Ron Kronish

Bibi’s bedfellows in sacrificing the hostages and pursuing “total war”

wiki commons images. The Kidnapped and Missing Square in the plaza of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art
wiki commons images. The Kidnapped and Missing Square in the plaza of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

The war of the Israel Defense Forces against the mini-army of Hamas has been going on for more than five months in the Gaza Strip. It was launched on the day after massive attacks and atrocities committed by Hamas militants and additional Palestinians from Gaza against the citizens and soldiers of Israel in the south of Israel, near the border with Gaza, on October 7th, 2023. These large-scale attacks caught Israel’s military – and society – totally by surprise on that fateful day. This war, which is now turning into a war of attrition (like previous wars in Lebanon and Egypt), has become Netanyahu’s war, and that of his colleagues in his extreme-right wing government. How did this happen?

According to Israel’s system of coalition politics, after an election the president of Israel turns to the head of the largest political party which has the highest chance of forming a coalition, which will then become the “government.” Since we have 120 seats in our Knesset (the parliament), the leader of the party who is tasked to form the government, must garner the support of at least 61 MKs (Members of Knesset). After the last elections in Israel on November 1, 2022, Bibi (as he likes to be called) was only able to form a government, after several months of tough negotiations and much political bribery, by bringing into his coalition two far-right political parties, Religious Zionism and Jewish Power – who ran together under the label of “Religious Zionism.” The leaders of these parties, which had previously been beyond the pale in Israeli politics, were comprised of extremist “religious” politicians who had no experience in governing and were known for their radical, messianic, super-nationalist, violent, annexation-oriented ideas and methods.

In practice, this meant that Bibi brought into his government some totally irresponsible politicians – who had always been considered outsiders or even “crazies” by the Israeli mainstream – by the names of Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir. Without these politicians and their political parties, Bibi could not have formed this current government. If he wanted to return to power, (which he very much wanted to do so as to avoid his trial on major counts of corruption) he had no choice but to “get into bed” with them, even though he knew who they were and how dangerous they were to Israeli society, and to Israel’s standing in the international community of nations.

Who are these people and what are their ministerial positions in this super-extremist government? And what are their views on any potential deal which would exchange Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli prisons for Israeli hostages who have been held captive in horrible conditions in Gaza for more than five months? And what are their ideas for “the day after,” i.e. once “total victory” is achieved over Hamas?

Betzalel Smotrich is the leader of the political party now known as “Religious Zionism.” The party, which was once known at the National Religious Party in the days when it had moderate religious leaders, is a political party of the settler movement, especially of the Orthodox Jews in that movement. It has moved to the far-right over the decades. Smotrich lives in the settlement of Kedumim in the northern West Bank. He is relatively young, only 44 years old, but has a long history of activism against a Palestinian state and for expansion of settlements in the West Bank (and Gaza!) and he was vehemently and violently against the unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005. He is a known rabble rouser within Israeli politics, with extreme anti-Palestinian views, who somehow (due to a dearth of serious leaders) rose to the top of this political party in recent years. Even though he has a law degree, he has often acted against the law, especially when he didn’t like the policies of previous governments. Prior to this current government, he had no experience in government or administration of any kind. Nevertheless, not only did Netanyahu agree to appoint him as finance minister, for which he is totally unqualified, but he also gave him a new and very strange incomprehensible appointment as minister within the Ministry of Defense, so that he is effectively the minister for creeping annexation in the West Bank. The fact that Bibi agreed to appoint this inexperienced unqualified wise guy to these two ministerial positions is astoundingly unreasonable, pointing out how low Bibi was willing to go to form a government for his own survival.

But guess what? Bibi went even lower than that by appointing Itamar Ben Gvir as the Minister of National Security (formerly known as the police, but now with expanded powers). Who is Itamar Ben Gvir?

Ben Gvir is a follower of the late Orthodox rabbi named Meir Kahane, who was known in Israel for a brief time as the most extreme Jewish Member of Knesset. After Kahane made aliyah to Israel from Brooklyn in 1971, he formed an avowedly racist (anti-Arab) political party called Kach, which was in the Knesset only for one term from 1984-1988, during which time most of his speeches were boycotted by most of the members of the Knesset. After that, his party was banned from the Israeli parliament because it was considered too racist (there were “red lines” back then). In recent years, Ben Gvir founded a new Kahanist party called Otzmah Yehudit (Jewish Power), which is anti-Palestinian, anti-peace, pro-settlement, pro-annexation, totally in the spirit of Kahane. Before that, Ben Gvir had been arrested many times and even convicted several times for overstepping the bounds of the law in his anti-government activism. In other words, he was a known criminal. Jewish Power surprisingly won eight seats in the Israeli elections of November 1st, 2022 and therefore was in a position to shape the balance of power in the next government and to make unreasonable demands on Bibi in the negotiations.

Bibi agreed to appoint Ben Gvir as Minister of National Security, which was a shockingly irresponsible move that was condemned widely in Israel and abroad (no one abroad will agree to host him or Smotrich!) This was akin to appointing the head of the John Birch Society to be the Secretary for Civil Rights in the USA or appointing the head of the National Rifle Association to be in charge of the struggle to control the use of guns in America. Nevertheless, Bibi did this, with full knowledge of the dangers this man would pose to democracy in Israel, in order to regain power after the last election. Ben Gvir is a trained lawyer (who often defended extreme “hilltop youth” who vandalized Christian and Muslim institutions and attacked innocent Palestinians), who is very communicative and who is a terrific spinster (like Bibi) and therefore is in the news every day, saying one outrageous thing after the other.

These two political appointments were the most outlandish and dangerous ones that Bibi made to save his skin, among others, and he has been paying in spades for these mistakes. These men (and others in their political parties) are opposing any deal for return of the Israeli hostages. They have said so publicly. They have influenced Bibi to sound like them – this explains his move to the far-right in many of his outrageous statements about the war, not to mention complete lies (like his repetition that the goal of the war is to bring home all the hostages, when in fact he has been refusing to make the necessary compromises to bring them home for months). Not only do they want this war to go on forever, but they want to resettle Jewish communities in Gaza and have already begun to sign people up to go to live there! In other words, they want to re-occupy Gaza, to re-annex it to Israel, just as they wish to annex the West Bank to Israel. This war is therefore not only Bibi’s war. It is very much theirs, too.

Bibi is completely beholden to these two wily anti-democratic, anti-peace, irresponsible politicians, who threaten him every day with leaving the coalition, thus ending his reign and bringing about new elections, if he dares to do anything positive that they do not like (like reaching a deal soon to bring home the hostages in exchange for lots of Palestinian prisoners). They are a disgrace to the people and politics of Israel, and the fact that Bibi has given them so much prominence has brought shame on him, on his government and on the state of Israel, leading us to growing international isolation. This is one of the central reasons that we need new elections as soon as possible in Israel, to remove them and their enabler from power. The sooner the better.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr Ron Kronish is the Founding Director the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), which he directed for 25 years. Now retired, he is an independent educator, author, lecturer, writer, speaker, blogger and consultant. He is the editor of 5 books, including Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel--Voices for Interreligious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 2015). His new book, The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, a View from Jerusalem, was published by Hamilton Books, an imprint of Rowman and LIttelfield, in September 2017. He recently (September 2022) published a new book about peacebuilders in Israel and Palestine entitled Profiles in Peace: Voices of Peacebuilders in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which is available on Amazon Books, Barnes and Noble and the Book Depository websites,
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