On Monday, the Knesset voted on a bill to extend Israeli civil and criminal law to Israeli citizens living in the West Bank. This bill is not a new one, but is an emergency measure that has been passed every five years since Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967. Without this measure passing by the end of the month, Israelis living on territory that has not been annexed by Israel will be subject to military rule, and will not have access to police, civilian courts, drivers’ licenses, and many other things that are routine for Israeli citizens. Despite the fact that this measure directly impacts only Israelis who are living in settlements, every MK from Likud, Religious Zionism, Shas, and UTJ—in other words, the parties who represent the most Israeli voters who live in the West Bank—voted against the bill, and it failed on its first reading.
The opposition to the bill from the opposition parties was of course not a result of any shift in their ideology or policy preferences. It was an effort to bring down the government in light of Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s ultimatum that he would view the bill’s failure to pass as a sign that the Bennett-Lapid government was no longer sustainable. Sa’ar is the bill’s champion, and in order for it to pass without any opposition votes, every member of the coalition—including Arab MKs from Ra’am, Meretz, and Labor—and the Yamina defector Idit Silman had to vote in favor of it. Once Sa’ar put forth the bill’s passage as his personal litmus test, the opposition parties made sure to present a united front in ensuring that it would fail, and thus Israeli politics witnessed the bizarre spectacle of Yesha Council leaders begging right-wing opposition parties to support what is certainly the most impactful legislation on their daily lives, while settler champions and extremist Kahanist MKs gleefully voted it down. To then compound the absurdist farce, some right-wing coalition members did not blame their right-wing settlement-supporting compatriots in the opposition—all of whom voted against the legislation—but instead blamed the two Arab coalition MKs who voted against it and the three Arab MKs who purposely did not show up for the vote.
Israeli politics has been held captive to some extent by a nihilist wing for a while, but this week saw that trend reach new heights. Likud and its fellow opposition partners argued that voting against legislation that is critical to many of their voters in order to ensure its failure is proof that the government needs to be replaced by them so that they can ensure passage of the very same legislation that they just torpedoed. Not only is irony dead, but so is logic and all sense of proportion. Perhaps the saddest part is that their gambit might actually work, as the chances of Yamina MKs now jumping ship and bringing down the government have substantially increased. It may even work on Sa’ar himself, who backtracked following the vote from his earlier doomsday rhetoric, but who also sees polls that put his New Hope party beneath the Knesset threshold and has to at least be tempted by whatever offers Binyamin Netanyahu is throwing his way to form a new right-wing government that includes Likud and avoids calling early elections.
The same polls that show New Hope in danger reflect ever-growing support for the most illiberal and authoritarian element in the Knesset. Religious Zionism, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir’s alliance of religious and nationalist extremists and Kahanist supremacists that besmirches the reputations of both Judaism and Zionism, is polling as the third largest party in the Knesset behind only Likud and Yesh Atid. The more extreme the political stunts and rhetoric become, whether it is voting against Israeli law for its settler base or setting up a Knesset office in the middle of the street in Sheikh Jarrah, the more support Religious Zionism picks up. As the Bennett-Lapid government totters on the brink of falling just a couple of days shy of its one-year anniversary, it is a reminder of what awaits Israel should the opposition be successful in replacing it.
Aside from the political farce that unfolded with the failure to pass the extension of Israeli law to settlers, there is also a significant policy implication on the horizon beyond the immediate daily consequences for Israelis living in the West Bank. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens may be living under military rule beginning next month not only places the current disparate treatment of Palestinian non-citizens front and center, it also serves as a stark reminder that Israelis living in the West Bank do not actually live in Israel. This makes the bill’s failure a potential lever for the return of a push toward annexing Area C, as the argument will be that the only way to ensure that such a catastrophe never happens again and is no longer subject to the whims of political tactics is to officially incorporate settlements into Israel. If there is a new government headed by Netanyahu that includes Smotrich and Ben Gvir, annexation will certainly be back on the policy agenda, and it will not hurt that some of the earliest and strongest proponents of annexation—Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett—will be unlikely to throw a wrench into the proceedings if they are in the opposition, let alone if they are part of a new and broader uniformly right-wing government. While the UAE’s intervention the last time around and the subsequent signing of the Abraham Accords is a factor, as is the replacement of President Donald Trump with President Joe Biden, a Likud-Religious Zionism government will also be operating in an environment in which it cares little about what the U.S. thinks, and will almost certainly misread the current American apathy about Israeli-Palestinian policy for a sign that anything goes.
None of this means that Public Security Minister Ben Gvir is a certainty, or that annexation is around the corner. But the nihilism, extremism, and tortured logic that is pulsing in the current Israeli opposition and erstwhile governing coalition is a bad sign of things to come. It makes the fight to grow the Israeli center and to keep the extremes on the sidelines even more significant, as a parliamentary bloc that will fight to damage the core interests of its most dedicated base in the name of regaining power at all costs is one that has lost its sense of priorities.