The Temple Mount in the old city of Jerusalem.
Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash
Recent Israeli elections detrimental to peace
To be sure, the radical positions espoused by members of the incoming government make life unbearably difficult for Muslim and Christian communities in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). But the extremism is also uncomfortable for many politically moderate Jews in Israel, as indicated by recent news reports from the Middle East. The recent Israeli elections threaten core elements that undergird any lasting peace in Israel/Palestine, elements such as human rights, the status quo agreement governing Jerusalem, and religious liberty.
We look at a few of these threats below.
The new political regime in Israel threatens Palestinian human rights. The new Minister of National Security and head of Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”), Itamar Ben-Gvir, is stridently anti-Arab. A far-right nationalist, Ben-Gvir was a member of the Kach party for a time, a group the United States classified as a terrorist organization in the 1990s. Until he started his political career, he used to openly display a portrait of terrorist Baruch Goldstein, a man who massacred 29 worshipers and injured another 125 in a brutal mass shooting at the Al-Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994. With Itamar Ben-Gvir as the Minister of National Security, Palestinian Israelis are more vulnerable to police mistreatment and legal abuses.
The new government is aggressively expanding settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). Despite U.S. opposition, on Sunday, February 12, the Israeli cabinet passed a measure for nine previously illegal (according to Israeli law) settlements to be legitimized by the current Israeli government. They also announced plans to build thousands of new residential units in existing settlements. But Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory have always been one of the primary obstacles to peace since soon after the 1967 Six Day War. In a statement of principles and policy priorities released late last year, this government is clear: “The government will promote and develop the settlement of all parts of the Land of Israel — in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan and Judea and Samaria.” And there are still more agreements being made to regularize further illegal settlements and to extend Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank.
In addition to the expansion of settlements, attacks against Christians in the Old City of Jerusalem have escalated in recent weeks. Christian groups are expressing concern, given the past actions of some incoming Israeli leaders against their communities. Ben-Gvir, a lawyer by profession, has a history of defending radical settlers accused of attacking Christian churches and communities. Ben-Gvir was involved in a case defending settlers accused of arson against the Catholic Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish. Recent attacks like the one by settlers in the Christian quarter only confirm for Christians their vulnerable position with this new government.
Although members of the Netanyahu coalition assented that they would not advocate to overturn the status quo at al-Haram al-Sharīf/the Temple Mount, there is concern for continued erosion of that agreement in the face of intentional, ongoing provocations of right-wing politicians like Ben-Gvir. The long-standing agreement between the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan governing the sharing of the holy sites in Jerusalem allows Muslims to pray at the al-Haram al-Sharīf, Jews to visit the compound at certain times without praying, and Jews to pray at the Western Wall. And Christians worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Although the coalition requires members to avoid taking a public position for upending the status quo, everyone knows that silence is a thin veneer. As a newly minted official in the ruling government, Ben-Gvir visited the Temple Mount in a provocative act that has been rebuked by the Palestinians, moderate Israelis, several Arab states as dangerous and irresponsible.
The Knesset has 120 members. They are not elected directly by voters, but are included as candidates on party lists. Voters vote for parties. The Knesset elects the president of the State. This is the 25th Knesset and Israel’s fifth election in four years. Each government is intended to serve 4-year terms between elections, but can dissolve itself early by multiple means and for multiple reasons. In this case, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid introduced a bill to dissolve the previous government after several legislative defeats. The dissolution bill passed on June 20, 2022. In the ensuing election, held Nov. 1, 2022, left-wing and Arab parties lost seats and right and far-right parties gained seats.
What makes these elections different?
This is the most radical right-wing government in Israel’s history. Many of the parties that made gains, and that now hold controlling power in the government are extremist. Ben Gvir’s party gained eight seats, supports annexation of the West Bank, and has supported Israeli sovereignty over the al-Haram al-Sharīf/the Temple Mount, an act that would decimate freedom of worship for the Muslim community and risk an uprising. The Shas party generally focuses on the policies protecting Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communities in Israel, but also takes other positions like its recent support for the continued development of settlements in the West Bank. Likud is perhaps less radical than others, but nevertheless supports the settlements and rejects the possibility of a Palestinian state.
Even the US government and President Biden have expressed concern. The tenor of the relationship with the new Israeli government has been measured, but steady until the White House and US State Department expressed public dismay when the Israeli cabinet legitimized the illegal settlements on February 12. Nonetheless, on February 14, the United States intervened and the State Department joined with the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, Italy, and the U.K. to express they “strongly oppose” these “unilateral actions,” stating that they “only serve to exacerbate tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.” The UN Security Council denounced Israeli settlements in a statement published on February 20 after deciding not to bring a resolution condemning settlements to a vote because of fears of a U.S. veto.
The bottom line? The new Israeli government elections are detrimental to peace and the United States, as of yet, is not playing a constructive role to intervene. The status quo, religious liberty for all, human rights–these are core requirements for any sustainable solution in Israel/Palestine. By attacking these fundamental aspects necessary for any negotiated settlement, this Israeli government destabilizes the foundations for any future peace, and the United States is not doing much better.
Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon is the executive director, Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), Washington, D.C. Dr. Benjamin Norquist is an Ambassador Warren Clark Fellow at CMEP. He is a researcher and public organizer with a Ph.D. in higher education from Azusa Pacific University.