The Ideal of Democracy in a Jewish State Is in Jeopardy
Israeli elections can be dramatic, and its five elections within four years have been full of political surprises and firsts, including the first time an independent Israeli Arab party joined a governing coalition. This series of new governments and the sometimes tumultuous process of forming them are part of Israel’s proud tradition as a boisterous and pluralistic democracy.
Yet the far-right government that will soon take power, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, marks a qualitative and alarming break with all the other governments in Israel’s 75-year history. While Mr. Netanyahu clearly has the support of the Israeli electorate, his coalition’s victory was narrow and cannot be seen as a broad mandate to make concessions to ultrareligious and ultranationalist parties that are putting the ideal of a democratic Jewish state in jeopardy.
This board has been a strong supporter of Israel and a two-state solution for many years, and we remain committed to that support. Antisemitism is on the rise around the globe, and at least some of the criticism of Israel is the result of such hatred.
Mr. Netanyahu’s government, however, is a significant threat to the future of Israel — its direction, its security and even the idea of a Jewish homeland. For one, the government’s posture could make it militarily and politically impossible for a two-state solution to ever emerge. Rather than accept this outcome, the Biden administration should do everything it can to express its support for a society governed by equal rights and the rule of law in Israel, as it does in countries all over the world. That would be an act of friendship, consistent with the deep bond between the two nations.
Mr. Netanyahu’s comeback as prime minister, a year and a half after he was ousted from office, can’t be divorced from the corruption allegations that have followed him. He is now doing everything he can to stay in power, by catering to the demands of the most extreme elements of Israeli politics. The new cabinet he is forming includes radical far-right parties that have called for, among other things, expanding and legalizing settlements in a way that would effectively render a Palestinian state in the West Bank impossible; changing the status quo on the Temple Mount, an action that risks provoking a new round of Arab-Israeli violence; and undermining the authority of the Israeli Supreme Court, thus freeing the Knesset, the Israeli legislature, to do whatever it wants, with little judicial restraint.
Ministers in the new government are set to include figures such as Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in Israel in 2007 for incitement to racism and supporting a Jewish terrorist organization. He will probably be minister of national security. Bezalel Smotrich, who has long supported outright annexation of the West Bank, is expected to be named the next finance minister, with additional authority over the administration of the West Bank. For the deputy in the prime minister’s office in charge of Jewish identity, Mr. Netanyahu is expected to name Avi Maoz, who once described himself as a “proud homophobe.”
These moves are troubling, and America’s leaders should say so. The Biden administration’s main response so far has been a cautious speech by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the liberal advocacy group J Street on Dec. 4, in which he declared that the United States would deal with Israeli policies, not individuals. The new government has yet to be formed, so it is not surprising that the State Department does not yet have a well-defined position, but the administration has already discussed, according to a report in Axios, how to manage its meetings with the most extreme members of the new cabinet and which core interests to focus on.
This approach understates the potential consequences of the shift in Israeli politics that this government represents. The cabinet about to take charge is not simply another iteration of the unstable, shifting alliances that followed the past four inconclusive elections. Those coalitions, like many before them, often included fringe religious or nationalist parties, but they were usually kept in check by more moderate political parties or even by Mr. Netanyahu over the 15 years he served as prime minister.
All that is now threatened. Right-wing parties have an absolute majority in the Knesset, and Mr. Netanyahu, hoping that the new government will save him from prosecution and potential prison time, is in their power. Among the targets of the new leaders is the Israeli Supreme Court, which, in the absence of a national constitution, has served to weigh government actions against international law and the Israeli state’s own traditions and values. The nationalists would diminish this authority by voting to give themselves the power to override Supreme Court decisions. Not incidentally, they have also proposed eliminating the law under which Mr. Netanyahu faces a possible prison term.
As Thomas L. Friedman, a Times columnist who has closely followed Israeli affairs for four decades, wrote shortly after the election results were known, “We are truly entering a dark tunnel.” While Mr. Netanyahu in the past used the “energy of this illiberal Israeli constituency to win office,” Mr. Friedman wrote, until now, he had never given them this kind of ministerial authority over critical defense and economic portfolios.
This is not simply a disappointing turn in an old ally. The relationship between Israel and the United States has long been one that transcends traditional definitions of a military alliance or of diplomatic friendship. A body of deeply shared values has forged powerful and complex bonds. A commitment to Israel, both in its security and in its treatment by the world, has been an unquestioned principle of American foreign and domestic policy for decades, even when Mr. Netanyahu openly defied Barack Obama or embraced Donald Trump. As Mr. Blinken said in his speech, the United States will hold Israel “to the mutual standards we have established in our relationship over the past seven decades.”
Israel has been moving steadily rightward in recent years. That is, in part, due to genuine concerns about crime and security, especially after violence between Israeli Arabs and Jews last year. Many Israelis also express fear that the peace process has failed because of a lack of interest in peace among Palestinian leaders, a fear heightened by Hamas control in Gaza since 2007 and a sense that Mahmoud Abbas’s grip on the Palestinian Authority is coming to an end without a clear succession plan.
Demographic change in Israel has also shifted the country’s politics. Religious families in Israel tend to have large families and to vote with the right. A recent analysis by the Israel Democracy Institute found that about 60 percent of Jewish Israelis identify as right wing today; among people ages 18 to 24, the number rises to 70 percent. In the Nov. 1 election, the old Labor Party, once the liberal face of Israel’s founders, won only four seats, and the left-wing Meretz won none.
Moderating forces in Israeli politics and civil society are already planning energetic resistance to legislation that would curtail the powers of the Israeli Supreme Court or the rights of the Arab minority or the L.G.B.T.Q. community. They deserve support from the American public and from the Biden administration.
Whatever the contours of the new Israeli government, the United States will continue to be engaged with it on many issues of shared concern. Negotiations on a new nuclear deal with Iran are all but dead, a situation that poses a threat to security across the region. The Abraham Accords, while not a substitute for peace with the Palestinians, normalized relations between Israel and several Arab nations. That is welcome progress, and the United States could play an important role in helping to expand them to include other countries, such as Saudi Arabia.
While Palestinian-Israeli negotiations have long been moribund, the principle of someday achieving two states remains the bedrock of American and Israeli cooperation. Hopes for a Palestinian state have dimmed under the combined pressure of Israeli resistance and Palestinian corruption, ineptitude and internal divisions. Anything that undermines Israel’s democratic ideals — whether outright annexation of Jewish settlements or legalization of illegal settlements and outposts — would undermine the possibility of a two-state solution.
America’s support for Israel reflects our two countries’ respect for democratic ideals. President Biden and Mr. Netanyahu should do everything they can to reaffirm that commitment.
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