Far Right Totalitarians in Israeli Cabinet threaten to Crash the Government if it Agrees to Biden’s Gaza Plan

The Israeli newspaper Arab 48 reports that extremist government ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich continue to put pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and are threatening to bring down the government if he agrees to the suggestion for a truce put forward by US President Joe Biden on Friday afternoon, calling it an Israeli proposal. Washington officials are calling it the “last chance” for an agreement.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, the minister of national security and the minister of finance respectively, threatened Saturday evening to dissolve the ruling political coalition and cause the government to fall if Israel were to agree to Biden’s proposal for a temporary truce in the Gaza Strip. These two ministers are from the Religious Zionism bloc, and Ben-Gvir is from one of its most dangerous components, Jewish Power. They are the Israeli equivalent of neo-Nazis and were brought into the Netanyahu government in late 2022 to provide it a majority in the 120-member Knesset or Parliament. Religious Zionism-Jewish Power won 14 seats, giving Netanyahu and his other allies a 64-seat majority.

In parliamentary systems, coalitions are often put together after the election, and they require a majority of seats, otherwise the prime minister could lose an important vote or be subject to a vote of no confidence. When that happens he or she has to call new elections and the government is said to “fall.” For instance, just last fall on December 11, the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki lost a vote of no confidence. He was succeeded by Donald Tusk.

The closest equivalent in the American system regards the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who likewise has to keep the confidence of a majority. Kevin McCarthy failed to do so and was replaced by Mike Johnson.

So the long and the short of it is that if Smotrich and Ben-Gvir pull out of Netanyahu’s cabinet, his government would fall and snap elections would be called. Polling suggests that the right-wing Netanyahu’s centrist rivals would be elected by a landslide and so he would lose the prime ministership. Netanyahu is on trial for corruption, and those trials could then proceed apace, once he was out of office, and he might well go to jail. Some Israeli political observers believe he is prolonging the Gaza campaign for his own personal reasons, to remain a free man.

PBS NewsHour: “Netanyahu clashes with Biden over conditions for permanent cease-fire in Gaza”

Smotrich said on his social media sites, “I have spoken just now with the head of government and I made clear to him that I would not be any part of a government that agreed to the suggested outline, and which would end the war without annihilating Hamas and returning all the hostages.” In the past, Smotrich has said that returning the hostages was not a priority for him, so I think his position is actually driven by the prospect of annihilating “Hamas,” by which he means the Palestinian people, as he has often made clear.

Smotrich added, “We will never agree to end the war before Hamas is annihilated, nor will we agree to undo the achievements of the war so far by withdrawing the Israeli army and allowing the return of Gazans to the northern Gaza Strip, nor will we accept the wholesale release of terrorists who, God forbid, would return to kill Jews.”

He continued, “We demand the continuation of the fighting until the elimination of Hamas and the return of all the abductees, the creation of a completely different security reality in Gaza and Lebanon, the return of all residents to their homes in the north and south, and a huge investment in the accelerated development of these areas [for Jews].”

Ben-Gvir of the Black Shirt-like “Jewish Power” bloc also said he would withdraw from the government: “The deal,the details of which were published today, means the end of the war and giving up on the destruction of Hamas. This is a humiliating deal, a victory for terrorism and a security threat to Israel. Approving it does not represent absolute victory, but absolute defeat.” He warned that if Netanyahu approved the Biden deal, “the Jewish Power [Otzma Yehudit] party will dissolve the government.”

Opposition politician Gideon Sa’ar, head of the small New Hope party and an ally of opposition leader Benny Gantz, also said that any agreement that ends with Hamas being the ruling and military power in Gaza means that the average Israeli citizen would continue to live under threat. He said it would be a victory for Hamas and a defeat for Israel with far-reaching consequences.

Religious Zionism’s Orit Strock, Minister of Settlements and National Missions, piled on, rejecting the Biden Plan. She said, “I did not find a fundamental difference between Biden’s ‘new’ and ‘promising’ plan and the previous plan. Another surrender deal that saves Hamas, begins the countdown to the next massacre, and leaves the hostages with no means of being released other than ending the war.”

A leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, struck out at Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, saying “Ben Gvir and Smotrich’s threats (to topple the government) are negligent and represent a complete abandonment of national security, the hostages, and the residents of the north and south. This is the worst and most corrupt government in the country’s history. As far as they are concerned, the war here can continue forever. Zero responsibility, zero management: a complete failure.”

Lapid’s ally Benny Gantz, who is serving in the war cabinet (essentially a government of national unity during the crisis), tried to counteract the bitter and defiant words addressed to Joe Biden by the members of the far right wing current government: “The United States in general, and since the beginning of the war in particular, has demonstrated its commitment to Israel’s security and the return of the hostages. We feel full appreciation for President Biden and all our American friends for their support.”

He seemed to commit to the Biden plan, and called for an emergency meeting of the war cabinet with the Israeli negotiators who are talking indirectly to the Palestinian leadership through the mediation of Qatar, Egypt, and the United States. Gantz also played to the section of the Israeli public that prioritizes the return of hostages: “Tonight, I would like to fortify the families of the hostages and tell them that I and my friends are committed to the return of their loved ones, and that this goal is the highest moral obligation, and a goal with clear priority on [policy] the timetable.”

Many Israelis are demonstrating against the extremist Netanyahu government, demanding that he prioritize securing the release of the hostages, and Gantz appears to believe that there is a constituency for this position in the Israeli public.

I take away from this reporting, and from the remarks of the politicians, that as long as the far right remains in power, Biden’s plan is dead in the water. The centrists, such as Gantz and Lapid, would probably go for it if they were in power, but they aren’t. The main hope for an end to hostilities appears to be the fall of the Netanyahu government over some issue that inflames passions among his coalition partners, such that parties with 5 or more members withdraw from it.

Another possibility is that Biden could actually stop supplying the Israelis with arms and ammunition on a daily basis. They have run out of ammunition of their own and need American supplies. But that step would require that Biden show an independence and courage on the Israel issue that he has never displayed before.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on June 2, 2024, on Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion, a website featuring commentary by Professor Juan Cole.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Cole.

Image Credit: BBC

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