Will Netanyahu sever the wings of the hawks in his new cabinet? According to Reuters

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Newly sworn-in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raises a toast during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, December 29, 2022. Ariel Schalit/Pool via REUTERS

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – One is a former member of a Jewish militant outlaw group. The other is a religious fundamentalist who once called himself a “proud homophobic”. Both are West Bank settlers who don’t like Palestinian autonomy – let alone their hopes of statehood.

And as senior coalition partners of re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich will be within reach of the levers of power – a worrying prospect for the wing. secular description that once dominated Israel and its friends in the West.

Netanyahu turned to extremist nationalists after centrist parties boycotted him during his lengthy corruption trial. He needs their support to stay in office as he argues his innocence in court. But he denied this showed their ability to meet their demands.

“I will navigate this government. Other parties are joining me. I am not joining them,” Netanyahu told Al Arabiya on December 15, pledging to implement “natural right-wing” policymaking. do”.

Besides, he said, “many of them have changed and moderated their views, mainly because power comes with responsibility”.

There may have been precedent in Avigdor Lieberman, a igniter appointed deputy prime minister in 2006 who sparked many of the same reactions as Ben-Gvir’s rise: liberal warnings of civil war and, on Israel’s top satirical show, his being labeled a Nazi.

Lieberman proved to be politically adaptable. He served in various coalitions – one of which included the Islamist party – and eventually became the current opposition, from which he scorned Netanyahu’s new allies as “radicals”. and radical”.

However, Lieberman can also play spoiler from the right flank. As Netanyahu’s foreign minister in the previous government, he will openly push for a tougher line towards the Palestinians than the prime minister’s. During a later term, Lieberman resigned as Netanyahu’s defense minister in protest at the Gaza truce, which he deemed too lax.

Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party has now retained the defense and foreign ministries. But the optics around Ben-Gvir and Smotrich could still prove to be flammable for him – for example, if one of the two men visits or prays at the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, one symbol of Palestinian nationalism, is also the holiest site for Judaism as the monument of the two. ancient temples.

Netanyahu’s 15 years ago as prime minister, he was seen plucking the nests of hawks in his cabinet – or clipping their wings – as he saw fit. Back then, however, he had left-wing parties that helped him act as an ideological fulcrum.

“With all parties in the upcoming government backing Mr. Netanyahu, it will be difficult for him to repeat that role this time,” argues Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank. . “Does he want to?”


As for Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s call to annex the West Bank, Mr. Netanyahu is credited with supporting while avoiding action on the ground that risks escalating into confrontation with Washington or its Arab partners.

However, Smotrich created a niche in his cabinet to oversee the settlements, which most of the world’s powers consider illegal to occupy the land the Palestinians want to establish. a state.

“He could be effective in replicating and consolidating Israel’s presence in the West Bank,” said Amotz Asa-El, a researcher at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

In contrast, for Ben-Gvir, it was his first term in government. Asa-El predicts that as police minister he will focus on law and order issues important to a group of Israelis – including the Arabs attacked by criminals that Ben -Gvir used to be agitated.

“After legitimizing his position in Israel’s broader circles, he will move into areas where not all agree – specifically the West Bank,” Asa-El said. But that may have to wait, as Ben-Gvir’s portfolio does not confer great power on the West Bank, which is under general military control.

Arguably Ben-Gvir, 46, and Smotrich, 42, could shelve some of their agendas for this round with Netanyahu, 73.

“But that depends on restraint from people from very different ideological worldviews,” said Daniel Shapiro, a former US special envoy to Israel and now an elite member of the Atlantic Council. compared to what we have seen in previous Israeli governments.”

Ben-Gvir emerged through the Kahane Chai group, which is blacklisted in Israel and the United States for its malicious anti-Arab doctrines. Smotrich’s support of West Bank Jewish claims is informed by a dogma of biblical prophecy.

Previous generations of Israeli far-rights in government “have demonstrated an interest and ability to engage in a genuine two-way dialogue with the United States and other international actors, and times seem to realize the limits of their pursuit of some of their most ideological views,” Shapiro said.

“It remains to be seen whether that approach will be specific to members of the upcoming coalition.”

Alan Dershowitz, a prominent Jewish-American jurist who has advised US and Israeli leaders, said Ben-Gvir and Smotrich do not accept racism and homophobia in meetings with him this month.

Dershowitz told Reuters: “The word ‘balance’ came up many times” in their reassurances during conversations.

“Obviously, in a way, they’re trying to make me have a positive impression of them,” he said. “Let’s see what happens when I’m not in the room and the people in the room are pushing them to become more radical. That’s the test.”

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