Religious Zionism is a growing force in Israel, and will have a strong presence in the next Israeli government.
The formation of Israel’s most right-wing government has been announced after the country’s Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu called President Isaac Herzog to inform him.
While Netanyahu’s Likud party forms the core of the new government, far-right allies part of the “Religious Zionism” ideological movement will occupy prominent positions, influencing policy towards Palestinians living in the occupied territories, after they performed well in elections for the Knesset, or parliament, in November.
The presence of these politicians at the highest table in Israel would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but their rise is indicative of the growth of the Religious Zionist movement in Israel.
Let’s take a closer look.
What is ‘Religious Zionism’?
- Established as a secular nationalist ideology, Zionism was initially resisted by many Orthodox Jews. A significant proportion of Jews remained opposed to Zionism even after Israel was established in 1948, seeing it as not adhering to Jewish law.
- The “Religious Zionism” ideological movement emerged as a way to wed religious Jews to Zionism, away from the latter’s secular influences. While the Jewish people’s nationalist claim to historic Palestine was central to traditional Zionist thinking, for Religious Zionists, the concept of the land of Israel being “promised by God” to the Jewish people was core.
- The movement has only grown as the Orthodox community gets more populous in Israel and the country becomes more right-wing.
How did ‘Religious Zionist’ parties perform in the Israeli elections?
- Nine settlers living in the occupied West Bank are expected to serve in the new Knesset, according to Israeli media, six of whom are from an alliance of parties that ran together under the “Religious Zionism” banner during parliamentary elections.
- The Religious Zionism alliance emerged as Netanyahu’s main coalition partner and is the third-largest bloc in the Knesset.
- The alliance was mainly made up of Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party and Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party. Netanyahu had encouraged them to form a joint list for elections to get above the Knesset’s threshold for entry. The bloc won 14 seats before splitting again, but they remain ideologically similar.
What positions do the Religious Zionist parties have towards Palestinians?
- Both Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are outspoken about their intention to expand illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and the annexation of Palestinian land, and are notorious for inciting violence against Palestinians. Both are settlers living deep inside the West Bank.
- Smotrich has publicly called for the annexation of the occupied West Bank, while Ben-Gvir says he is opposed to Palestinian statehood and has led raids by settlers into the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound and the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem.
- Ben-Gvir’s record also includes a 2007 conviction for racist incitement against Arabs and support for “terrorism”, as well as anti-LGBTQ activism.
- Earlier this month, Ben-Gvir called for the expulsion of Al Jazeera journalists from Israel, shortly after the network filed a formal request with the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate and prosecute the killers of its journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in May.
What roles are Religious Zionist figures expected to have in the next government?
- On December 16, the incoming government coalition passed the first reading of legislation that would allow Smotrich to become “an independent minister” in charge of settlement construction in the Israeli-occupied West Bank through the most influential authority there – the Ministry of Defense – which includes the Israeli army.
- If passed, it would be the first time such a position has been created and would give Smotrich the power to further his goals of preventing Palestinian construction in “Area C” – the 60 percent of the West Bank under the direct control of the Israeli military – while expanding Israeli illegal settlement construction there.
- Meanwhile, Ben-Gvir is set to take upthe key role of Minister of Internal Security, which will oversee not only Israeli police operations, but also the Israeli Border Police. The latter is part of the forces enforcing the occupation of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and controlling military checkpoints in the West Bank.
- Ben-Gvir will also have control over the Israeli prison system through the ministry.
- With tensions boiling in the occupied West Bank over the past year, the effect of such figures in key influential positions is likely to only further ignite matters on the ground.