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Bibi’s Extreme Comeback

Guest: Gil Tamary, Chief International News Editor for Israel’s News 13

Israel turns anew with yet another election – its fifth (!) in four years. This time, former Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has come back with a new, hard-right, extremist coalition. How will that translate into domestic and foreign policy?

Isreal’s longest-serving Prime Minister – Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu – is in the saddle again with a new strategy. This time, Bibi aligned himself with hard-right extremist parties to clinch a victory in a narrow election. His new allies are the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionist Party, who express racist and homophobic propaganda. Will this new coalition add even more instability to this historically tumultuous region? Our guest Gil Tamary, Chief International News Editor for Israel’s News 13 and long-time Altamar analyst, joined us to make sense of this new government and whether or not it is likely to stick around longer than the past few attempts.

We began with wanting to understand an overview of the situation. What in the world is going on in Israel? Tamary explained, “In recent years, the political debate in Israel has stopped being along ideological lines between right and left. Israeli society has shifted so much to the right that any leftist agenda actually has no power. More than 60% of the Israelis describe themselves as at least right-leaning or holding a right-wing position. When you’re saying ‘Right’, we mean: against the prospect of a Palestinian state, support for Jewish settlements in the territories that some of them call Judea and Samaria, and support for more traditional religious life.”

So, why so many elections if the electorate is mostly right of center? Tamary explained the apparent contradiction, “For the last four years, there have been two political blocks. On one side you have the Pro-Bibi block, the Bibi supporters, which are all the usual suspects. And on the other side, there are people mainly from the center and the Left, and some from the right side of the political map. And this is the anti-Bibi block. Now, the two blocks are almost identical in their size, and that’s the way we have so many election cycles because no one can sustain a stable coalition.”

The pro-Bibi camp won this time around with help from the right’s new darling: The Religious Zionist Party. What happened there? Tamary answered, “The main reason that Bibi is back to power is the fact that he played the political game in a much more clever way than his opponent. If we measured the number of voters for each block, it was almost identical. The issue is that the other block, the anti-Bibi block didn’t join forces as the other block, and therefore, two parties that didn’t meet the threshold of 3.25% of the vote actually were not included in the Parliament. That means 6% of the votes are not in the game as of right now. And that’s actually the reason Bibi has a majority.”

And his new bedmates? Who is Itamar Ben Gvir? Tamary said, “He’s not new at all, but right now he became a shooting star. His name is Itamar Ben Gvir. If you want me to describe him to you, I will tell you that he’s a racist extremist that was a devoted follower of- you remember- the racist Rabbi, anti-Arab Rabbi Meir Kahane. […] During the Rabin Era, Ben Gvir was one of the people who incited violence and called for the for doing something with the Prime Minister. And famously he stole the hood ornament -the Cadillac ornament – from the Prime Minister’s official car and showed it on TV and said, “we got to his car and will get to him too.” He joined forces with another guy named Bezalel Smotrich who was among other things, also against the LGBTQ community. And they are right now the largest partners in Bibi’s new government.”

Altamar Peter Schechter asked, “Isn’t the extremist nature of this government going to be a real problem for Israel?” Tamary explained, “It depends on who you ask and how you measure a problem. I can tell you that, for instance, Rabbi Jacobs, who is the head of the Jewish Reform Movement in America, compared nominating Ben Gvir to the National Security Minister, to nominating David Duke, the leader of the KKK, as US Attorney General.”

Is there any opposition to extremist ideas within the coalition? Tamary said, “No, it’s a unanimous coalition of the Right wing. It’s the Right and [then] those even more to the Right. Bibi is the moderate voice here. They are talking about changing the law in a way that the Knesset – the Parliament- can overrule any Supreme Court decision. This means that the Parliament can decide in a majority vote to cancel any ruling. It’s a major threat to Israel’s democracy, especially because Israel doesn’t have a constitution to defend the democratic system and the democratic nature of the country, not to mention the LGBTQ community and minorities in general in Israel.”

The extremists complicate Bibi’s political scenario. Is there any chance he turns around and seeks a grand coalition of the center? Tamary responded, “I think that is wishful thinking. […] The moderation will come – if you ask me – from running the government, when you are running the government, you have to be much more moderate than your rhetoric prior to the election. So that’s the silver lining of the coming government.”

In her youth and social justice-oriented segment on Altamar, Téa Ivanovic asked about the young voters in Israel. Many young voters are fueling Israel’s move to the hard right. Meanwhile, the young Jewish diaspora is distancing itself from Israel as it’s finding less common ground with current policies and values. Tamary agreed, “I think your description of the situation is accurate. I agree with you that this is a major challenge for the next generation, in the coming 20-30 years. But I must tell you, it isn’t something that really bothers the majority of Israelis. They don’t see it as a problem. They don’t care.”

What about the strategic relationship between Isreal and the US? That’s undeniably important for Israel. What will the relationship look like for the next two years with the democratic Biden administration? Tamary said,“[Bibi] understands very well the importance of the alliance. […] He will work hard to avoid public clashes with the Biden administration. On the other end, I don’t see the Biden administration working with Itamar Ben Gvir, for instance. So, they will bypass him like they’re doing within other countries in the world where they don’t like specific people. At the end of the day, I don’t see relations with the States deteriorating tremendously, even with this government.”

What about this new government’s relationship with the Palestinian authority? Tamary answered, “If we are talking about any prospect for peace, there is none. There is no place for dialogue, for a two-state solution. The concept of a two-state solution is dead for the time being and maybe dead forever because you know, there are circumstances on the ground that change reality. And as years go by, it’ll be harder and harder to separate the two communities especially if we’re talking about annexations or other such measures.”

Altamar’s Muni Jensen asked about the relationship with other important Arab states. She asked, “Gulf countries certainly had no problems with him [Netanyahu], but will they continue to have an open-door policy with Israel’s government if it includes anti-Arab voices?” Tamary said, “The peace treaties we have with the Gulf States are based on interest, on mutual interest, not on rhetoric. They signed with us agreements, not because of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians, but because of other things. So those things still exist, they don’t change. And because Bibi is the guy that will continue to be the face of Israel, I don’t see the agreements that right now we have changing anytime soon.”

And we finished, as we so often do by asking our guests to speculate on the future. Tamary was more optimistic than we expected. He said, “I’m sure that the sun will rise and people in Israel will continue to go to the beach and continue to crowd the restaurants and the coffee shop. Yes, there will be a right-wing government, but at the end of the day, the reality I think is more powerful than any ideology.”

Will Israel’s new coalition be more moderate after the fiery election season fades? Find out more by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here.

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Episode 140