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Sheikh Jarrah: A Simulation of the rise of the ‘nationalist extremist’ party in Israel

The Likud Party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, was preparing for the Knesset elections scheduled for March 24, and it signed in February a political partnership agreement with the Religious Zionism list, which includes right-wing extremist parties such as Otzma Yehudit, which is led by Itmar Ibn Juffair, an extremist accused of many terrorist crimes. 

The agreement appeared as a new shift in the relationship between the Likud Party and the Religious Zionism Party, which is affiliated with the extremist nationalist party. Here evolves the question: what is the extent of the impact of this new relationship on the Israeli political arena and society? Additionally, how have the recent developments in East Jerusalem enhanced the impact of this relationship on the future of the Israeli political community?

The bigger picture 

The Likud Party, under the leadership of Netanyahu, remains the party which represents the locomotive for the extremist right-wing movement, consisting of two main branches, the Orthodox religious camp — most notably the Shas party and the Central Torah Jew party — and the right-wing nationalist, or religious nationalist camp-meaning the religious Zionist Party, such as the Jewish Home Party and the New Right Party. 

Through those parties, Netanyahu created a political force that enabled him to dominate the Israeli political arena, and he remained for a long period of time on the top of the governments, until the coronavirus spread and it cast its economic and social repercussions on Israel, especially on those settlers affiliated with the religious Orthodox party. Consequently, there was an increase in the unemployment amongst the religious Orthodox youth (7.3% according to April 2021 predictions, compared to 2.4% in 2019), as well as an increase in the number of injuries and deaths among this party’s members (one death per 74 people). These statistics were transformed into protests, organized by the members of the movement who oppose Netanyahu, in order to, one, increase the financial aid allocated to them to restore the economic and health conditions , and two, to ensure their exclusion from the general decisions, which would prohibit the holding of any religious events. 

Due to the decrease in Netanyahu’s relative popularity, the party’s leadership had to sort out its ranks and reconfigure its alliances, especially that Naftali Bennett split from the New Right Party and formed the Right party, which declared that it’s not associated with the classic right-wing movement in Israel, and it also declared that it is not obliged to form an alliance with Netanyahu. This event shaped a dangerous chapter in the history of Likud, since it’s considered the main locomotive of the extremist right movement in Israel. 

This pushed Netanyahu to search for religious nationalist or extremist nationalist parties, such as: the Religious Zionism Party (led by Bezalel Smotrich), and Otzma Yehudit (led by Itmar Ibn Juffair — all of those parties are affiliated with religious-nationalist Zionism — to form a new informal alliance, as the initial step to signing an agreement of surplus votes between Likud and these parties; additionally, this agreement means political survival for many of the leaders of those parties, especially Itmar Ibn Juffair, who failed many times in the Israeli elections (the 23rd Knesset elections). However, Ibn Juffair has now managed to run in the elections and even occupy a reasonable number of seats compared to his recent history, all thanks to Netanyahu. 

This agreement came as a shock to the Israelis, and to those affiliated with the extremist Orthodox religious party, consequently prompting some of them, especially the United Torah Jews, to refuse to sign an agreement with Netanyahu, which required them to refuse any government not led by Netanyahu. 

Therefore, it cannot be pointed out that Likud is still the main and first party in the extremist right wing in Israel, and here arises the central question: has Likud lost its party centrality on the right-wing map due to Netanyahu’s prolonged leadership? Or is this due to the new differences that have appeared in the Israeli right-wing ideology?

Behind the scenes: Sheikh Jarrah and the Israeli interior

Netanyahu, in a press conference on May 19, clarified that he had asked the High Court of Justice to postpone announcing the decision of demolishing homes in Sheikh Jarrah, in order to prevent stirring the Palestinians’ feelings and to prevent a path of chaos. 

But in reality, the first move that stirred chaos came from a group Israeli settlers, who are affiliated with the extremist nationalist party, in East Jerusalem on April 14 (Ramadan 1), on the pretext of commemorating the ‘unification of Jerusalem’ (the anniversary of the occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967), this required the Israeli police to secure the procession of the settlers, whose passage coincided with the exit of the Jerusalemite worshippers from Al-Aqsa Mosque, leading to their security harassment by the Israeli security. 

The situation escalated so that it included calls to take over the streets, these were made by the extremist Israeli groups, such as the Lahava movement, who are considered as an Israeli social-political movement, carrying the racist ideology that calls upon the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel. Indeed, the movement’s members were spotted in the streets of East Jerusalem, carrying banners which read, “let’s burn the Arabs… death to the Arabs.” 

As for Sheikh Jarrah, the settlers, which are affiliated with the extremist nationalist party, continued to gather in groups and even attack and harass the Jerusalemites, who came out to defend their national rights against the process of Judaizing Jerusalem. Subsequently, the head of the Otzma Yehudit Party and the founder of the Lahava movement, Itmar Ibn Juffair, hastened to establish an urgent political office in East Jerusalem (Sheikh Jarrah) to not only keep track of his supporters, but also to monitor the situation and organize the movement of the settlers, who are affiliated with the extremist nationalist party. It is also concluded that when the Israeli government asked him to leave Sheikh Jarrah, to prevent the situation from escalating and getting out of control, he demanded that the number of Israeli police should be increased to protect the settlers. 

In another chapter, the Lahava movement were not satisfied with only calling people to take to the streets in East Jerusalem, so they continued within Israel, mainly in the cities shared between the Arabs and the Jews. The movement called upon the Jews in the joint cities to take to the streets and “defend their cities against Arabs” (according to his statement) “in all possible ways.” The head of the right-wing Lahava movement, which is affiliated with the extremist nationalist party Bentsi Gobstein told Israeli Channel 12, that the Israelis should arm themselves, in order to protect themselves against the “fifth column” (referring to the interior Arabs). Moreover, he also refused to condemn the killing of Arabs, attributing the security and political chaos to the absence of the Israeli government, while also prioritizing the protection of oneself and their property. 

Many of Israeli’s socio-political movements are similar to the Lahava movement, like the extremist group La Familia, many of whose leaders are attributed to Kahane (the founder of the Israeli Kach terrorist movement).  

Likely extreme repercussions

Some Israeli parties are associated with social groups and movements that carry an extremist and racist ideology that not only calls upon the expulsion of Arabs, but also the legitimate aggression against them. All this carries a set of effects, most notably as follows:  

Mass mobilization: Israel is still suffering from a state of political paralysis, due to the fact that the electoral system and the laws for forming a government do not guarantee the election winner an easy task of forming the government. Moreover, there are not any sufficient supporting mechanisms for the winner, which would form suitable political alternatives for success in forming the government. 

Therefore, it’s very likely that the streets will be utilised as a supportive mechanism by the parties, to increase the number of votes and seats, in case Israel goes to the scenario of re-election, which is very probable due to the current circumstances. 

Legitimizing violence: racist policies taken against Arabs are increasingly central and vital to the Israeli parties’ agenda, especially after the growing strength of the extremist right movement. Since the recent events gave the extremist nationalist party a noticeable rise with the support of Netanyahu, it is not unlikely that the violence against Palestinians will increase in order to gain political funds. 

According to the Pew Research Center, 48% of Jews generally agree with the statement “Arabs should be removed or expelled from Israel”, including 59% from the extremist nationalist party. This was interpreted into the support of most Jews for the Jewish National Law, which was approved by the Netanyahu-led government in 2018. 

-The rise of extreme nationalist values against Orthodox values among Israelis: the features of this index appear in two major events of great importance: firstly, the right-wing Orthodox (Haredi) parties, such as the Central Torah Judaism and the Shas Party, rejected the rising violence in East Jerusalem, and even the Haredi religious groups put out a statement denouncing the settlers’ protests and calling on their supporters not to engage in them. 

Secondly, the absolute refusal of the religious Zionist parties (affiliated with the extremist nationalist party) to enter into negotiations to form a government with the Arab parties, while the Orthodox (Haredi) parties did not express their complete objection the idea of forming a government that would be supported by the Arab parties. 

To sum up, the recent events (in Sheikh Jarrah, for instance) can be seen as a simulation of the rise of the extremist nationalist party in Israel, which takes two patterns from the top to the bottom (ie, from the elites to the streets of the public) represented by the socio-political extremist movements that oppose the Arabs in Eastern Jerusalem and the interior of Israel itself, and from the bottom to the top (ie, the effects of the extremist settlers on the agendas of their political elites).

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