Is Israel’s ‘Government of Change’ More of the Same?

Israel’s new coalition consists of heterogeneous parties but also represents new headway for the settlement movement

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Is Israel’s ‘Government of Change’ More of the Same?
Palestinians in Beita protest against the Jewish settlement of Evyatar on June 28 / Credit: Nicolas Rouger

A sleepless night, a parching hot sun, and an evacuation order did not stop the lumbering youth of the settler outpost of Evyatar from tending to the soil with digging forks, while straining their backs to transport new building blocks to their settlement. After a nightlong meeting, the two-month-old community of 53 families voted to accept the government’s “compromise”: The residents would leave, but the army would not raze the mostly prefabricated buildings and would establish a post there until they had surveyed the area to determine ownership of the land.

As Israel’s new government began to settle in, all eyes were on Evyatar. It would be the first test for the patchwork government to navigate the supposedly unbridgeable ideologies of its eight motley parties. How Prime Minister Naftali Bennett dealt with his previous base in the settler movement — and how he sold the decision to his partners — could reveal the modus operandi for the next four years.

At a June 28 press conference by leaders of the settler movement, Yossi Dagan, Head of the Samaria Regional Council, said it was “not a day of joy, but a day of progress.” As he rushed back into his makeshift headquarters, I asked him if he spoke to Defense Minister Benny Gantz in order to secure the compromise. He replied in a reluctant affirmative.

Despite the strident tone and public pronouncements to the contrary, the atmosphere in Evyatar is buoyant, and the young huddle in song: On the way up the hilltop, we give a ride to a Jewish teenager — acne, braces, and unkempt hair — who had been here for a few weeks to show his support for the settlement. “It was challenging, but it was worth it. This is a victory,” he tells us while catching his breath. The word is far more appropriate than the misnomer “compromise.” The settlement is considered illegal even under Israeli law, and the defense establishment, including Gantz, was adamant from the outset that they won’t be bullied by the settler lobby, if only to make a point about who is in charge. The outcome provides the answer.

Israel’s so-called government of change pledged to avoid controversial issues to ensure that the coalition remains afloat, with the ousted Benjamin Netanyahu relentlessly rallying to bring it down. However, the fact that even the hawkish Gantz, the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), had to bow to the most extreme elements of Israeli society proves that Israel’s settlement lobby has settled deeper and more irrevocably in the heart of power and that the new government is unlikely to see beyond the horizon on the hilltop.

The view from below Jabal Subih, as the Palestinians refer to the occupied hilltop, is that “the compromise” doesn’t change anything. Since the settlement sprang up, Palestinians of Qabalan, Yatma, and Beita have been barred from accessing their farmlands — consisting of olive and fig trees, which now serve as a sort of buffer zone between their towns and the settlement. Whether it is radical settlers or the Israeli army who takes their land makes “little difference,” explains Fawaz from Beita.

The Palestinians vowed to continue protesting for as long as necessary. The night of the compromise agreement was no different. Zohi Dweikat, 32, says they are constantly innovating their resistance to push the settlers out: horns, burning tires, lasers, flaming kites, and Molotov cocktails. As the smoke is carried by the wind over the hilltop, another Palestinian kisses his pinched fingers: “For me, it is like seeing a beautiful girl,” he laughs. In Evyatar, the soot from the smoke settles on the surfaces, and some residents cough lightly. When relayed to the locals, Palestinians smile with a sense of schadenfreude.

The cost of the protests, however, has given no reason for smiles: In Beita alone, the IDF has killed four Palestinians, including two minors, and injured over 800 more. In Beita, injured teenagers — some shot by live fire and some by rubber bullets — hobble along the craggy terrain on crutches. One has a badge pinned to his football shirt with a picture of his schoolmate, 16-year-old Mohammed Hamayel, who was shot dead by the army. “The closer you get to the settlement,” Fawaz explains, “the more dangerous it becomes.” His 12-year-old son is by his side. When night falls and the demonstrations begin in earnest, Fawaz’s son won’t be allowed to go down into the valley.

Since the outpost was evacuated, the Palestinians have been able to reenter some of their lands, though not the hilltop itself, Yazan Abu Mazen from Beita told me.

Dror Etkes of Kerem Navot, an NGO that tracks settlement construction, however, takes the longer view. Although Palestinians are more likely to access land by a military post than a settler outpost, he warns that surveying lands — the process carried out by the Civil Administration to gauge the degree of cultivation to determine ownership — has often been used to expropriate Palestinian land by transferring it to the state. He points to the settlement of Rechelim, founded in 1991, which was given retroactive approval in 2017 through this method, whereby the state can lay claim to untended land. In the case of Evyatar, an aerial picture of the lands in the 1980s, purchased by Kerem Navot from Survey of Israel, the national mapping agency, proves that the pastures were indeed cultivated before the IDF established a makeshift military base there.

In light of this, “the compromise” becomes even more significant, as even Israel’s favorable legal system was likely to rule against the settlement. The deal, however, stipulates that an army base will be established there regardless of the results of the survey, meaning even if it is established that the land was indeed cultivated before the settlement was built and is therefore privately owned, the army base will still remain. According to reports in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, a cabinet member advised settler leaders to avoid petitioning the high court, which would in all likelihood rule to evict them, and instead pursue a negotiated solution with the government, thus securing their gains and keeping the land in Jewish hands.

And so it is that on their fourth attempt since 2013, the settlers in Evyatar finally achieved their goal of taking over the hilltop. (They had been evacuated after their previous three attempts.) Ironically, this victory happened under Bennett — the leader of the far-right Yamina party and a champion of the settler movement — who has been unremittingly labeled a “traitor” and a “liar” since he joined the unity government. Following the deal, Bennett’s number two, Ayelet Shaked, thanked “the pioneers of Evyatar who, through their devotion, demonstrate what Zionism is.” Although the coalition is made of heterogeneous stripes — spanning from the Islamist United Arab List to the religious nationalist Yamina — the ministries related to security and Palestinians are dominated by the most right-wing factions.

Until recently, you could have found the politician Mossi Raz at the mass demonstrations against Netanyahu, or at the smallest protests on housing evictions in Jaffa, or at an LGBTQ+ pride parade in the small town of Mitzpe Ramon. After his party, Meretz, exceeded expectations in the last election, he found himself catapulted into the Knesset. This notwithstanding, he can still be seen at protests.

His Twitter bio openly calls for the end of the occupation, though his party is now sitting in government with the right-wing Bennett and Shaked. “It is not easy for me,” Raz says, counting the settlers’ allies in the government across all the parties. At least three of the eight party leaders are openly pro-settlement. The problem, he says, is far deeper. “Settlers are part of the establishment: They make up a high percentage in courts, civil administration, Knesset, army, and the ministries.”

Raz’s vocal opposition to the settlement of Evyatar comes as no surprise. In June, he co-hosted a small, controversial conference in the Knesset titled “After 54 years: From Occupation to Apartheid.” Newlines reached out to him by phone and asked about Evyatar. “It’s not a compromise — it is acceptance and recognition of the settlement,” he said.

The lawmaker still believes that his party’s decision to join the government was correct. “You have to compare it to the alternatives,” he explains, decrying the prospect of a “constitutional crisis” of a fifth election or another Netanyahu government backed by the extreme right, which would have likely legalized the outpost outright. He also cites his party’s objectives of halting corruption and promoting the rule of law, as well as bringing a record number of female and Arab ministers into the fold and having a seat at the table to “exercise pressure” against the right’s agenda.

In the early hours of Tuesday, July 6, Raz’s thesis faced a moment of truth. The Knesset failed to renew an amendment to the “Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law,” which forbids Palestinians from the occupied territories from legally living with their spouses who hold Israeli citizenship, but this doesn’t necessarily prove that change is in the offing.

In the end, Raz, as well as two members of the United Arab List, voted in favor of a compromise that was framed as a vote of confidence in the Bennett-led government. The deal would’ve seen the amendment extended by six months instead of a year in exchange for the removal of some bureaucratic hurdles for Palestinians lacking status in Israel and the granting of residency status in similar numbers to the Netanyahu years. But the only reason the bill did not pass comfortably was because of Netanyahu’s own political calculations, whipping up the most far-right members of the Knesset to oppose the renewal of the legislation to shame and maybe even bring down the new government. Demographic arguments were made by the usual suspects, but even a member of Raz’s own party took to the rostrum to warn that the law would “drown citizens of Israel in a sea of Palestinians.”

Unlike the cabinet decision, the family reunification law required the support of all the parties of the coalition — and so provided an opportunity for the diminished liberal Zionist camp to make their mark. In the end, it was not their principles but Netanyahu’s pettiness that proved decisive, and the significance of the lost vote is still undermined by the right-wing dominance of the cabinet again. Shaked, as the interior minister, will still be able to deny Palestinian family unification appeals on an individual basis.

“We knew from the beginning that we were the weaker component (of the coalition), and we are paying the price,” Raz says. “Regarding the occupied territories, this government is like the previous one,” he concedes. “The main thing is the environment,” referring to the Environmental Protection Ministry, which his party controls. Tamar Zandberg, his colleague, is already seeking to scrap a lucrative pipeline deal, which would see the United Arab Emirates transfer oil to Europe via Israel.

His co-host at the apartheid conference, Aida Touma-Sliman — a lawmaker from the Hadash faction of the Arab-majority Joint List, which is sitting in opposition — finds little cause for hope in the new government. “It is barely a month old,” she points out, “and look at what it has done,” referring to the bombs dropped on Gaza, the approval of 31 zoning plans for West Bank settlements, and what she described as the surrender to the most radical settlers with the Evyatar deal.

Unlike Raz, she thinks the co-option of Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List into the coalition represents a dangerous trend for Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. “They are offering individual rights for Arabs in the economic and social sphere, in exchange for surrendering any collective or national rights,” she says. She is skeptical about the sort of concessions that could be squeezed through this approach. “We are still talking about our most basic rights,” she added.

The flipside to preventing Netanyahu from forming a government with support of the far right, she claims, is that the unity government lends unprecedented legitimacy to the settlement enterprise. “This government has brought the settlement project into the heart of Israeli politics,” she asserts. “It has the illusion of being left, but it brings the right into the left.”

In the United States, the Democratic Party expressed relief at the departure of Netanyahu. But if there was any hope of a meaningful reconciliation with the Palestinians, these hopes were dashed during the meeting in Rome last week between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. The latter waxed lyrical about Israel’s normalization with Persian Gulf states and spoke of Israel’s intention to “minimize” the conflict with the Palestinians while offering no vision for a sustainable solution. When Lapid did return to the Knesset, he, too, echoed the demographic concerns about giving Palestinian families a route to citizenship through marriage to a Palestinian citizen of Israel, saying it is “one of the tools designed to ensure the Jewish majority in the State of Israel.”

In the past, this sort of Israeli “anti-solutionism” — as some may call it — was more hushed or opaque, as if its proponents were too embarrassed to spell it out verbatim. But now, even the main alternative to Netanyahu in this last election cycle has become unabashed about the approach. Despite Blinken’s friendly retort, there was no talk of equality or even a two-state solution from Israel’s liberal prince, attesting to a hardened status quo. Lapid, who will succeed Bennett in 2023 according to the coalition agreement, indeed represented the best hope for change on this front, and now even this limited hope seems to have been dashed.

At the June 28 press conference in Evyatar, Dagan invoked the spirit of Mapai — the predecessor to the Labor Party — in settling the land, calling it “a Zionist act.” Under then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in 1967, the party kickstarted the settlement enterprise in the West Bank. Today, the party is distinctly mute on the divisive issues facing the coalition. Dagan’s argument — that settlement has always been a key part of Zionism’s logic and success — has always been true, but it has scarcely been so obvious.

The next speaker, Daniella Weiss, one of the leaders of the settler movement, insisted that they were not at odds with the army or the government. “Our achievement is that we have pushed the government to reach the situation that it itself wants,” she said.

Back on the ridges of the hilltop, a group of teenagers sat on dilapidated sofas overlooking the Palestinian towns below, muttering invectives under their breath. Feeling persecuted by the media, they were guarded and asked about the subject of this article: “The challenges facing the new government, and how they will deal with them. You are one of them,” I told them. Later, on Friday afternoon, they were evacuated by the army, but the tensions lingered. On Saturday, a 20-year-old Palestinian from the nearby town of Qusra was shot dead by army live fire following further clashes, with Palestinians alleging that settlers were involved. Sasson, an 18-year-old, turning to me and my colleagues in the press corps, responded: “They are the challenge for us.”

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