Extremist parties threaten to push Netanyahu’s government further to the right in the middle of the war

In order not to break the government coalition, the Israeli prime minister limits himself to cautioning a minister from a radical Jewish party who floated the idea of using an atomic bomb in the Gaza conflict

Israeli troops stand guard after settlers' attack in Deir Sharaf, near Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on November 2, 2023.
Israeli troops stand guard after settlers' attack in Deir Sharaf, near Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on November 2, 2023.RANEEN SAWAFTA (REUTERS)
Juan Carlos Sanz

At the end of last year, Benjamin Netanyahu secured his appointment as Israel’s prime minister, which incidentally protects him from prosecution in the three corruption cases for which he is being tried, but he had to pay the price of incorporating extreme Jewish right-wing forces into the executive power, which until then had been excluded from the parliamentary framework. Its members are not part of the security cabinet, the ministerial Sanhedrin that makes decisions in time of war, but its fanatical proclamations threaten to open a new front in Netanyahu’s political rearguard. As the worst armed conflict in Israel for half a century reaches its one-month milestone, the maneuvers of some extremist ministers threaten to push Netanyahu’s government — which is already considered the most conservative in the entire history of Israel — further to the right.

The final drop in the extremist cup has come from the minister of Heritage, Amihai Eliyahu, a member of the Jewish Power party. This formation is heir to the radicalism of Meir Kahane, who in the seventies and eighties championed the idea of armed struggle against the Arabs at the head of the Kach party (which was banned in 1988 for terrorism apologia), before being shot dead by an Egyptian in New York in 1990. Eliyahu was disciplined on Sunday by Netanyahu, who removed him from government meetings, after the minister — during a radio program earlier in the day — agreed with the “option” of dropping an atomic bomb on the Gaza Strip.

The ultranationalist minister had stated during the broadcast that he was not completely satisfied with the intensity of the bombing against Hamas, following the attack launched by the Islamist militia on October 7, in which more than 1,400 people were killed in Israel and another 240 were kidnapped. Asked in an interview what he thought of the possibility of razing the Palestinian strip to the ground with the nuclear weapon and “killing everyone,” he replied that it was a feasible “option,” even at the cost of also killing the hostages captured in Israel and held in Gaza.

“The lives of the hostages are not worth more than those of the soldiers,” he emphasized, “and in war there is always a price to pay.” In his view, everyone in the Gaza Strip is a combatant against Israel and there is no need for humanitarian aid to enter. Netanyahu’s inner cabinet was quick to note that Eliyahu’s statements were “disconnected from reality,” before informing that the prime minister had “suspended” the minister’s participation in meetings “until further notice.”

Israel has never acknowledged that it possesses nuclear weapons, but it has been considered a nuclear power for six decades. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that it has about a hundred atomic warheads. Former generals Yoav Galant, current defense minister, and Benny Gantz, his predecessor in the post and current member of the national unity cabinet for the Gaza war, called Eliyahu “irresponsible” and “harmful,” particularly to the families of the abductees.

Eliyahu tried to clarify hours later on social networks that his statements on the radio had had a “metaphorical” tone. Faced with the clamor of the foreign ministries from Arab countries and the condemnation of the U.S. State Department, Netanyahu has limited himself to reprimanding Eliyahu and temporarily removing him from government sessions, which in any case are relegated in wartime, when the decision-making power is concentrated in the security cabinet. Opposition leader Yair Lapid demanded his immediate dismissal. “The presence of extremists in the government puts us all at risk and undermines the central objectives of the war: eliminating Hamas and freeing all the hostages,” he wrote in a tweet on the X network (formerly Twitter).

Netanyahu leads a coalition of six parties: the party over which he presides (the conservative Likud); three extreme right-wing parties, which ran in a single list (Jewish Power, which includes Eliyahu; Religious Zionist Party and the homophobic Noam party); and two ultra-Orthodox parties, the Sephardic Shas and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism. In total, they account for 64 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, or Parliament.

Amid the general budget cuts imposed by the war, the two ultra-Orthodox groups have continued to demand an increase in funding for yeshivas (rabbinical schools) and Jewish religious education. The minister of finance and leader of Religious Zionism, Bezalel Smotrich, granted it. At the same time, this same Monday, Smotrich called for the creation of “buffer zones” to “prevent the entry of Arabs” around Jewish settlements and to increase security in the West Bank.

In a letter sent to several Hebrew media, Smotrich warned that the Israeli army is “failing to maintain acceptable levels of security” in the area. To this end, he also called for the closure of roads in olive harvesting areas, one of the main Palestinian agricultural activities at this time of year. The possible ban threatens to unleash further protests in the West Bank, which during the first month of the Gaza conflict have resulted in the deaths of dozens of Palestinians at the hands of security forces and armed Jewish settler groups.

“The plain reality is that this government of radical ministers is sabotaging the war strategy [against Hamas],” political columnist Nadav Eyal warned on Monday in the pages of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. “While Smotrich shows himself incapable of making progress in the recovery of the Israeli economy [n wartime], Eliyahu proposes to commit genocide in Gaza,” Eyal adds.

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