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Over the past decade, Israeli society has been shifting slowly but inexorably to right. Since the last elections, in March 2015, this slow-moving trend has accelerated dramatically, particularly in the ruling coalition. Most of the key positions in Israeli ministries, including justice, culture, education and defence, are filled by far-right or extreme nationalist politicians. Israeli society in general has become less tolerant of minorities, less democratic, less respectful of civil rights and less open to debate; the peace camp has withered.
The latest evidence of this trend came in May 2016, when Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon resigned, citing a “lack of faith” in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His resignation came as Netanyahu sought to shore up his one-seat majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, by bringing hardliner Avigdor Lieberman into the coalition. With the appointment of Lieberman, a divisive figure without any serious security background, as defence minister, Netanyahu is transitioning his coalition from risk-averse conservative to a right-wing radical. In March 2014, Lieberman urged Israel to retake the Gaza Strip and bomb the Aswan Dam in Egypt and called Arab Knesset Members traitors. One of his conditions for returning to government, from which he stepped down in 2012 when he was investigated for breach of trust, was the reinstatement of the death penalty for “Arab terrorists”. The same punishment does not apply to Jews accused of the same crime.
Yet even before Lieberman’s appointment, the government’s right-wing agenda was becoming increasingly apparent. In January 2016, Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, a member of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, introduced an NGO bill which will require NGOs receiving more than 50% of their funding from abroad to publicly detail their finances. Although Shaked and supporters of the bill claim it was designed to increase transparency, in effect the bill targets left-wing and human rights organisations because right-wing and settler groups are mostly funded by private individuals. Similarly, Shaked has expressed her desire to promote more conservative judges to the Supreme Court in the future.
Also in January, Minister of Culture Miriam Regev, a former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) brigadier general and chief spokeswoman during the Gaza pull-out, submitted a bill to the Knesset, called the Loyalty Oath, which proposes to deny state funding for cultural activities that she views as ‘less than patriotic’. This is the first time that a bill has tied artistic content to the receipt of funding and, if enacted, will hit fringe theatres and left-leaning cultural institutions the hardest.
Soon after, Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party and the current education minister, introduced a new high school civics textbook that has been criticised for advancing a Zionist worldview and ignoring the role of the Arab minority. He also banned from high school reading lists a book named Borderlife, which depicts a romance between an Israeli woman and Palestinian man. Ironically, sales of the book increased dramatically following the ban, but it is another example of an attempt reduce exposure to alternative views in high schools.
Finally, Netanyahu himself has assumed responsibility for the communications portfolio, giving him significant power to shape the country’s media landscape. Television executives are wary of producing shows critical of the prime minister, knowing that he has the authority to dictate future licensing policies. He has also been accused of declaring war on the country’s intellectual life after he interfered in the prestigious Israel Prize, removing three judges of whose politics he disapproved.
Organisations such as Breaking the Silence, which was established to collect testimonies from soldiers about the horrors of their military service in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, have been intimidated into silence. Breaking the Silence has been delegitimised by the government and is prohibited from speaking at schools or national institutions such as the IDF. This is considered ‘muzzling’ of opinion by some segments of society. However, the majority of the public is moved by anger, frustration and fear and horrified by the events, such as the Arab uprisings and Islamic State violence, unfolding on its doorstep. Politicians are readjusting to the new status quo and even centrist parties are following the governments lead, not wanting to appear ‘unpatriotic’ in the current climate. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) has made an increasing number of right-leaning statements, declaring at a Labour Conference, for instance, that a two-state solution is not a realistic option.
With no serious challenge to his authority, Netanyahu’s position seems secure. With the current leaders in place, more conservative judges can be expected to be appointed to the Supreme Court and more religious Zionists to fill key government and academic positions. Thus, more building in West Bank settlements, restrictions on left-wing voices and increasing tensions with Israeli Arabs are surely only a matter of time.