Israel's Government of Psychopaths
The hateful backgrounds and ideologies of the current Israeli cabinet
It’s hard to defend the indefensible. It’s a little easier if you pretend it’s something other than what it is.
Over the past few days, there have been a number of people who have looked at everything going on in the world and decided that the most productive thing to do is scold supporters of Palestine over the language they use to describe the actions of the Israeli government. Their contention is that it is improper to even insinuate that Netanyahu and his war cabinet are engaging in anything other than warfare and warfare alone. There can be disagreements over tactics, strategy, and Jewish Israeli politics, of course—hardly any of these bellyachers would call themselves Likudniks. But larger questions about what the Israeli government is engaged in, and what its ultimate intentions may be, are out of the question. We must simply assume that everything they are doing comes from a pure-hearted desire for safety and leave it at that.
This is a very curious presumption. You can only really believe in it if you also believe that history started sometime earlier this month, and that all of the figures currently running the country burst out of thin air around then. In such a world, it might be reasonable to give the Israeli government the benefit of the doubt. However, we do not live in such a world. The people making up the Israeli government are real human beings, with long careers in politics, and many, many, many statements on Palestine. So, to help, I have gone over the political backgrounds and beliefs of the current top members and parties of the Israeli government. All of the information comes from their own statements, past actions, and Israeli political reporting. I hope it proves useful for you if you find yourself in a discussion with those who are acting as if we have no frame of reference for what the country is currently doing.
Party: Otzma Yehudit
Major Player: Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir
To start, we have the single most unfortunate fact for hasbarists assigned with selling Zionism to the world’s many progressive Jews. This fact is the existence and relevance of Itamar Ben-Gvir, current Israeli Minister of National Security and head of Otzma Yehudit (lit. “Jewish Power”).
If Ben-Gvir did not actually exist, any description of him would come across as a crude, over-the-top parody of Zionism. Currently running the ministry that once singled him out as a “good candidate for detention,” Ben-Gvir has dedicated his entire life to anti-Arab racism. Starting as a teenager, he moved around between several organizations that advocated for the ethnic cleansing of Arabs until settling on Kach, a fascist political party led by the convicted Israeli-American terrorist Meir Kahane. Kach, which was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union, and Israel itself, disavowed democracy and called for Israel to turn into a theocratic ethnostate. In their world, all of Palestine and Jordan, along with parts of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, were to be annexed by the Jewish state. Arabs who came under Israeli control would either flee or be enslaved. All territory under Israeli control would be opened up for Jewish settlement. Marriage and sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews would be banned. The army would be given shoot-to-kill orders against anyone who attempted to resist this regime.
Because of how extreme this all is, you may be wondering if I’m exaggerating things. I’m not. All you have to do to see where Kahane and his followers stood is to look at the laws he proposed while in the Israeli parliament, such as:
“Non-Jews in the State of Israel will be without any national rights and without any part in political proceedings in the State of Israel. A non-Jew will not be able to be appointed to any position of authority and will not be able to vote in elections to the Knesset or to any other state and public body.”
“Non-Jews will be obliged to assume duties, taxes and slavery. If he does not agree to slavery and taxes, he will be forcibly deported.”
“A non-Jew will not live within the jurisdiction of the city of Jerusalem.”
“A non-Jew who has a marital relationship with a Jew is liable to 50 years in prison. A Jewish prostitute or a Jewish male who has an affair with a non-Jewish male is sentenced to five years in prison.”
Ben-Gvir served as this party’s youth coordinator.
Today, Kach no longer exists. The party faced a mortal blow with Kahane’s 1990 assassination and was officially banned in Israel in 1994 after party supporter Baruch Goldstein went on a shooting spree and murdered 29 people in a Hebron mosque. But Itamar Ben-Gvir has carried on its legacy ever since, both in word and deed. According to The New Yorker, he has been convicted of criminal charges at least eight times, including but not limited to support for a terrorist organization and incitement to racism. His criminal record is so long that a court reportedly once had to change the ink in their Xerox when printing it out. In his speeches, Ben-Gvir refers Kahane as nothing less than a saint; as for Goldstein, the terrorist mass murderer, Ben-Gvir hung a gigantic mural of him in his living room for almost the entirety of his adult life, only taking it down recently when fellow ultra-right settlers said it was bad optics. He still refers to both as “martyrs” to this day, even in speeches given in his capacity as National Security Minister.
Ben-Gvir first came to public attention in Israel in the mid-1990s as a hardline activist against then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Oslo accords, and peace with Palestinians as a concept. And as the Israeli right’s rhetoric towards the Prime Minister and his policies became increasingly violent, Ben-Gvir was right in the middle of it, seemingly either closely associated with or directly engaged in attempts to physically harm Rabin. On live TV in 1995, Ben-Gvir was first introduced to the Israeli public brandishing a Cadillac emblem that had been ripped off of Rabin’s car. Speaking to reporters, he declared that, “We got to his car, and we’ll get to him, too.”
Rabin would be assassinated by a right-wing extremist five weeks later.
Also in 1995, Ben-Gvir was recorded dressed as Goldstein during the celebration of Purim. He declared to an interviewer that Goldstein was his “hero.” From his neck, he wore a placard bearing the inscription “Blessed is the man who opens fire.”
After spending about a decade as the go-to lawyer for Jewish terrorists and in-house counsel for a far-right group dedicated opposing intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, Ben-Gvir officially entered politics in 2012 with the founding of Otzma Yehudit. While Ben-Gvir does not explicitly refer to Otzma Yehudit as the successor of Kach, the party is understood to be its ideological descendant. As the leader of the party and, by extension, the modern Kahanist movement as a whole, Ben-Gvir has made some efforts to “moderate” its image. He has made attempts, fruitless as they may be, to dispute allegations of racism, and has turned away from Kahane’s stance of deporting and/or enslaving all Arabs in the country, much to the consternation of his voters. Now, it just supports the deportation of Arabs who are “not loyal to Israel,” including Israeli-Arab politicians currently serving in the country’s parliament. Along with that, the party also supports the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, with harsh reprisals against anyone who resists Israeli rule. Like his idol Kahane, Ben-Gvir has called for anyone who does as much as throw stones at Israeli forces to be shot on sight. And as might be expected, Ben-Gvir, an illegal settler himself, supports unlimited expansion of illegal settlements throughout the occupied territories.
As for the current state of affairs in Palestine, Ben-Gvir’s take is that it’s apartheid, and that that’s a good thing. In his own words: “My right, the right of my wife and my children to move around [the West Bank] is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs.” He made this statement during an interview with an Arab-Israeli reporter named Mohammad Magadli, to whom he turned and said, “Sorry Mohammad, my right to life precedes yours, that is the reality.”
In his capacity as Minister of National Security, Ben-Gvir oversees the Israeli police and prison system. Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, he has begun handing out rifles to illegal settlers in the West Bank, who are currently engaged in a spree of murders of Palestinians throughout the occupied territory.
Party: National Religious Party–Religious Zionism
Major Player: Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich
Bezalel Smotrich represents the more explicitly religious elements of the country’s ultra-nationalist right. While he doesn’t have a direct history of involvement with Kahanism in the way Ben-Gvir does, many of his policies are essentially indistinguishable from his. This is quite unfortunate for those who wish to write off the recently-elected Ben-Gvir as a one-off, because Smotrich has been a relevant player in Israeli politics for quite some time. First elected to the Israeli parliament in 2015, Smotrich has served happily within Netanyahu’s coalition throughout his career, an allegiance that has won him two cabinet-level titles in the past: Minister of Transportation from 2019 to 2020, and Minister of Finance, the powerful economic position he currently holds now. In addition to that, he also heads the administration of a large part of the West Bank, with a portfolio specifically dedicated to developing illegal Jewish settlements.
What defines the philosophy of this new Israeli power broker? In a word, two things: intense cultural conservatism and hatred towards both Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs. Smotrich is a self-declared “fascist homophobe” who has dedicated much of his political life to suppressing Israel’s LGBT community. He has regularly called gay Israelis “beasts” and refers to pride parades as “beast parades.” In fact, one of Smotrich’s first acts in public life was when he helped organize his own so-called Beast Parade, wherein he marched animals through the streets of Jerusalem as a protest against the city’s pride parade. While the politician has claimed that these are just his opinions, and that he won’t act on them by, say, “stoning gays to death,” his platform says otherwise. Smotrich’s father, Chaim Smotrich, spent his entire life advocating for the overturning of Israel’s secular legal system in favor of a system based on halakhic (religious) law, thereby turning Israel into a theocracy. Bezalel holds this same position. It’s hard to imagine that the rights of those Smotrich rails against would find much protection under such a regime.
These particulars of Israeli social policy may feel irrelevant in the context of the ongoing war, but remember: these are all Israeli Jews he is talking about. This is how he treats members of his own “side.” When it comes to Palestinians, things get beyond extreme. Smotrich has been attempting to harm Palestinians for a period of time spanning well before his entry into electoral politics. While his criminal record is not as lengthy as Ben-Gvir’s, it includes what is easily the most infamous act between the two. In 2005, Smotrich was arrested and detained for three weeks over his involvement in a plot to block cars and damage infrastructure in protest of the then-government’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Under most circumstances, such an arrest would have hardly been unusual for a figure like Smotrich, except for one thing that made it highly alarming: his group had allegedly built up a stash of nearly 200 gallons of gasoline that they planned to use to blow up cars on the highway at rush hour. While Smotrich has feverishly denied that part of the story, it has been seconded by none other than former Shin Bet deputy head Yitzhak Ilan, who personally interrogated Smotrich during his detention. While it’s worth noting that Ilan said this while running as a member of a party in the anti-Netanyahu opposition, he still has a great degree of credibility. In any event, Smotrich doesn’t deny his role in the organized opposition to the withdrawal plan, which regularly threatened and sometimes engaged in violence.
If Smotrich is totally innocent of these charges, it would be hard to tell based on his positions. Like Ben-Gvir, Smotrich’s vision for the future of Israel is one explicitly based on apartheid. His ultimate vision for the Palestinians is that of a one-state solution, wherein Israel annexes the West Bank and Gaza. In this world, Palestinians will only be considered “residents” of the state of Israel. While the state will generously grant them “municipal autonomy,” they will not be able to vote for their own national government. Only Jews and (presumably) a minority of Israeli-Arabs from the pre-1967 borders will be permitted representation in parliament. Socially, the country will implement Jim Crow-style segregation. Palestinians will be forbidden from purchasing property from non-Jews. Everything up to and including maternity wards will be segregated by race. This is what Smotrich refers to as “Israel’s Decisive Plan”: where Palestinians, who he does not recognize as a people, will be eternally barred from either having their own state or having basic human rights under an Israeli one. As described by veteran Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Yishai:
[Smotrich] intends to flood, simply so, the [West Bank] with settlements and Jewish settlers. When this happens, the Palestinians are supposed to understand that they have no chance to get a state of their own and they would have to choose between one of the three options – a life of subjugation under Israeli rule, emigration or….death.
Ben-Yishai is by no means a bleeding-heart leftist. The necessity of maintaining Israel’s image in the world is a constant refrain throughout his piece, and he goes out of his way to frame Smotrich’s desires within the context of Netanyahu’s bid to remove judicial independence, the one issue Israel’s Zionist center cares about above all else. But even he can see that establishing “the apartheid,” as he calls it in the headline of his opinion piece, is Smotrich’s ultimate ambition. Whether Ben-Yishai’s beloved judicial system is truly a bulwark against this possibility remains to be seen, but his statements mark yet another example of mainstream Israeli figures candidly articulating the country’s political reality in a way that is reflexively declared inappropriate when it comes from overseas commentators.
While these white papers and long-term institutional designs might give off the impression that Smotrich is something of a legalistic counterpart to Ben-Gvir’s terroristic approach, violence plays a major part of his rhetoric and actions. In the past, he has had racist meltdowns in the middle of sessions of the Israeli parliament, once screaming at his Arab colleagues, “You’re here by mistake, it’s a mistake that Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948.” Like Ben-Gvir, he has called for Israeli forces to adopt a shoot-to-kill policy towards stone-throwers. In 2018, he called for a 17-year-old Palestinian protester to be shot for slapping an Israeli soldier. He not only defends all incidents of Israeli civilian violence against Palestinians on principle, but has called for such terrorism to be escalated. After West Bank settlers rampaged through the Palestinian village of Huwara this February, beating and killing Palestinians in the streets and setting fire to their cars and homes, Smotrich said that not enough had been done. He called on the Israeli military to join the rioters and “erase” the village of 5,570 people.
In his capacity as Minister of Finance, Smotrich plans and implements Israeli economic policy and drafts the country’s budget. He has used this authority to deny funds to Arab municipalities. As part of the country’s current power-sharing agreement, he serves as the de facto governor of the West Bank, with power over all civil policy in the territory. Smotrich also holds the additional title of “Minister in the Defense Ministry,” making him directly involved in Israel’s military decision-making.
Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are both very influential players in Israel. They control some of the country’s most powerful and important ministries, especially as it concerns Palestinian policy. At the same time, they are also offhandedly referred to as marginal. While this belies their overall importance in the country’s politics, it is, in truth, a somewhat accurate description of their political standing. Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s parties have six and seven seats, respectively, making them definitive minority parties. Together, they actually hold fewer seats than the country’s two religious parties, who are very important players in the country’s government but also difficult to analyze since they determine their policies based on what their religious leaders say. And they both pale in comparison to Likud: Israel’s sole remaining major party and the heart of its political right.
Major Player: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Likud’s leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, needs no introduction. He is Likud and Likud is him. While the party is, on paper, the country’s secular, mainstream, right-wing political force, it would be more accurately described in recent years as a personality cult for Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister. His policies are their policies on everything, including on issues as contentious as Palestine.
I’ve gone over the nature of Netanyahu’s strategy during his tenure(s) as Prime Minister in previous articles and interviews, but if you want the long and short of it, it’s this: Netanyahu has dedicated his entire life to preventing the creation of a Palestinian state. He’s changed his rhetoric and moved the goalposts depending on the international climate, but that’s the upshot of it. When Netanayhu first won the Likud leadership in the early 1990s, he virulently opposed settlements as basic as the Oslo Accords, arguably played a role in Rabin’s assassination with his extremist rhetoric, and stalled out negotiations once he first came to power shortly after. After being kicked out of power in 1999 after an old generation of Israelis rightfully recognized that he had no commitment to peace whatsoever, he handed off Likud leadership to Ariel Sharon, who brought him back in power as the country’s Minister of Finance following Sharon’s 2003 election victory. This tenure, wherein he applied a Thatcherite economic policy regime (he’s not just far-right on Palestine) that brought the country significant foreign investment, helped rehabilitate his career. However, his time in power would come to an abrupt end after Likud cracked up over Sharon’s support for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Netanyahu resigned in protest over Sharon’s move, and after Sharon left his own party to start a big-tent centrist coalition, Netanyahu moved in to retake the leadership of the rump Likud.
This didn’t go very well at first. In the 2006 elections, Netanyahu’s Likud earned a pathetic 9% of the vote, hardly any better than the country’s pensioner’s party. But it was all only prologue to Netanyahu’s next and biggest act of all: his return to power and subsequent domination of Israeli politics. Through corruption scandals, indictments, and countless regional flare-ups, Netanyahu has remained in office almost continuously following his victory in 2009. And what a time in office it’s been. Netanyahu has been the architect of Israel’s current approach towards Palestine, centered around complete dispossession first and foremost. He made a mockery of peace talks, broke the back of the Israeli left, and did the heavy lifting to get figures like Smotrich and Ben-Gvir in parliament in the first place. Throughout it all, his administration has presided over endless settlement expansions, violations of international law and human rights abuses.
At a certain point, describing Netanyahu’s beliefs becomes less of an act of profiling a specific individual and more of a description of existing Israeli policy. Essentially everything the country does and engages in comes from him, which is pretty concerning if you look at how he’s been talking lately. In a speech a few days ago, the Prime Minister invoked a Bible verse about killing women and children to describe his policy in Gaza.
And pro-Israel PR flacks think that pointing this out is unfair. They think it’s all unfair. Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, Netanyahu—these are all just politicians, they say. Most Israelis don’t even like them. You can’t judge a country based on who it elects; after all, wouldn’t it be unfair for someone to denounce the United States because of Trump? Putting aside the fact that you can absolutely do that first thing and that that second thing would, in fact, be totally fair, fine. Let’s play this game. Let’s look at somebody in the Israeli government who is (or at least was) liked by a majority of Israelis and also is currently deeply involved in the current conflict in Gaza. Is this where we can find the mythical even-handed Israeli statesman, a man who we can trust to bomb Gaza in good faith?
Major Player: Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant
Yoav Gallant, retired general and current Defense Minister, has a background that is quite different from Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, or Netanyahu. He fits firmly within a very common Israeli political archetype: that of a retired general or military chieftain who prioritizes security above all else, ultimately serving as a moderating force relative to the fire-breathing partisans they work with. And, indeed, Gallant has played such a role numerous times on a number of issues during his time as Defense Minister. The issue of Palestine, however, has not been among them.
In the context of Gallant’s political career, this may come across as a little surprising. Since the retired general entered Israeli politics in 2015, he has been a genuine moderate, breaking from the right in big ways on big issues. As a matter of fact, Gallant wasn’t even a member of the country’s political right when he first began his career. Rather than join Likud, he chose to become second-in-command of a new party, Kulanu, a centrist group that split off from Netanyahu’s party. Kulanu’s ultimate coalitional alignment was a major topic of speculation during the campaign, and Gallant himself was even rebuked by the party’s leader when he suggested that the party would seek to form a government with Labor’s Isaac Herzog before working with Netanyahu. While the party focused primarily on economic issues, it also rebuked Netanyahu’s approach, if not his philosophy, on Palestine, endorsing a two-state solution on paper while refraining to commit to any actual talks with Palestinian leaders. Gallant endorsed this approach, even saying during the campaign:
“It was through Zionist activity that we created the Palestinian people living beside us, and they are not going anywhere…It makes no sense for us to settle in places with a dense Palestinian population…We must grant the Palestinians territorial contiguity, which will allow them to run their own lives in an independent entity.”
Quite a far cry from Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. While Kulanu would ultimately join Netanyahu’s coalition following the election, all of this made Gallant look relatively reasonable. This impression was only further solidified after he quite strikingly joined up with Ayman Odeh, the Israeli-Arab leader of the Joint List, a former alliance of the country’s Arab parties, on a unity tour through the country’s Arab towns and cities.
But it all proved to be false impressions and empty words. As part of Kulanu’s power-sharing deal with Likud, Gallant was given the Ministry of Construction, a nominally low-level but politically decisive ministry that regulates, among other things, construction projects in illegal Israeli settlements. As minister from 2015 to 2019, Gallant kept up the Netanyahu government’s policy of settlement expansion, doing a great deal to facilitate the policy intended to make a Palestinian state impossible. And as time went on, Gallant would move even further to the political right. He abandoned Kulanu, joined Likud, and completely flip-flopped on Palestine, moving to the right of even Netanyahu on the issue. Where he once said it made no sense for Israelis to settle in Arab-populated territories, Gallant now called settlements the “Zionism of the 21st century.” Out was an “independent entity” for Palestinians: now, Gallant was “clearly saying no to a Palestinian state” and calling for Israel to fully annex the West Bank.
What accounts for such a massive shift? It would be easy to point to political expediency, but Gallant has made strong, even dramatic stands on principle in the past. Notably, he risked his entire political career earlier this year when he came out against Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms, a move that actually led to Gallant’s dismissal for a day until mass protests made the Prime Minister backtrack. If Gallant truly thought that it was in the best interests of Israeli security to make peace with the Palestinians, he would have said so.
The most likely explanation for this shift is that there was no shift at all, and that Gallant was always in favor of the complete dispossession of Palestinians the entire time. The only thing that changed was the way in which he articulated this. Back in 2015, when Barack Obama was in office and Netanyahu was facing tough polls, this involved usual meaningless lip service towards a two-state solution that he never intended to follow through on. But by 2019, when Donald Trump was in office and the Israeli right was riding high, there was ample room for Gallant to be more explicit about what he was euphemistically hinting at four years prior. When push comes to shove, he will never allow Palestinians their basic rights.
The consequences of having such a man in such an important position have been disastrous. This is especially the case because his ultranationalist ideology is infused with grudges from his military days. In 2009, Gallant commanded Israeli forces during Operation Cast Lead, the first major conflict between the country and Hamas following the latter group’s takeover of the Gaza Strip. The brutal tactics used by Israeli forces under Gallant’s command received widespread international attention, leading the United Nations to establish a fact-finding mission on the country’s behavior in the conflict. Their findings, as compiled in the Goldstone Report, documented war crimes and possible crimes against humanity by the IDF, including but not limited to the usage of human shields and white phosphorus bombs.
Gallant’s only regrets are that he wasn’t harsher. He sees this war as his chance to make up for that.
Sometimes, there are situations where your subject makes your case for you. This is one of them. All of the descriptions of the figures profiled here come from their own beliefs, statements, actions, and associations. You don’t need much analysis to see the obvious conclusion here: that the people who run the Israeli government hate the Palestinian people, wish to see them dispossessed, and prioritize accomplishing this above all else. The origins of this hatred may vary wildly, from religious fanaticism to bloodthirsty ultranationalism to a strategy to stay out of prison, but the upshot is the same in the end. This intent cannot be ignored as the country continues to mercilessly pound Gaza and produce white papers advocating for the entire strip to be ethnically cleansed. To say that they are only doing such things out of concern for their safety is utterly farcical. Their hatred is what dictates every single one of their actions, as it always has.
Those who say that this is not the case, and that the intentions of these figures are either pure or unknowable, fall into one of two categories. The first is that they know absolutely nothing about Israeli politics and are speaking entirely out of their asses on a life-or-death issue. The second is that they are fully aware that Israel has a government of racists, terrorists, criminals and psychopaths and are lying about it.
You decide which is worse.
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