(JTA) — The recent Israeli elections, the fifth in less than four years, returned Benjamin Netanyahu to the driver’s seat for the third time.
The twice and future prime minister appears able to cobble together a coalition that has been called the most right-wing in Israeli history. It will include three far-right and two haredi Orthodox parties, and his partners include the far-right Religious Zionism party and its leader Bezalel Smotrich, who has successfully pushed for a heavier hand in controlling Israeli policies in the West Bank; Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party, who is due to head a new National Security Ministry that will be given authority over Border Police in the West Bank; and far-right Knesset member Avi Maoz, whose Noam party campaigned on a homophobic and anti-pluralistic platform.
These developments have cheered the American Jewish right, which has long called for Israel to consolidate its power in — if not outright annex — the disputed territories of the West Bank that are home to 480,000 Israeli settlers and 2.7 million Palestinians, of whom 220,000 live in East Jerusalem.
For Jews on the center and left, however, the results have prompted anxiety. If the two-state solution has long looked out of reach, many were at least hoping Israel would stay on a centrist path and maintain the status quo until Israelis and Palestinians seem ready for their long-delayed divorce. American Jewish leaders are worried — privately and in public — that Jewish support for Israel will erode further than it has if Jews become convinced Israel doesn’t share their democratic and pluralistic values.
I spoke this past week about these issues and more with Michael Koplow, the chief policy officer of the Israel Policy Forum and a senior research fellow of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. The IPF supports a viable two-state solution, and Koplow acknowledges that he agrees with “almost nothing that I’m going to see from this Israeli government.” But he remains one of the most articulate analysts I know of the high stakes on all sides.
Our conversation was presented as a Zoom event sponsored by Congregation Beth Sholom, my own synagogue in Teaneck, New Jersey. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity
Jewish Telegraphic Agency: What are the far right’s big asks, and what might we expect to see going forward?
Michael Koplow: There are a few issues that are really coming to the fore. The first is judicial reform. There’s a longstanding complaint among the Israeli right that the Israeli Supreme Court is perceived to be left-leaning — the mirror image of what we have here in the United States. Secondly, the Supreme Court is perceived by many Israelis to be an undemocratic institution, because it is an appointed body. In Israel, you have a selection committee for the Supreme Court that is actually composed mostly of sitting Supreme Court justices and members of the Israeli Bar Association. A common complaint is that the Knesset is a democratic body selected by the people and it’s hampered by this undemocratic body that gets to dictate to the Knesset what is legal and what is not.
And so for a long time on the Israeli right there has been a call to have a bill passed that would allow the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions. At the moment, there’s no recourse. The ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel have long sought exemptions for haredi Israelis to serve in the IDF and the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that ultra-Orthodox members of Israeli society can’t get a blanket exemption. A Supreme Court override bill would allow the Knesset to exempt the ultra-Orthodox from serving in the IDF. For the more right-wing nationalist parties, particularly Religious Zionism, the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled on multiple occasions that settlements cannot be established on private Palestinian land in the West Bank. Their main interest in a Supreme Court override is so that they can pass laws that will effectively allow settlements anywhere in [the West Bank’s Israeli-controlled] Area C, whether it’s state land or private Palestinian land.
Is Netanyahu interested for these same reasons?
Netanyahu is to a lesser extent interested in these things, but right now he’s on trial for three different counts, all for fraud and breach of trust, which is the crime that Israeli politicians get charged with in matters of corruption. He’s also in trouble for bribery. One of the things that he wants to do is to pass something called the “French law,” which would bar sitting Israeli prime ministers from being investigated and indicted. And in order to do that, he almost certainly will have to get around the Supreme Court.
The second thing that I think we can expect to see from this prospective coalition has to do with the West Bank. In late 2019 and early 2020, there was a lot of talk in the Israeli political sphere about either applying sovereignty to the West Bank or annexing the West Bank. This happened also in conjunction with the release of the Trump plan in January 2020, which envisioned upfront 30% of the West Bank being annexed to Israel.
This all got shelved in the summer of 2020, with the Abraham Accords, when the Emirati ambassador to the United States wrote an op-ed where he said to Israelis, “You can have normalization with the UAE or you can have annexation, but you can’t have both.” Israelis overwhelmingly wanted normalization versus West Bank annexation. Between 10% and 15% of Israeli Jews want annexation, so this annexation plan was dropped. In the new coalition, annexation is back, but it’s back in a different way. Bezalel Smotrich is a particularly smart and savvy politician, and understands that if you talk about annexation or application of sovereignty on day one, he’d likely run into some of the same problems — from the United States and potentially from other countries in the region. And so the way they’re going about it now is by instituting a piecemeal plan that will add up to what is effectively annexation.
How would that work?
For starters, there is a plan to legalize illegal Israeli settlements, and when I say illegal, I mean illegal under Israeli law. There are 127 settlements in the West Bank that are legal under Israeli law, because they had been built on what is called state land inside of the West Bank, and because they’ve gone through the planning and permitting process. In addition, there are about 205 illegal Israeli outposts and illegal Israeli farms, containing somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 Israelis. And what makes them illegal under Israeli law is that they were all built without any type of Israeli government approval. In many of these cases, they’re also built on private Palestinian land.
The first part of this plan is to legalize retroactively these illegal outposts. The coalition agreement that has already been signed between Likud and Religious Zionism, Smotrich’s party, calls for, within 60 days of the formation of the government, the state paying for water and electricity to these illegal outposts. I should note there already is water and electricity to these illegal outposts, but it’s paid for by the regional settlement councils. This would have water and electricity paid for by the Israeli government, and then within a year to retroactively legalize all of them. That’s step number one.
Step number two has to do with the legal settlements inside the West Bank. There is a body called the Civil Administration, which is the body that is in charge of all construction for both Israelis and Palestinians in Area C, the 60% of the West Bank that is controlled entirely by Israel. As part of the agreement between Likud and Religious Zionism, Smotrich is going to be finance minister, but also appointed as a junior minister in the Defense Ministry, and he will control the Civil Administration and will be in charge of all settlement construction in the West Bank. He will also have the power to decide whether Palestinians can build in Area C and whether Palestinian structures in Area C that were built without a permit can be demolished. And so this will almost certainly be increasing at a very rapid rate. The Supreme Planning Committee that plans West Bank settlement construction normally would meet about four times a year, and under the [current] Bennett/Lapid government it only met twice, but Smotrich said in the past that he would like to convene it every single month. So the pace of settlement construction is almost certainly going to grow at a pretty rapid pace.
What will Itamar Ben-Gvir, an acolyte of Meir Kahane, the American rabbi barred from Israel’s parliament in the 1980s because of his racism, gain in the government?
Itamar Ben-Gvir is the head of Otzma Yehudit, the Jewish supremacist party that now has six seats in the Knesset. As part of his negotiations with Netanyahu, he is going to be appointed to a new position known as the “national security minister,” which is currently called the public security minister, but they’ve increased its powers and renamed it. They’ve also given this new ministry control over the West Bank border police, who operate in the West Bank. And they’re also giving this minister power over the police that normally belongs to the police commissioner. And so Ben-Gvir, who I should note has seven criminal convictions on his record, including one for support of a terrorist organization and incitement to racism, is going to be the minister who’s in charge of the police — not only inside of Israel, but he’ll be in charge of the police who operate in the West Bank and who operate on the Temple Mount.
And this is important because Ben-Gvir is one of the figures in Israel who has talked a lot about changing the status quo on the Temple Mount, probably the most sensitive spot in the entire world, and certainly the most sensitive spot anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Which is why Israeli governments, including very right-wing governments, have not changed the status quo [allowing Jews to enter the Muslim-administered mount, but pray there], certainly not formally. He’s also talked about increasing his own visits to the Temple Mount.
And he’s also talked about changing the rules of engagement for Israeli police, whereby they would be allowed to shoot anybody on sight, for instance, who’s holding a stone or holding a Molotov cocktail. Right now the current rules of engagement are that people like that can only be shot if they present an imminent and serious threat to a soldier or police. Changing that is certainly going to have an effect on relations between Israelis and Palestinians and likely lead to the types of clashes we’ve seen in Jerusalem over the past few years.
This is all very good news for folks who want to solidify Israeli control in the West Bank. It’s not such good news for people who support more autonomy for the Palestinians and certainly support the two-state solution — and I think I can include the Israel Policy Forum in the latter camp. I want to hear your thoughts on what you’ve called the best-case scenarios and the worst-case scenarios, and on where Netanyahu fits in.
When I say best-case scenario, I mean in terms of preserving the status quo, because a best-case scenario where you’d actually have an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians is nowhere. It’s not in any conceivable future.
I think the best-case scenario would be that Netanyahu understands Israel’s place in the international system and he understands how issues inside the West Bank impact Israel’s foreign relations. This is somebody who has served as Israeli prime minister longer than anybody else. He was prime minister when the Abraham Accords came into being, and that accomplishment is rightfully his. Netanyahu understands these factors and has a long history of being very cautious as prime minister. He’s not a prime minister that uses force. He’s not a prime minister under whom Israel has undertaken any major military operations outside of Gaza. I think that it’s not unreasonable to think that his history of relative caution isn’t just going to go away. And that means doing things to make sure that the fundamental situation in the West Bank doesn’t get overturned.
Netanyahu is operating in a political context in which his voters and voters for the other parties in his coalition do expect some real radical changes. Interestingly, however, part of this agreement with Religious Zionism is that everything has to be approved by [Netanyahu], and so there will be a mechanism for Netanyahu to slow some things down. I think that there is a situation in which he lets things proceed at an increased pace, but doesn’t do anything to really fundamentally alter the status of the West Bank.
I also think that voters voted for Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit not because they’re looking for big, massive changes in the West Bank or an explosion in settlement construction, but because they were voting on law and order issues. Many Israelis are still very shell-shocked, literally and figuratively, by the events of May 2021, particularly the riots that broke out in mixed Israeli cities. And despite the fact that Itamar Ben-Gvir was blamed by the police commissioner at the time for instigating some of the violence in mixed cities, he ran a very effective campaign where he said, “Vote for me and effectively I will restore order.”
That leads to the reasonable best-case scenario of plenty of things happening that will cause friction with the United States and plenty of things that will cause friction with the Palestinians, but nothing that can necessarily be undone by a different government down the road.
And the worst-case scenario, from your perspective?
The worst-case scenario is all of these things that Smotrich, in particular, wants to carry out leads to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Based on my own experience in the West Bank in recent months, the Palestinian Authority has fundamentally lost control of much of the northern West Bank. In many places they have chosen not to engage in many ways. They effectively operate in and around Ramallah, and have a token presence in other spots, but don’t really have the power to enforce law and order. They’re under enormous political strain.
As a very quick refresher, the West Bank is divided into three areas, A, B and C. In theory, Area A is supposed to be entirely under the PA control and where you have between 1.3 and 1.5 million Palestinians. If the Palestinian Authority collapses, that means that Israel must go in and literally be the day to day governor and mayor of Area A and all its cities, providing services to 1.3 million Palestinians. It means acting as traffic cops, dealing with all sorts of housing and construction and literally everything that municipal governments do that Israel has not done in Area A in almost 30 years.
Does Israel even have that capability?
The standard is that 55% of all active-duty IDF soldiers are currently stationed in the West Bank. If the Palestinian Authority collapses it’s not hyperbole to say that every single active-duty IDF soldier will have to be stationed in the West Bank just to run things, just to maintain basic law and order. That means not having IDF soldiers on the border with Egypt, on the borders with Syria and Lebanon. It will effectively have turned into nothing but a full-time occupation force. And that’s Option A.
Option B is that Israel elects not to do that. And then Hamas or Islamic Jihad steps into the vacuum, and they become the new government in the West Bank. And at that point, everything that you have in Gaza, you have in the West Bank, except for the fact that the West Bank is a much larger territory. It cannot be sealed off completely. This is literally the nightmare scenario not only for Israeli security officials, but for Israeli civilians. And that’s even before we talk about the impact that will have on terrorism and violence inside of Israeli cities inside the green line, let alone what happens in the West Bank.
The United States and the European Union, and the U.N., presumably, won’t stand idly by through a lot of these changes. What leverage do they have and can they use to maintain the status quo?
The U.S. and E.U. are going to have some pretty clear, very well-defined red lines. I think it’s reasonable to expect that the Biden administration and many members of Congress will put the formal declaration of annexation as a red line. The same goes for European countries. But certainly the Biden administration doesn’t want to be in a position where they are getting into constant fights with the Israeli government. The administration rightly views Israel as an ally and an important partner and wants to maintain military and security and intelligence cooperation with Israel in the region. All those things benefit U.S. foreign policy. This is not an administration and certainly there isn’t support in Congress for things like conditioning security assistance to Israel or placing new usage restrictions on the type of weapons that we sell to Israel. And so there isn’t a huge amount of leverage in that department.
But I do think we’re going to see more diplomatic and political-type measures. People remember the controversy that ensued in December 2016 at the United Nations when the Obama administration abstained from a Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements. I think that if some of these measures go ahead, on the Israeli side, there’s a good chance that we will see the United States once again abstain from some measures in the Security Council. At the moment, the Israeli government has been working very hard to get the United States to help with [thwarting] investigations into Israeli activity in the West Bank in the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. I think that those sorts of things become a lot harder if Israel has fundamentally changed the status of the situation in the West Bank.
There are probably all sorts of trade relationships with the European Union that may be at risk. One big factor here is the other states in the region, the Abraham Accords states. There’s reason to think that they may act as a check on the Israeli government, given the popularity of normalization among Israelis, and given the fact that the UAE was the party that really stepped in and prevented annexation from taking place in the summer of 2020. In a country like Saudi Arabia, where you have a population of between 25 and 30 million, or Iraq or Kuwait, [the far right’s agenda] makes normalizing relations with those countries very, very difficult, if not impossible, and it’s possible that Netanyahu will use that also as a way to try and appeal to some of his coalition partners.
Another outside partner is Diaspora Jewry. A vocal minority of American Jewry supports the right-wing government, but a majority would support a two-state solution. They connect to Israel with what they see as a shared sense of democracy and liberal values. Does Netanyahu and his coalition partners think at all about them and their concerns? Do those Diaspora Jews have any leverage at all in terms of moderating any of these trends?
The short answer is not really. The parties in a prospective coalition are not ones that historically have cared very much about the relationship with the Diaspora. Haredi parties are not concerned about the erosion of liberal values inside of Israel or the situation in the West Bank for the most part. And parties like Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit really don’t care what American Jewry thinks about much of anything. We’ve already seen demands in some of these coalition agreements to amend the Law of Return, where right now, anybody who has one Jewish grandparent is eligible to be an Israeli citizen. These parties have been requesting that it be amended so that you are only eligible if you are halachically Jewish, meaning you have a Jewish mother [or have converted formally].
North American Jewry is a real asset to the State of Israel given its role traditionally in supporting the state economically and politically. And yet over the past decade and a half there have been repeated comments [among Israeli politicians, including Netanyahu’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer] that it’s more important to be making inroads with evangelical Christians than with North American Jews, given the politics of evangelical Christians and given their size.
Many American Jews, particularly from the Reform and Conservative denominations, have already been angry that Israel doesn’t fully recognize the authenticity of non-Orthodox Judaism, and that an agreement to create a permanent egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall has been repeatedly shelved under pressure from Israel’s religious right.
We are in for a tough time in terms of Diaspora-Israel relations. You know, it’s not just about the issues that have been on the table over the past few years that have been disappointing to Diaspora Jewry, whether it be the Western Wall arrangement, whether it be recognition of Conservative and Reform Judaism inside of Israel, whether it be things like the Law of Return, which now seems to be under threat. In general, this question of values, which has been a big deal, is going to be even more front and center. Many American Jews have looked at Israel and thought of it as a place that shares liberal values with the United States. To some extent, that’s been historically accurate. But that picture, whether it’s accurate or not, is going to be under incredible strain.
What about within Israel? Are there any countervailing powers that might moderate the far right — professional military leadership, major business leaders, other opinion-makers outside the political process?
Thankfully, there is no history of IDF leadership interfering in the political decisions of elected civilian leaders in Israel. I hope that will continue. The way the security establishment has generally dealt with these sorts of things is by presenting a united front when they speak to the political leadership and give their opinions and advice and warnings about what might happen. They tend to be very savvy at leaking those opinions to the media. I’m certain that that sort of thing will continue. We already saw some discord over the past week between IDF leadership and some of the members of the prospective new coalition over disciplinary measures that were taken against soldiers who were serving in Hebron, one of whom punched a [Palestinian] protester, another who verbally assaulted a protester. And that can be a moderating influence, but I actually do not expect to see the military leadership stepping in any way in preventing something that the government may want to do.
The biggest check will be Israelis themselves. There was something else interesting that happened [last] week: Avi Maoz, who was the single member of Knesset from Noam, which is one of these three very, very radical right-wing parties, was appointed as a deputy minister in the prime minister’s office, and he was given control over effectively everything in education that is not part of the core curriculum and Israeli schools — like culture and Jewish identity issues. And that led to a revolt from Israeli mayors. You’ve had over 100 mayors of over 100 municipalities signing a letter saying that they are not going to be bound by Maoz’s dictates on curriculum. And this includes right-wing cities. I think that the most effective check is going to be government overreach, which leads to a backlash like this among Israeli citizens and among Israeli politicians who are not members of Knesset.
We’ve covered a lot of ground. Is there something we haven’t touched upon?
It’s really important that people don’t look at what’s taking place in Israel, throw up their hands and say, “You know, there’s nothing we can do to change this and Israelis are increasingly uninterested in what we think and so we’re going to disengage.” To my mind, the relationship that American Jews have to Israel is too important to just throw up our hands and say it doesn’t matter.
If we take American Jewish identity seriously, and we take the American Jewish project seriously, we have to think about two things. First, how we build an American Jewish identity that’s uniquely American. But second, how we preserve some sort of relationship with Israel, even when we see things coming from Israel that don’t speak to our Jewish values. We’re living in a time where we have an independent Jewish state with Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland. This is a historical anomaly. If we turn our backs on that, despite all of the difficulties, it really would be a tragedy and catastrophic for American Jewish identity.
If you don’t like what you see going on in Israel, try to figure out what your relationship with Israel will look like and how to have a productive one. And that doesn’t have to mean supporting everything the Israeli government does. I consider myself you know, somebody who is a strong Zionist, strongly pro-Israel. It’s a place that I love. I agree with almost nothing that I’m going to see from this Israeli government. But I’m still able to have a strong, meaningful relationship with the State of Israel, and I hope that people are able to do the same, irrespective of the day-to-day of Israeli politics.