Photo: Amir Cohen/Reuters
Looking up and staring straight at the camera, the suspect who broke into a centuries-old cemetery in Jerusalem appears to spot CCTV equipment recording his hate crime. Seemingly unfazed, he looks down again, focusing on the task at hand – pushing the stone cross and smashing it to pieces.
The two young men who vandalized more than 30 Christian graves last weekend showed little interest in concealing their identities while carrying out a sectarian attack. They kept their faces uncovered, systematically destroying tombstones on a bright Sunday afternoon in the heart of the holy city. That’s the confidence the suspects, believed to be teenage Israeli extremists arrested on Friday, now act.
Why not act with confidence? Israel’s new ultranationalist religious rulers, sworn in just days earlier, include people who share their view of Jewish supremacy. One of the ministers, Itamar Ben-Gvir, became famous as an ideological lawyer defending exactly the same kind of far-right Jewish settlers who carried out similar attacks on Palestinian Christians and Muslims. Now he oversees the institution that is supposed to prevent such crimes – the police.
The rise to power of a far-right government is creating a “wave effect”, said former Palestinian peace negotiator Diana Buttu. “The fact that they desecrated these graves doesn’t come out of nowhere – it’s because they can.”
Israel’s new government is the most far-right government in the country’s relatively short history, and it has already begun to act. In just over a week, the administration took steps towards the largest expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank since the beginning of the occupation. This allowed hardline minister Ben-Gvir to stage a provocative visit to a holy mosque – an act that had previously led to the intifada. She announced a plan to gut the judiciary, which, while already leaning towards the far right, is still seen as a thorn in the side of Israeli politicians who want direct control over the lives of Palestinians and Israelis, without any scrutiny.
All of this was possible because political survivor Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, made deals with politicians once considered radical. He needed them to form a coalition government, and in the process brought the far right into the mainstream.
Israeli politics did not suddenly fall to ideological extremes. Overall, Ben-Gvir and other settlers in the new government share the same goals as Netanyahu and even many self-proclaimed Israeli center and left politicians: ultimate control forever.
In tweet in HebrewNetanyahu made the ideological pillars of the new administration very clear. “The Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel,” he wrote. “The government will promote and develop settlements in all parts of the Land of Israel,” he added, including in the occupied West Bank.
Buttu said Israeli governments in the past have tried to keep Palestinians “invisible” to Israeli voters, even while entrenching the occupation, and have instead diverted attention from less emotional issues such as the economy or bus schedules.
“Previous Israeli governments had the same plans as the current government, which is to seize as much Palestinian land as possible, blockade the Gaza Strip, build and expand settlements, and kill Palestinians with impunity,” Buttu said.
“The difference is that in this government, their only political platform is against the Palestinians,” she said. “No more veneer.”
US diplomats in Jerusalem squirm in their attempts to pull off tricky political evasions by talking about working for a future Palestinian state, knowing very well that the Israeli government that Washington purports to support is seeking the opposite. It’s hard not to stumble.
Related: The Israeli government’s plan to limit judicial powers has been sharply criticized
“There is no pretense with this government,” wrote Hadar Susskind, president of the nonprofit Americans for Peace Now. “De facto annexation is part of her platform. This is clearly the main goal of its members. The occupation is the rot underlying this rotten government.”
Even the Israeli right, victorious after a decades-long political battle to suppress domestic voices opposing the occupation, is beginning to worry that it may have gone too far.
David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel newspaper, wrote that Israelis worry that Netanyahu has made too many concessions to his far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies.
But he wrote: “This ship, voters and lovers of Israel, has sailed.”