Israel’s Far-Right Government Risks a Third Intifada
Without exceedingly careful diplomacy by world leaders, a new and major conflict will erupt between Israelis and Palestinians that could reach into Israeli communities.
Newly re-elected Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and high-level Israeli ministers have recently met with multiple U.S. delegations led by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on January 19, CIA director Bill Burns shortly after, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken between January 30-31. The litany of meetings marks the first early engagements between the partner countries under Israel’s new government, coming at a truly unique moment for Israel and Palestine in which a perfect confluence of hardline views and groups could erupt into a regionally destabilizing conflict.
The historic election of the most far-right government in Israeli history following Israeli parliamentary elections in November has dominated the media cycle for months, in no small part because Netanyahu’s coalition consists of ultranationalist and ultraorthodox parties operated by openly racist and xenophobic fascists. The most notable non-Likud parties and individuals in this new coalition include Religious Zionism, run by Bezalel Smotrich; Otzma Yehudit, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir; Shas, led by Aryeh Deri; and United Torah Judaism, led by Yitzchak Goldknopf.
Netanyahu’s Likud is the largest party in the Israeli Knesset (the Israeli parliament) with thirty-two seats. It is also the furthest left political entity in the coalition, raising eyebrows given that the party is very conservative. Major cabinet-level positions were given to each of the party leaders in the coalition, including Smotrich as minister of finance and Ben Gvir as minister for national security. Specifically, Smotrich will control the Finance Ministry for two years while also serving as a minister in the Ministry of Defense, overseeing West Bank settlements. Ben Gvir will oversee police forces across Israel and the West Bank.
Ultimately, the ministry assignments are striking considering the conflict of interests at play. This includes Smotrich’s plans to shift governing responsibilities from the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) Civil Administration under the Defense Ministry to “relevant ministries” and thus civilian control—a “de facto annexation” of Palestinian land as it would apply Israeli civil law instead of military rule to the occupied territories. Smotrich’s Finance Ministry would likely be one governing entity gaining powers over the West Bank in this regard, as he desires full control of development in Area C (60 percent of the West Bank) to advance Israeli settler colony construction. Importantly, Smotrich lives in the historic settlement of Kedumim, half of which falls under Area C.
This plan was partially operationalized on February 23, when a number of responsibilities under the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and the Civil Administration, the two Defense Ministry agencies in charge of civilian affairs in Area C of the West Bank where Israel has full security and civilian control, were transferred to Smotrich. To avoid political backlash, the power transfer is defined as within the Defense Ministry, where Smotrich is a minister. Ultimately, power over the West Bank will be split between Smotrich, Defense Minister Yoav Galant, and Netanyahu—setting up a power struggle. More importantly, Smotrich will now have supposed final say on enforcement of illegal settlement construction.
Each of these leaders, as well as their parties broadly, openly support repressive policies that advance Israeli apartheid over Palestinians specifically and non-Jewish minorities generally. This includes settlement expansion (including legalizing illegal outposts in occupied Palestine on February 12), expanding policing of Palestinian-majority communities, loosening policies allowing for police to fire on civilians, outlawing the Palestinian flag, and broadening the interior minister’s ability to revoke citizenship for a lack of “loyalty” to the state of Israel. Each of these policies is used to decrease the power of Palestinians to resist the occupation and further harden the alternative legal regime under which they live.
Ultimately, the combination of fascistic politicians, coupled with the guaranteed deepening of Israeli apartheid against Palestinians in both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT)—not to mention the attempted annexation of Palestinian land through settlement expansion, recognition, and legal reforms—is certain to spell disaster for Palestine, Israel, and the broader region. Indeed, the advent of Israel’s new government comes amidst the perfect storm of adjacent issues.
This includes the rapidly decaying influence of and support for the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs parts of the West Bank. Aging PA president Mahmoud Abbas, alongside most of the PA leadership under his Fatah Movement, is widely viewed as ineffectual and out of touch—for good reason. PA cooperation with Israel has regularly produced terrible outcomes for Palestinians, often in the form of Ramallah’s brutal repression of the Palestinian street itself. Many Palestinians view the PA as an arm of the Israeli government, especially given its own brutal tactics against the Palestinian people.
Due to its loss of legitimacy, the PA is ceding ground to new armed groups across the OPT, not limited to the Iran-backed Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, alongside newer groups like the Lion’s Den. Palestinian Youth are particularly prominent in new militant groups in the West Bank and carry widespread support—a sign that Palestinians have lost faith in peaceful engagement with Israel. This is best represented by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research’s (PCPSR) latest polling of Palestinians in the West Bank, which found that 40 percent of individuals now support “waging an armed struggle” against the occupation.
This is a long-running and unsurprising trend. Israel has forced millions of Palestinians into both poverty and increasingly smaller communities over the decades while supporting settler efforts to swallow up OPT land, such as mob attacks on Palestinian communities. Consecutive Israeli governments have ignored the clear need for peace talks with the Palestinian leadership, cynically opting to slowly creep over Palestinian land and ethnically cleanse entire communities, in no small part because it is politically popular in Israel. Masafer Yatta, near Hebron, offers one of a litany of examples of this strategy. Indeed, the Israeli far-right appears dead set on expanding Israeli territory to force Palestinians out of their communities. Smotrich’s statements, claiming he has “no interest” in the PA’s existence, is the personification of a broader reality in which the West Bank is entirely annexed—a leading cause of Palestinian upheaval today. Israeli efforts to cut PA funding, led by Smotrich, only worsen destabilization.
Thus, the perfect storm presents itself. One of the core sources of regional instability—namely the fight for Palestinian statehood—is reaching an apex moment in which hardline stances in Israel and Palestine are resulting in exceedingly violent incidents. Much of this falls on Israel’s refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians given domestic political realities and the perception that it can bypass concessions through efforts to expand the Abraham Accords, which connected Israel to multiple Arab governments in 2020 through so-called “peace deals.”
This, coupled with overt military repression that has particularly worsened in the last year, evidenced by a marked increase in West Bank raids since last year, has forced many Palestinians to view violence as their only option. To be sure, increasingly repressive tactics are the norm of both moderate and right-wing Israeli governments for years, especially following the deadliest year for Palestinians on record (2022). Unfortunately, the new government’s makeup and rhetoric prove that it will continue to push Palestinians beyond the breaking point. Recent violence in the West Bank during the U.S. delegation visits, including the worst Israeli raid in a decade, and, subsequently, the worst Palestinian attack on Israelis in fifteen years are the results.
Without exceedingly careful diplomacy by world leaders—namely, the United States—a new and major conflict will erupt between Israelis and Palestinians that could transcend the OPT into Israeli communities. This was already witnessed during the 2021 Gaza War, which for the first time saw intracommunal violence across Israel as Hamas and the IDF rained bombs on each other for weeks. Simply put, it is not outlandish, albeit incredibly saddening, that 2023 faces the very real risk of a third Intifada should the new Israeli government push Palestinians to the breaking point. PCPSR’s research suggests that many think this is already occurring, with 61 percent of Palestinians and 65 percent of Israeli Jews agreeing an intifada has already started.
Recent U.S. delegations to Israel suggest that important conversations focused on stabilizing the situation are occurring. However, Netanyahu’s word is highly contentious given the far-right’s hold over him due to his ongoing corruption trial. Ultimately, Netanyahu needs his coalition partners to push through judicial reforms that will save his political career. His decision to create a coalition with fascists already suggests he is compromised on this front and beholden to their interests. Thus, his comments about stability and the status quo should ring hollow, let alone any expectation that he can keep his cabinet in check. This is particularly true given the recent conflict within his cabinet following the destruction of the illegal Or Hachaim outpost in the West Bank, in which Gallant and Smotrich clashed over the closing of the settler outpost. Israel’s brutal Nablus raid on February 22, mere hours after promising to cease West Bank raids in exchange for the PA’s removal of a highly critical United Nations Security Council resolution against Israel, further proves this reality. The brutality that occurred during the Huwara pogroms, at nearly the same time as meetings in Jordan between Palestinian, Israeli, American, and other regional delegations, only adds insult to injury.