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Israel is set to swear in the most right-wing government in the country's history


Here in Jerusalem, in a matter of days, Israel will swear in the most right-wing government in its history. Its members will pose for the traditional photo. Benjamin Netanyahu will sit in the front, as the returning prime minister. Gathered around him will be some of Israel's most far-right figures - an activist who was convicted of inciting anti-Arab racism and who wielded a gun in confrontations with Palestinians. He'll be overseeing the national police. There will be a West Bank settler leader who wants to block Palestinians from having their own state alongside Israel, what's called the two-state solution. And there will be ultra-religious politicians who want to promote Orthodox Judaism in public life. Netanyahu says he'll be the one in charge and will promote responsible policies. Critics are mapping out what Israel might look like.

NOA SATTATH: So I think the thing that is most - we're most worried about is the potential for violence.

ESTRIN: I spoke to Noa Sattath, who directs the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. She recalls the Gaza war in May of last year, when there were street riots inside Israel between Jewish and Arab citizens. And she says she worries about something like that happening again, but this time with a far-right police minister.

SATTAH: We're worried about violent cycles that will be longer and more extreme than in the past. We are worried that the police brutality around these violent cycles will be unprecedented.

ESTRIN: She worries the new government will discriminate against Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, like disqualifying Arab parties from running for office.

SATTAH: They could draft a law banning the Palestinian flag, and that could be law.

ESTRIN: She's concerned about liberalism in Israel. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish members of the new government want the power to separate women from men at public events and to allow business owners to refuse service to same-sex couples. And she's concerned about the government's plans for the supreme court. In the past, the court has struck down laws that discriminate against Palestinians and migrants. The new government wants lawmakers to have the final say.

SATTAH: The stripping away of the power of the supreme court would be devastating, in the long-term, in terms of the - our struggle for human and civil rights.

ESTRIN: So how can we understand the rise of Jewish, far-right ultra-nationalism in Israel? I asked Tamar Hermann. She studies public opinion at the Israel Democracy Institute. She says Israel has been moving rightward for about a decade now. Religious Jewish Israelis overwhelmingly define themselves as right wing. Orthodox families have high birth rates and their kids tend to share their politics.

But this year, researcher Tamar Hermann saw a shift. Many young Israelis, who are not religious, voted for the far right. And a third of Israel's soldiers voted for the far right. The far right wants to loosen the rules on when soldiers patrolling Palestinians can shoot.

TAMAR HERMANN: The message of the radical right was clear cut, it was simple, it had to do with the status of the Israeli Arab citizens. That has gotten much more complicated since May 2021, when we had these violent clashes in the mixed towns and cities. These are the common assessments.

ESTRIN: The very slim majority of Jewish Israelis define themselves either as secular or following basic Jewish tradition, but not religious. What do they think about this incoming government, where ministers are going to be promoting Orthodox Judaism in public life? We've even heard one who says he wants to shut down soccer games on the Sabbath. We've heard about efforts to block schools from teaching progressive curriculum, like LGBTQ topics. Are most Jewish Israelis onboard with that?

HERMAN: This kind of development was not expected, because they didn't expect the radical right to have such leverage to put pressure on Netanyahu - actually caught them by surprise.

ESTRIN: Her latest polls show most secular Israelis who voted for Netanyahu don't support these new initiatives, which the far right has demanded in exchange for joining Netanyahu's government. But from their point of view, it's better than the outgoing, liberal government, which included an Arab political party that they couldn't stomach in a country that defines itself as Jewish and democratic.

HERMAN: The relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel are now much worse than they used to be. Actually, we see a process of radicalization on both the Arab side and the Jewish side, not only on the right. This is something that we should keep in mind. Of course, the right is much more outspoken about it. But the average Israeli, the Jewish Israeli citizen, is now much more doubtful about the ability to have a benevolent cooperation with the Arab minority. And some of the Arabs and the Arab leaders are actually saying we don't want to take part in the political game.

ESTRIN: What about the lives of Palestinians in the Israeli occupied West Bank? This is the big issue for the international community - Israel's occupation - its overarching control of the lives of Palestinians. What are Israelis thinking about that today?

HERMAN: They're not thinking about it. As surprising as it may sound to people from the outside, the occupation was not on the table during the last five election campaigns. The status quo is perceived as something that Israel can live with, and actually, this is perceived as such on the center, and on the right, and also on certain parts of the left, because they don't see a partner on the other side. And there is no solution put on the table. No one put any real pressure on Israel, in this regard, for years now, neither Europe nor Washington, certainly not other players in the international community. So there is a big difference between what the international community is saying and what it is doing, on the level of actions, from the economic point of view, commercial point of view, security point of view. Everyone is cooperating with Israel.

ESTRIN: Tamar Hermann, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. Tamar, thank you.

HERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.