How to Get a Breakthrough in Ukraine
The Case Against Incrementalism
Benjamin Netanyahu has returned to power with a mission: making Israel into an openly racist authoritarian state, one that puts Orthodox Judaism ahead of human rights, treats its Arab citizens as an enemy, and demolishes the checks and balances imposed by a strong, independent judiciary. The prime minister has secured power by cobbling together a parliamentary coalition that views democratic and liberal ideas as foreign implants aimed at undermining the Jewish identity of the state.
The agreements that bind the coalition’s member parties are a blueprint of revolution. The members have pledged to allow discrimination against women, non-Jews, and LGBTQ people “for reasons of religious belief.” They have called the large Arab population in Israel’s northern and southern districts a “demographic challenge.” Israeli political agreements are rarely implemented to the letter, but they serve as statements of intent and signal the direction in which policymakers will go. The current set of agreements have made it clear that the country’s new governing coalition will be the most right-wing in Israeli history.
Driving the new coalition’s ideological zeal are three politicians, each of whom makes Netanyahu look like a softie. The first is Itamar Ben-Gvir, an acolyte of the man who founded Kach—a racist, pro-violence political organization that was declared a terrorist group and outlawed in 1994 after a supporter shot and killed 29 Muslims. Ben-Gvir himself has a long record of arrests and convictions for offenses such as supporting terror and inciting racism. The second is Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of extremist Jewish settlers in the West Bank, who was arrested in 2005 with roughly 200 gallons of fuel that authorities suspected he was planning to use to damage national infrastructure and prevent Israel from removing settlements from Gaza; he was freed without indictment. The third figure, Avi Maoz, leads a small but fanatical religious and ultranationalist party that wants to purge Israel’s education system, civil service, and media of liberals, feminists, and LGBTQ people. Aware of Netanyahu’s track record of broken promises and outright lies, these three extremists demanded and received new constitutional powers before agreeing to make him prime minister. Ben-Gvir will lead Israel's police and border patrol with unprecedented ministerial powers. Smotrich will be given a freer hand on expanding settlements and promoting Israel’s annexation of West Bank territory. Maoz will be in charge of extracurricular education and will get a special budget to “strengthen Israel’s Jewish identity.”
Netanyahu’s embrace of all three figures has given him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dismantle the existing state system, which he views as hostile and disrespectful to his leadership. He has taken the first steps toward doing so by appointing a deeply loyal politician, Yariv Levin, to serve as minister of justice, someone he hopes will make his corruption trials go away. Netanyahu may ultimately be forced to moderate some of his autocratic and ideologically extreme behavior to cater to international audiences. He blocked some of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s more dangerous ideas, such as changing the religious status quo on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount by allowing Jewish prayer at one of Islam’s holiest sites. But Israel’s political system is on the brink of becoming a full-blown autocracy, and the West Bank is on the verge of explosion. Netanyahu is playing with fire.
Netanyahu has always shown two faces, the ideological radical and the reasonable pragmatist, adapting his preferred image to the political and international circumstances. Ideologically, he sees Israel as Jewish before democratic, considers the Palestinian national movement (and its Western supporters) to be an anti-Semitic scam, and views state organs such as the military, bureaucracy, and judiciary with immense suspicion. To the prime minister and his religious and right-wing base, these bodies are a “deep state” that serves as a bastion of the old Israel: leftist, secular, and insufficiently Zionist. He sees them as an apparatus that is trying to please American and European liberals. From his first election as prime minister in 1996, Netanyahu called for “replacing the old elites” with socially conservative and staunchly nationalist newcomers.
But there is also the other Netanyahu, whose biography reads like the old elite checklist. He was born in Rehavia, a Jerusalem neighborhood that was Israel’s intellectual hub in the early years. He attended the Massachusetts Institution of Technology and was a Special Forces officer in the Israel Defense Forces. He is also personally secular (Netanyahu has never denied his media portrayal as an atheist) and an Ayn Rand–style believer in the power of the lone genius and the wisdom of plutocrat billionaires. This version of Netanyahu appeared whenever election results forced him to make deals with the political center or he was facing unbearable U.S. pressure to revive the peace process with the Palestinians and make diplomatic concessions.
Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister came to an end in 1999, when his efforts to lead a conservative revolution and to stop implementing the Oslo accords—in which Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization agreed to recognize each other and work toward a two-state solution—met the combined resistance of the Israeli political establishment and the Clinton administration. In response, Netanyahu began leaning into his more pragmatic credentials. This paid off in 2009, when he again became prime minister by forming a coalition with Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader who had defeated him a decade earlier. In 2013, he extended his tenure as prime minister by teaming up with two centrist parties. In those years, Netanyahu’s main political efforts were focused on foreign policy. He succeeded in derailing U.S. President Barack Obama’s effort to resume the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but he failed to get Washington’s and Israel’s defense and intelligence chiefs to support an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. He also failed to block Obama’s nuclear deal with Tehran.
Ideologically, Netanyahu sees Israel as Jewish before democratic.
Then, in 2015, almost 20 years after Netanyahu’s first sought to drag Israel to the right, ideologues won a clear parliamentary majority. He was once again able to take office with a purely right-wing and ultra-Orthodox coalition and revive his old, unfulfilled dream of "replacing the elites." With a strong tailwind from U.S. President Donald Trump, he kicked the Palestinian issue aside and focused on promoting Jewish power. These efforts culminated in the 2018 passage of a new Basic Law that defined the country as the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” The law pledged to promote Jewish settlements across the country to block the expansion of Arab communities and to allow for Jewish-only small towns. It declared that only the Jewish people had national collective rights, and it contained no clauses guaranteeing equality for non-Jewish Israelis. Because the country has no formal constitution, Basic Laws serve as the de facto version, and this one’s passage was aimed at ending the dominance of human rights and civil equality in Israeli Supreme Court decisions.
Nevertheless, shortly after the nation-state bill was signed into law, Netanyahu’s coalition fell apart, and Israel sank into four years of political crisis. The turmoil coincided with a criminal investigation into Netanyahu’s activities that led to his indictment and trial on triple corruption charges. The charges divided Israel into two rival camps: the “Bibists” (Netanyahu’s nickname is “Bibi”) and the “Just No Bibists.” The first group portrayed the trial in Jerusalem’s district court as a deep-state scheme to get rid of its political enemy through the legal system. Netanyahu’s Likud Party, which has dominated Israeli politics since 1977, turned into a personality cult around its leader. In December, Netanyahu’s son Yair, who serves as his father’s no-holds-barred public alter ego, called for trying the prosecutors and police investigators in the case for treason, hinting that they deserved the death penalty. True to form, Netanyahu issued a mild disagreement.
On the other side, Netanyahu opponents across the political spectrum united in an effort to oust him. It took several years, but after three major right-wing politicians broke away from Netanyahu’s camp, Israel’s longest-tenured prime minister lost power. In his place came a self-described “change government” led by Naftali Bennett, a now-retired far-right politician, and Yair Lapid, who heads the centrist party Yesh Atid. Their governing coalition also included the Zionist left wing and, for the first time in Israeli history, an Arab party.
At first, the Bennett-Lapid government was able to show a businesslike governing style. But it ultimately failed to come up with a convincing vision or direction beyond keeping its nemesis out of power. The change coalition agreed to skirt the Palestinian issue and religious-secular divisions, to no avail. The country’s underlying conflicts came back to haunt it, enabling Netanyahu to peel away Bennett’s small party and eventually force the coalition to dissolve. On November 1, Israelis went back to the polls.
During the 2022 election campaign, the Just No Bibi camp failed to unite, sinking into personal rivalries. Netanyahu meanwhile closed ranks on his side. He was helped by the shocking rise of Ben-Gvir, previously a marginal figure on the far right. Ben-Gvir ran on a platform of law and order: a thinly veiled euphemism for making Israel’s Arab society, racked by unprecedented levels of crime, the country’s domestic enemy. He promised to show Israeli Arabs “who is the landlord.” Together, Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, and Maoz’s parties (which ran as a combined package) came in third in the vote after Likud and Yesh Atid, helping give Netanyahu’s coalition 64 out of 120 parliamentary seats. For Netanyahu, the result was far better than what public opinion polls had predicted. Indeed, compared with Israel’s recent history of too-close-to-call, razor-thin election results, it was a landslide.
As he formed his new government, Netanyahu tried to distance himself from his ultra-Orthodox, racist, and homophobic partners. He gave interviews to conservative U.S. outlets in which he promised to be in charge rather than bow to his political partners, even as he negotiated deals that explicitly called for measures to promote Jewish supremacy. Netanyahu returned, in other words, to playing two roles at once: assuring liberals that he would protect their secular lifestyle from religious zeal while telling conservatives that he would fulfill their dreams.
In reality, of course, Netanyahu cannot have it both ways, and the radical coalition reveals his true, autocratic intentions. So do his proposed constitutional reforms, which sit explicitly at the top of the government’s agenda. They are aimed at destroying the independence of the judiciary and breaking up a system in which legal advisers have veto power over ministerial and bureaucratic decision-making: one proposal would give the government the power to overrule Supreme Court decisions. Netanyahu appointed Levin, who has described Israel’s judiciary as a branch of the far left, to be the leader of the reforms. As justice minister, Levin’s unspoken other task will be to find a legal way to derail Netanyahu’s trial, freeing his boss from that burden.
For Palestinians, Israel’s new measures are likely to make a terrible situation even worse.
In exchange for supporting Netanyahu’s reforms, the ultra-Orthodox, who have staunchly backed him through years of political upheaval, will get stronger exemptions from the draft. (They are already de facto exempt from military service, but this exemption is facing legal challenges that the rabbinical leadership wants to eliminate.) The ultra-Orthodox will also enjoy new rules and an extra budget that will make it easier for their schools to avoid teaching English and math to boys, leaving them to study only religion. There will be no public transportation on Shabbat, and the government will consider rabbinical studies equivalent to academic degrees when evaluating applicants for public-sector jobs. Secular schools will receive more religious indoctrination. It will become legal to segregate people by gender in public spaces, from cultural events to public transportation. Even today, women are forced to sit in the back on buses that serve certain ultra-Orthodox communities. Now such misogynistic policies will receive a legal blessing.
Perhaps most alarmingly for international observers, Netanyahu will double down on his declaration that only the Jewish people have the right to the entire Land of Israel, which tops the new government’s formal guidelines. To make good on his pledge “to promote and develop settlements” in all of the territory that Israel controls, Netanyahu will expand the presence of Jewish people in the West Bank by grabbing more land from Palestinians. His government will further integrate existing settlements into the Israeli legal and governmental system through steps such as according full legal status to outposts built without the government’s approval. To achieve these ends, Netanyahu has provided Smotrich overriding authority over the settlements. He plans to adopt a host of measures, such as planting trees on uninhabited lands and promoting Jewish shepherds, to drive Palestinians away from lands that Israel covets.
For Palestinians, the government’s measures are likely to make a terrible situation even worse. The West Bank has witnessed an uptick in violence, with spillover into Israel proper. Since March of 2022, some Palestinians—mostly lone operators and members of improvised militant groups—have increased their attacks on Israelis as the Israel Defense Forces expanded operations deep into the Palestinian towns of Jenin and Nablus, both hotbeds of resistance to occupation since the region was governed by the British. In 2022, 31 Israelis, both civilians and security personnel, were killed by Palestinians, while 147 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Four more Palestinians were killed by Jewish settlers, one was killed by either a soldier or settler, and four non-Israeli Palestinians were killed by security and police forces within Israel. This violent situation is aggravated by the advanced age of Mahmoud Abbas, the 87-year-old leader of the Palestinian Authority, which fights Israel diplomatically and cooperates with it on security, and the body’s succession crisis. The PA is also losing its grip on key West Bank towns; if Israel’s government uses new measures to further weaken it, more violence is likely to follow.
With diminishing domestic checks on Netanyahu’s power, outside states will play a critical role in determining just how many authoritarian and racist policies he can put into effect. U.S. President Joe Biden will object to the most radical measures. When he called to congratulate Netanyahu on forming the new government, Biden warned the prime minister that Washington “will continue to support the two-state solution and to oppose policies that endanger its viability or contradict our mutual interests and values.” That statement made it clear that Biden would prevent any effort to annex West Bank territory outright. Netanyahu will also be somewhat constrained by the 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalized ties between Israel and Bahrain, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates, and which were signed in return for Israel forgoing annexations.
But it is unclear how much the international community will actually confront Israel’s new government, beyond offering token criticisms. Obama, for instance, frequently criticized Netanyahu for his policies toward Palestinians, but he avoided concrete measures, such as supporting tougher United Nations resolutions, that would force the prime minister to change course. On the contrary, despite their deep disagreements over Iran and Palestine, Obama expanded U.S. military aid to Israel. Whether representatives of governments agree to meet with Ben-Gvir and Smotrich or boycott them will be an early test of how serious they are about challenging Netanyahu. The level of backing will be no small matter for the prime minister, who has made big international pledges such as bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities and making peace with Saudi Arabia. He needs all the outside support he can get.
But regardless of how much international backing Netanyahu receives, Israel is entering a new phase that brings it closer to authoritarian states such as Hungary, Poland, and Turkey. Netanyahu wants to become the Israeli version of Viktor Orban, neutralizing the judiciary, controlling the media, and making it all but impossible for Israelis to vote him out of power. The Just No Bibi camp will have to put aside its differences and regroup around a fight for civil liberties, freedom of expression, and equality if it wants to save whatever will remain of Israel’s fragile democracy.