“Mind games regarding the reset­tle­ment of the Gaza Strip harm Israel immensely”

Foto: Imago

Yossi Klein Halevi in an interview about the goals and motives of the far right in Israel’s government – and why the decision whether to exempt the ultra-Orthodox from military service could lead to the fall of the coalition.

Yossi Klein Halevi was born in New York in 1953. He is the author of the best­seller “Letters to My Pales­tinian Neighbor” and publishes in Israeli and US magazines. At the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, he heads the Muslim Lead­er­ship Initia­tive, which aims to deepen connec­tions between North American Muslims and Jews. Most recently, he also took part in the protests against the planned judicial reform. Together with Donniel Hartmann, Klein Halevi hosts “Israel at War” as part of the “For Heaven’s Sake” podcast series, availi­bleon Spotify and other platforms.

In a confer­ence taking place in Jerusalem at the end of January, several govern­ment ministers and coalition lawmakers pledged to rebuild Jewish settle­ments in the Gaza Strip and were cele­brated by an enthu­si­astic audience. What’s the cultural and political signif­i­cance of that plegde?

It’s enor­mously destruc­tive. Amidst the war with Hamas, Israel faces several threats. That includes the external threat of a growing movement that seeks to declare the Jewish state the arch-criminal among nations. But there are also internal threats: coming from far-left Jews, living mostly in the diaspora, who support the effort to crim­i­nalize Israel as well as from far-right Jews, mostly in Israel, fanta­sizing about returning to Gaza. The inten­tions, actions, and rhetoric of the latter seemingly validate the worst accu­sa­tions against us and harm what’s left of Israel’s good name abroad.

The far-right fantasies are also enor­mously destruc­tive to the internal dynamics of Israeli society. If liberal Israelis felt that in the end, this is a war to rebuild settle­ments in Gaza, we would stop supporting war, stop sending our kids to fight and stop fighting ourselves. To be clear: That is far from the case. Because Israelis under­stand that the goals of this war are strategic and rational and not messianic fantasy. But, unfor­tu­nately, much of the inter­na­tional community doesn’t understand.

So, how likely is it that the far-right plans become reality?

It’s not going to happen. Neither do most of the Israelis support that nor would the inter­na­tional community, espe­cially our allies, accept it. But the damage that far-right does is incal­cu­lable. In the middle of the most brutal and most necessary war that Israel has ever fought, the last thing we need to do is to deal with the fantasies of the far right and its supporters within the Likud.

What exactly do the radical coalition partners of Netanyahu’s govern­ment desire?

The coalition encom­passes a range of parties. I would certainly put Shas, the Mizrahi ultra-orthodox party, outside of that far right constel­la­tion. They tend to be a little more moder­a­teon political issues, being mainly concerned with main­taining the ultra-Orthodox sepa­ratist community. I would have said the same thing about the Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox party, United Torah Judaism. But there has been a certain radi­cal­iza­tion, creating two camps in that party, with a minority supporting the above­men­tioned confer­ence or Gaza settlement.

What about Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism party and Minister of Finance,and Itamar Ben ‑Gvir, leader of Jewish Power party serving as Minister of National Security?

They want Israel to declare that there is no chance of an agreement with Pales­tinians ever. That the whole land belongs to us not only by right, but also in practice. Most Israelis would agree that the land belongs to the Jewish people by right. But they would also agree that there is another people in that land that we need to come to terms with.

On the far right, however, there is no other people in that line – and, thus, no moral dilemma. Instead, they emphasize our strength and resolute­ness and declare the world around us being irrel­e­vant because everybody would hate us anyway – as if there were no of allies on our side. Ulti­mately, the real goal of the far right is to “do whatever needs to be done.” That’s aeuphemism for effec­tively expelling the Palestinians.

Do Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, and other propo­nents of the reset­tle­ment in Gaza consider any constraints of realpolitik and, effec­tively, moderate their plans?

I would draw a small distinc­tion: Smotrich is more rational and more patient, and he seems to believe to be more statesman-like. Ben-Gvir, however, is a thug, behaving without any strategic sophis­ti­ca­tion. Look, what’s that play here is messianic ideology, declaring that now is the time of the Messiah. That implies the idea that the Jewish people needs to defy the world, can trust only in God, and must not only protect itself against its enemies but destroy them. It’s a kind of Jewish version of radical Islamism, like the radical Shiism being embedded in the Iranian regime, believing in the destruc­tion of Israel as a necessary pre-requisite for the return of the Messiah.

Can you exemplify that by the specific language the far-right Jewish messian­ists use?

They constantly speak about Amalek. Histor­i­cally, Amalek is the ancient tribe that attacked the children of Israel when they left Egypt and tried to destroy them. In the Jewish imag­i­na­tion, Amalek became a mythic archetype for a deadly enemy that must be wiped out. For many Jews of the Holocaust gener­a­tion, including me as a son of a Holocaust survivor, Germany repre­sented Amalek. That equation was a mere fantasy, a Jewish self-defence and coping mechanism.

Applying the mythical figure of Amalek to the Pales­tinians, however, is very dangerous. Because we have power over them. Undoubt­edly, on October 7, Hamas fulfilled every­thing that Jews have always imagined about Amalek. But we have a moral respon­si­bility to draw a clear distinc­tion between Hamas and the Pales­tinian people even if many Pales­tinians them­selves don’t draw that line. I don’t think most Israelis see Pales­tinians as repre­senting Amalek. It’s very much restricted to the mindset of the radical right.

Within the current coalition, what power and leverage does the messianic far-right have to push forward their ideas?

The far right is part of the govern­ment but not part of the war cabinet. For all practical purposes, they have no say in how this war is being fought. And that’s the actual reason for why they have staged that confer­ence in January. It’s absurd having political parties that are part of the govern­ment acting as if they’re the opposition.

In contrast, how would you describe the people in the war cabinet?

As moderate. They’re very hawkish but reason­able. I’m thinking of Minister of Defence Yoav Galant and certainly the leading oppo­si­tion figure Benny Gantz who joined the war cabinet to help moderate this govern­ment. Prime Minster Netanjahu has used the notion of Amalek imme­di­ately after October 7 but referred to Hamas only. Never­the­less, this notion and the far-right religious language are foreign to him. Even he is not in for rebuilding settle­ments in Gaza. The war in Gaza is a main­stream war supported by the over­whelming majority of Israeli’s who trust both the war cabinet and the army.

To forge and keep his coalition, inaugurated in January 2023, however, Netanyahu gave the far-right a lot of power and attention.

Netanjahu has given the far-right more power than it ever had. It’s a historic scandal that Ben-Gvir oversees the Israeli police. As finance minister, also Smotrich has been put in a very powerful position. Not having an impact on the Gaza war made them very frustrated.

So, Ben-Gvir has threat­ened to bring the govern­ment down more than once. Undoubt­edly, he will run in the next election. Not against the left and the center, but against the Likud and Netanjahu. He will say that if he was in charge, he would have finished the war quickly and deci­sively, with Netanjahu and the Likud are sell-outs only pretending to be right-wingers. Ben-Gvir is looking to unseat the main­stream right.

How did the democracy movement, fighting against the attempted judicial coup before October 7, react to the fantasies of resettlement in Gaza?

By ignoring it. That was right because these fantasies are completely irrel­e­vant. But what is not irrel­e­vant is Ben-Gvir over­seeing the police and Smotrich in charge of the budget and in charge of settle­ment expansion in the West Bank. Those are issues of concern, certainly to the demo­c­ratic movement. But for tactical purposes, the movement is really focusing on bringing the govern­ment down and holding elections.

How likely are the coalition’s resig­na­tion and elections to happen?

An important date to watch is March 31. That’s the date when the Knesset is going to have to vote on whether to extend the wholesale military exemption for the ultra-Orthodox. My guess is that the govern­ment will not be able to pass that bill because there will be a revolt within parts of the coalition.

When you have hundreds of thousands of young people fighting in a war, it’s very bad timing for Netanjahu to try to hold his coalition together by contin­uing that military exemption thathas been crit­i­cized for a long time anyway. So, if that bill doesn’t pass and the army beginsthe process of drafting ultra-orthodox young men, both ultra-orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, will almost certainly break up from the coalition. The current govern­ment will fall.

What chances would the oppo­si­tion have in new elections?

I think the current oppo­si­tion will win by a landslide. That’s what all the polls show. That’s the sentiment in the country. People are so fed up with this govern­ment. Other govern­ments fell for far less offenses that this govern­ment has done to the country.

The interview was conducted on March 11, 2024 and reviewed for time­li­ness on March 14.


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