How are Israel and Iran to avoid war? Israel is an ally of the USA. Iran is now an ally of Russia. Iran is a theocracy with a regime-controlled press, all serious opposition candidates barred from elections. Israel is a democracy with a free press and hotly contested elections. Iran is in civil turmoil. Israel and Palestine are in perennial conflict. The enmity between Iran and Israel means that for years they have been on the brink of war.
Whilst the political dynamics in each are, of course, very different the influence of religious extremism displays an odd recent convergence. The well-known Shi’a extremism of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Basij volunteers remains the force sustaining Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s theocratic tyranny in Iran against a persistent popular revolt. But now in Israel the Prime Minister-elect, Benjamin Netanyahu is also beholden to Right-wing and Ultra-Orthodox extremists. After the recent election he is head of a governing coalition holding only 64 out of 120 seats in the Knesset.
In both Iran and Israel, domestic politics and internal pressures encourage belligerent rhetoric so easily a prelude to military action. In both countries, recent developments are pushing religious and political extremists to the fore as powerful arbiters of their countries’ future. Religion in Iran, resting on the Qur’an, is the mainstay of unaccountable tyranny. Religion in Israel, resting on the Hebrew Scriptures, the Torah, is used by some Jewish settlers to justify the dispossession of Palestinians. Control of women or possession of land: both purposes considered divinely mandated. And the problem with divine injunctions is that they brook no negotiation or compromise.
In Britain, there has been extensive coverage of the situation in Iran. Israel has been receiving far less attention. For that reason the focus here will be on recent political changes in Israel and the rise of religious extremism.
After another round of inconclusive elections, the Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, gave Netanyahu an extension until 21 December to pull together a viable coalition government. The slim majority he has built gives exceptional negotiating power to three extreme Right-wing and two Ultra-Orthodox Parties. Here are some details drawn from Israel’s Press.
The most notable figure in the new government is Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the small Otzma Yehudit Party, hero of the West Bank settlers, a Jewish supremacist with national celebrity status. In 2007 an Israeli court convicted him of incitement to racism. At the time he was associated with a youth movement declared a terrorist organisation by the Israeli government. Ben-Gvir is now slated to head a new National Security Agency which will control Israel West Bank Border police. It requires little imagination to predict his effect on the West Bank’s Palestinian population.
Ben-Gvir teamed up with Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party to win 225,000 votes in the March 2021 elections doubling to half a million in the November 2022 elections. Smotrich campaigned to become Minister of Justice with the aim of restoring ‘the Torah justice system’, but failed. Smotrich is a hardliner with an overtly anti-Arab and a homophobic track record. Such are his extreme views that on a visit to UK this year the British Board of Jewish Deputies told him to go home. He believes ‘following the Torah will lead to financial abundance’. Netanyahu has appointed him Minister of Finance for the next two years. The Religious Zionist deal with Netanyahu, just concluded, opens up the possibility of a creeping annexation of the West Bank.
Then there is Avigdor Maoz, a former civil servant and former director of the Ministries of Housing and the Interior. He is to be a Deputy Minister with responsibility for school curricula and for a new portfolio on Jewish National Identity. What this means is not clear though for ‘Avi’ Maoz it entails opposition to Reform Judaism, Arabs, secularism and LGBTQ Israelis. In 2019 he founded Noam, the Pleasantness Party! which holds a single seat, his own. Another Ultra-Orthodox group led by Yitzchak Goldknopf, the United Torah Judaism Party, will hold the Construction and Housing portfolio.
There is more. Netanyahu has just concluded a deal with Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Deri, leader of the Shas Party, making him Deputy Prime Minister. He is the least extreme of the Orthodox minority Party figures, an experienced politician and fixer. But he has a suspended sentence for criminal tax charges hanging over him. There will have to be enabling legislation before he can take up ministerial positions. If Netanyahu succeeds in getting this through, the two top political posts will be held by men facing longstanding corruption charges.
The Shas party holds eleven seats in the Knesset. Deri is also appointed Health and Interior Minister before replacing Smoltrich when his two years as Finance Minister are up. This leaves Netanyahu’s Likud with twelve Ministries, most notably Defence, Foreign Affairs and Justice.
Not surprisingly this future Israeli government has sounded alarm bells in the Biden administration. But it is also clearly not to the liking of Israel’s military leadership nor, most probably, to its powerful Intelligence services. The rolling dispossession of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank by Jewish settlers, the immiseration of Gaza, was presented by former Israeli governments, including those led by Netanyahu, as in the interests of National Security. Henceforth an extreme right wing government may openly justify the settler onslaught on Palestinian land as Scriptural.
How has this happened? Israel has long been able to deal with external threats. It is the perception of an internal threat that has given the extreme-Right a head of steam. This fear took firmer hold after the May 2021 melt-down beginning with Arab evictions from East Jerusalem and police-worshipper skirmishes around the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. Street conflict between Jews and Arabs spread around Israel’s major towns. In turn this set off attacks and counterattacks from Gaza and the West Bank. Over 250 Arabs were killed but also ten synagogues went up in flames, 112 Jewish homes burned and thirteen Jews were reported killed. The level of civil conflict and deaths this year remains high. Such violence lends credence to the extreme-Right narrative of the enemy within.
Both Israel and Iran have entered a new period of instability with new pressures liable to split their political elites and enhance the sense of threat. Commentators now believe Iran has probably enough enriched uranium for an atomic warhead and it continues to project its military power in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Israel has wanted to destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity since well before the signing of the defunct nuclear accords in 2015. With Iran providing Russia with drones used to attack Ukraine the staying hand of the USA may loosen its grip on Israel.
Were Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, however, Tehran’s likely response would be the blockage of the three kilometre wide shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz (33 kilometres wide at narrowest point). Shipping of over one third of the world’s natural gas and over a sixth of its oil production could stop overnight with catastrophic consequences for the global economy.
The present situation is not one in which peacemakers could gain traction. But that makes it all the more imperative for moderate leadership of Shi’a Islam and Judaism globally to speak out and intervene at the highest levels possible before it is too late. The Iranian centrifuges are spinning. Events are raising the risks of an Iran-Israel war by the day.
See TheArticle 12/12/2022