Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
Q. Netanyahu’s coalition has begun to take shape. Itamar Ben Gvir will be minister for national security (formerly internal security) with control over Border Patrol units in the West Bank. Bezalel Smotrich as minister of finance wants to take over the Defense Ministry’s West Bank Civil Administration. What lies in store?
A. Basically, and at a minimum, these appointments and takeovers will advance the de facto annexation of Area C of the West Bank: some 60 percent of the territory. Around 70 illegal (under Israeli law) settlement ‘outposts’ with their 25,000 occupants will be legalized. Several hundred thousand Palestinian residents of Area C will become subject to increasingly stringent Israeli regulations designed to force them out. Palestinians in East Jerusalem will also be policed more militantly.
The Kahanist-fascist Ben Gvir is also demanding heightened ministerial authority over the Israel Police, thereby potentially politicizing law enforcement in Israel.
Q. Ministry for National Security? Do we detect a whiff of fascist terminology?
A. That’s just the beginning. Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power party will also hold the Ministry for Development of the Negev and the Galilee and of National Resilience. His party’s new Ministry of Heritage will be responsible for historical and archeological sites in the West Bank. Avi Maoz, leader of a smaller unit within the Smotrich-Ben Gvir Religious Zionist list, the Noam party which is anti-LGBTQ and against women serving in the army, will be a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office in charge of Jewish Identity.
Anyone familiar with the history of fascism will recognize where ‘national resilience’, ‘heritage’ and ‘Jewish identity’ as ministerial definitions are liable to take us. To be sure, these terms do not precisely correspond with Umberto Eco’s famous 14 characteristics of fascism. Nor is Israel ruled by a fascist dictator--far from it.
But, at least on the far-right-messianic branch of Netanyahu’s prospective coalition, the fascist spirit is there. Last week, a Givati brigade occupation soldier in Hebron was immortalized looking straight into the camera and, while his buddy beat up a peace activist, telling the nation, “Ben Gvir will restore order to this place . . . . I make the law.”
Q. Is no one within the Israeli security system objecting? No one in Washington?
A. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi publicly reprimanded his forces after the Hebron incidents while ignoring their overall contribution to the evils of occupation. Meanwhile, retired senior legal and security officials are warning that any attempt to transfer control of any sort in the West Bank from the official ‘sovereign’ occupying forces--the IDF and the Border Patrol (which is under shared jurisdiction of the IDF and the Israel Police)--to civilian ministries will be seen under international law as de facto annexation. We can expect ministerial clashes--the Defense Ministry vs. Ben Gvir and Smotrich; commanders in the field refusing orders and resigning; and international condemnation and penalties far heavier than anything Israel has experienced since 1967.
As for Washington, official security bodies like the FBI that cooperate with Israel’s domestic security ministry may soon refuse to do so. In another move, presumably in anticipation of heightened Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-American tensions under Ben Gvir and Smotrich, the Biden administration has notified Congress that it has created a new State Department post: special representative for Palestinian affairs. Hady Amr, deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli-Palestinian affairs, has been promoted to the job. (Is that all? Note that the US Consulate General in East Jerusalem and the PLO ‘embassy’ in Washington, both closed by the Trump administration, remain closed.)
Then too, back in 2019-2020 Prime Minister Netanyahu officially suspended his plan to annex all or part of the West Bank and was rewarded, with Trump administration backing, with the Abraham Accords. What Ben Gvir and Smotrich are now planning could definitely harm Israel’s very productive relations with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco.
Were Israel officially to annex the West Bank, the regional and international consequences would be harsh, immediate and official. Can Ben Gvir and Smotrich, with the coalition’s backing, engage in ‘soft’ annexation that, if done gradually, will definitely advance an apartheid reality but may somehow pass under the regional and international radar, particularly if the world is busy with Ukraine, Russia and Iran?
Q. How many criminals (under Israeli law) will hold office in this new government?
A. Netanyahu himself is on trial on multiple charges of corruption. Both Ben Gvir and Smotrich have rich arrest records that attest to their Kahanist/fascist activities over past decades. Arieh Deri of Shas, who is expected to return to the Interior Ministry with augmented ministerial responsibility, has served jail time for fraud and was recently convicted of tax evasion. He avoided new jail time by pledging to leave politics. Now he needs the courts to absolve him of this pledge. This, like Netanyahu’s case (see below), will require accelerated legislation to neutralize the High Court.
Then too, at least one prospective Likud minister, David Bitan, is awaiting trial for corruption. But note that the very legal strictures under which Netanyahu and other right and religious politicians are charged with illegal activities are more than likely to be eliminated by the incoming coalition. No more breach of trust! No more bribery!
Q. Maybe none of this will really happen because Israel will pay too high a price. Could Netanyahu be humoring his prospective Kahanist ministers simply to ensure their support for his real priority--diminishing Israel’s judicial branch of government and escaping conviction for corruption?
A. Here we encounter a prominent prospective scenario for the future of this emerging coalition. According to this scenario, within the next year or so Netanyahu’s new coalition will pass ‘override’ laws that drastically reduce the power of the High Court of Justice to nullify laws deemed in violation of Israel’s existing basic laws. It will then pass legislation that empowers (soon-to-be-appointed) justice minister Yariv Levin, a Netanyahu intimate, to cancel Netanyahu’s trial. If the High Court objects to such a measure, the Knesset can now override the High Court. This prospective course of events, it is widely believed, reflects Netanyahu’s one-and-only true priority: staying out of jail.
Still under this scenario, Netanyahu, having recruited a Knesset majority by empowering the likes of Ben Gvir and Smotrich and having received his ‘get out of jail free’ card, will now dissolve the coalition and, perhaps citing serious security threats that require national unity, invite Benny Gantz and his National Unity party to replace the extremists. Additional factors that could contribute to this decision might be American and other international pressures and a new Intifada, which some observers believe is brewing and could be hastened precisely by Ben Gvir and Smotrich’s machinations in the West Bank and (Jewish prayer!) on the Temple Mount.
Under this (wishful thinking?) scenario of a new unity government, which is being promoted by extensive media advertising sponsored presumably by actors associated with the liberal opposition, the damage inflicted by Ben Gvir and Smotrich will be short-lived and containable. Yet the presumed candidate for such a unity or emergency government, Gantz, who along with Yair Lapid and Avigdor Liberman represents the bulk of the opposition, has pledged unequivocally not to join a government led by Netanyahu. Still, this scenario assumes, based on a lot of experience, that one or more of these parties can be persuaded with appropriate incentives to change their mind.
Assuming the more likely prospect--that the emerging coalition survives for the full four years--what then? Sima Kadmon of Yediot Aharonot tried to paint the outcome in full cynical mode: “Forget the dream of unity. Perhaps Israeli society needs to undergo a deep moral, social and political crisis in order to change direction. Let the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] legislate gender separation in buses. . . . Give us a halachic [strict Jewish law] country. Let Ben Gvir bring us governance and Smotrich apply sovereignty [to the West Bank]. Let the new government pass an override law [to neutralize the High Court] . . . . Let them change the system. Let the right win.”
Kadmon assumes that, once all these travesties of justice and morality are perpetrated, Israel will come to its senses. And if it doesn’t? And if by then it is too late to reverse course? Lest we forget, in Israel unlike in America, demographic trends favor the messianics, the fascists, the fundamentalists and the anti-liberals.
Q. Your tone is too academic. Why aren’t you outraged?
A. Because I am not surprised. For years now I have described Israel and Palestine as sliding down a slippery slope toward a violent bi-national reality. Netanyahu’s emerging coalition represents yet another step--a big step--down that slope. With its right-messianic majority, it is perfectly equipped to accelerate the slide. And when, one of these days, aging Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) passes from the scene, the ensuing West Bank chaos will augment the Palestinians’ own heavy contribution to the slippery slope.
I am not surprised. I dearly hope I am wrong.