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Israel: US Jewish groups are hyping Naftali Bennett's right-wing regime

Despite optimistic statements, Israel's new government offers merely cosmetic change, while maintaining the same racist policies against Palestinians
Israelis decry incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem on 15 June 2021 (AFP)

After 12 years of continuous rule by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has welcomed a new government headed by Naftali Bennett, leader of the far-right Yamina party.

The new coalition spans a wide chasm from extreme right to left - a development never before seen in Israeli politics. It also includes the Islamist party, Raam, marking the first time a Palestinian party has sat at the cabinet table in such a government.

Israelis poured into the streets by the tens of thousands to celebrate Netanyahu’s demise, in what the New York Times called a “dance party”. Their joy marks a release of pent-up tensions, built up over months of Black Flag protests against the figure popularly known as the “crime minister”. He is currently on trial, facing three corruption counts; if convicted, he could be jailed, which has only ever happened to one previous Israeli prime minister.

In light of such a tacit alliance between violent Jewish extremists and their political patrons, it's a wonder that American Jewish groups can close their eyes to this and see only sunshine

Jewish groups in the diaspora have joined in the celebration, releasing statements of relief and hopefulness at the change in government. But these are marked by a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the country’s new leaders.

The leading Israel lobby group in the US, AIPAC, said it “welcomes the new, diverse Israeli government” led by Bennett. The term “diversity” attempts to make a virtue out of the fact that this coalition includes a prime minister who once said: “I have killed lots of Arabs in my life - and there is no problem with that.” It also includes a Palestinian party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose leader, in his first Knesset speech, promised constituents he would regain land Israel expropriated from Palestinians.

The North American Reform Jewish Movement seemed the most divorced from the Israeli reality: “We are hopeful that this new government, unprecedented in the ideological diversity of its members, will … commit to furthering a pluralistic agenda, combat extremism … and be a government for all of Israel’s citizens. We also hope this government will reaffirm the importance of … bipartisan outreach and engagement.”

'Thriving democracy'?

Given that Bennett is known for his incendiary anti-Palestinian rhetoric, it’s hard to see how he will be a leader for all Israeli citizens. 

Indeed, Israelis this week held the annual Flag March, a far-right “holiday” marked by provocative demonstrations by Israeli extremists in Palestinian neighbourhoods, where chants such as “Death to Arabs” ring out loudly. 

Though some political leaders urged that the march be called off amid the recent violence between Jews and Palestinians, the government refused to cancel it; many of those participating were key supporters of far-right parties, such as Bennett’s Yamina.

Bennett gestures at the Knesset in Jerusalem on 16 June 2021 (AFP)
Bennett gestures at the Knesset in Jerusalem on 16 June 2021 (AFP)

In light of such a tacit alliance between violent Jewish extremists and their political patrons, it’s a wonder that American Jewish groups can close their eyes to this and see only sunshine and fresh air.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews issued a fulsome welcome to the new government, saying the “unity coalition” comprising “parties of the centre, left, right, and for the first time in almost 50 years, an Israeli Arab political party … is a wonderful demonstration of Israel’s thriving democracy”.

Whether there is “unity” in an amalgam of so many disparate political parties in the long term remains to be seen. But this government is more an act of desperation - cobbled together as the only hope of removing Netanyahu from power - than a “demonstration of Israel’s thriving democracy”.

Cut from the same cloth

The most liberal of the groups welcoming the new government, J Street, expressed some reservations, noting: “While we have reason to hope that the new government will be far more moderate and reasonable than its predecessor in many areas, we have no reason to expect that it will end the intolerable, unjust and deteriorating status quo of endless occupation and recurring violence. Naftali Bennett has consistently presented himself as an even more hardline, pro-settlement, anti-Palestinian, right-wing alternative.”

This seemed at least a tacit acknowledgement that Bennett’s past views were no more receptive than Netanyahu’s to a two-state solution.

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Pointedly, the most left-wing Jewish groups in the US, If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace, did not issue statements, suggesting they saw nothing to celebrate in the new government. It is merely a change of faces, with the same racist, apartheid policies of its predecessor. Bennett is cut from the same cloth as Netanyahu, having served at one time as his chief of staff.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden was quick to congratulate Bennett; while it took Biden a month to call Netanyahu after his own inauguration, it took him only two hours to call Bennett. While the US realises that the new Israeli government will continue to oppose the Iran nuclear deal and Biden’s anticipated return to it, he wants that opposition to be private rather than public.

Biden understands that Bennett doesn’t differ significantly in political terms from his predecessor, which means the US is unlikely to press for any major agreements or negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But merely being able to turn down the heat on the US-Israel relationship would bring a welcome respite, as far as Biden is concerned.

In his own inaugural speech as prime minister, Bennett made clear that he understood how much Netanyahu had alienated US Democrats, defying former President Barack Obama at every turn and stymying several attempts to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Bennett has vowed to work with both Republicans and Democrats - though given the restiveness of progressive Democrats in light of Israel’s latest attack on Gaza, he will find the party increasingly divided.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Richard Silverstein
Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield) Photo of RS by: (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times)