominence is the focus, with each political announcement of affiliation, partnering or merger being weighed by how it might impact the pro- or anti-Netanyahu numbers.
So it was with particular interest that we watched the rise, and then the fall, and now the uncertainty of the possible merger of Itamar Ben-Gvir and his hard-right, ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit Party with Bezalel Smotrich and his traditionally more moderate, but still right-wing, Religious Zionist Party. According to reports, negotiations fell apart over Smotrich’s demand for six of the eight projected seats that the unification would achieve and Smotrich’s reluctance to expand opportunity to politically like-minded candidates who are not traditionally religious. And there was also Ben-Gvir’s claim that Otzma Yehudit is more popular than the Religious Zionist Party, and his conviction that Otzma Yehudit will receive more votes in the coming election than the Religious Zionists.
The right-wing politics and declarations of Smotrich present a number of challenges. But the politics and positions of Ben-Gvir are downright frightening. The prospect of that toxic mix in a prominent position in the next Israeli government is cause for concern.
Ben-Gvir is an unapologetic follower of the outlawed, racist Kach Party and its founder, Rabbi Meir Kahane. But whereas Kahane was shunned in the Knesset, Ben-Gvir is treated like a rock star. He is photogenic and engaging, and his popularity continues to grow, particularly among younger voters. And at least among some of his supporters, Ben-Gvir’s ultranationalism overshadows his racism. Thus, his followers tolerate his promotion of a Deportation Law which will require the deportation of anyone who acts against the State of Israel, including those who throw stones at soldiers. No one seems to have asked where he comes out with regard to haredim who throw stones at police or soldiers who violate the Shabbat, but he does say that Jews who throw stones at Arabs should be jailed but not deported.
In a political environment where issues and policies are no longer debated or vetted, and where the only real focus is on building a majority governing coalition, the likes of Ben-Gvir and Otzma Yehudit bring strong political value. But that’s not the Israel we want to see.