On November 1st, Israel held parliamentary elections for the fifth time in 3 years. Results are pointing towards another victory of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party. His coalition government during his unprecedented sixth term as Israeli Prime Minister is far more Right-Wing than ever before. Netanyahu’s Likud Party won 32 seats, the highest number of seats by any party and are likely to form a coalition government with the Shas, United Torah Judaism Party and newcomer Religious Zionism Party.
The Religious Zionism party has now become the 3rd largest party in Israel, and is the most far-right party to achieve that kind of power in recent memory. Furthermore their policies are stringently anti-democratic; they hope to introduce anti-arab policies that will diminish any future of a two state solution between the ongoing Israeli-Palestine conflict, the hope to rid Israel of all LGBTQ+ peoples, non-observing Jewish peoples and have a history of being openly accepting of violent extremism. The electoral seats they hold in the Knesset make them a necessary ally for Netanyahu, thus he has to make some concessions to them in order to attain Israel’s highest office again. Netanyahu is currently awaiting a corruption trial amidst his recent electoral victory and, coincidentally, part of his policy goals are judiciary reform. Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism Party, has advocated for major judicial reform as he believes Netanyahu’s case is merely one example of a ploy by the left to imprison their political rivals.
The Religious Zionism party is helmed by two major figures, Bezalel Smotrich and his more “charismatic” ally, Itamar Ben Gvir. Ben Gvir is the true face of the populist notions of the Religious Zionism party right now, citing the true people of Israel to be the religious Jewish population and the other being non-practicing Jewish people and Arabs. He has been a polarizing figure on the far-right of Israeli politics since a youth, when he was recorded holding a piece of Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s Cadillac, saying “just as we got to his car, we’ll get to him too.” Only three weeks later Rabin was assassinated. Ben Gvir is also a staunch subscriber to Kahnaism, an ideology that comes from Rabbi Meir Kahane. His ideology is that the State of Israel must be entirely Orthodox Jewish and cannot be a democracy. He does not believe that Judaism and “western democracy” are compatible, advocating for a Theocratic state of Israel controlled by a council of Rabbis. In his youth, Ben Gvir was convicted of incitement of racism in 1988, in a rally by the Kach Party (Meir Kahane’s Party), an organization that has since been banned from Knesset and deemed a terrorist organization by Israel. Ben Gvir has claimed to separate himself from this ideology now that he is running for public office, but his constituents say otherwise behind closed doors.
Benjamin Netanyahu is accused of accepting up to $300,000 in gifts and bribes from members of the Israeli elite in exchange for beneficial legislation. He claims that his corruption case is an attempt of the Left to take down the Right; however, there is no way to base those claims on anything other than speculation. A judicial system exists as a check on the political elite, yet Netanyahu and Smoltrich are attempting to destroy that. Smoltrich desires to eliminate the “fraud and breach of trust by a public servant” from the penal code, which is the exact charge that Netanyahu is being tried for. He desires to make the Attorney General position, someone selected by the coalition in power rather than an elected official. This would only allow a law violating human rights to be overturned by a unanimous vote in the supreme court and give the Knesset power to veto any supreme court decision. The reform of the Justice system in Israel is something that has been on the mind of the voters, yet it seems to be coming just at the right time to benefit incoming Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is not hard to read between the lines of this proposed legislation, and something like this is clearly an abuse of political power to benefit the executive and subvert democratic processes. This is dangerous for the integrity of Israel’s democracy, but if his party had the majority of voters, does the majority truly care about democratic principles over ideological barriers?
According to Venezuelan journalist Moises Naim, politics have become a spectacle to an extent in this age of mass media, thus the walls between policy and celebrity are broken down and politicians are treated more like famed athletes or musicians than public servants. I think that this framework isn’t necessarily true for all of politics but I think it certainly taps into populism. Populism caters towards people who view themselves on the outskirts of the political status quo (even if in reality they are not). This applies directly to Itmar Ben Givr. He has tapped into the large swath of first time orthodox voters and Russian immigrants to Israel by calling them, and anyone who supports a Jewish State of Israel, the true people of Israel. Although populism is hard to define, its methods to acquire power are potent. Its rise in Israel has opened the door to a possible consolidation of populist orthodox rule for the years to come, which is likely to destroy Arab-Israeli relations, threaten LGBTQ+ rights and erode Israel’s democracy for the future.