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Religious zealots ready for takeover of Israeli army

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In a surprise move, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week forced out his long-serving defense minister, Moshe Yaalon. As he stepped down, Yaalon warned: “Extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel.”

He was referring partly to his expected successor: Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose trademark outbursts have included demands to bomb Egypt and behead disloyal Palestinian citizens.

But Yaalon was also condemning extremism closer to home, in Netanyahu’s Likud party. Yaalon is to take a break from politics. With fitting irony, his slot is to be filled on Likud’s backbenches by Yehuda Glick, a settler whose struggle to destroy Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque and replace it with a Jewish temple has the potential to set the Middle East on fire.

Israeli commentators pointed out that, with Lieberman’s inclusion, the government will be the most extreme in Israel’s history – again.

French prime minister Manuel Valls, who began a visit to the region on Saturday, is likely to face an impregnable wall of government hostility as he tries to drum up interest in a French peace plan.

Less noticed has been the gradual and parallel takeover of Israel’s security institutions by those espousing the ideology of the settlers – known in Israel as the national-religious camp.

None of this is accidental. For two decades the settlers have been targeting Israel’s key institutions. Under Netanyahu’s seven-year watch as prime minister, the process has accelerated.

Naftali Bennett, leader of the settler party Jewish Home and education minister, recently boasted that the national-religious camp, though only a tenth of the population, held “leadership positions in all realms in Israel”.

One such success for Bennett is Roni Alsheikh who was appointed police chief late last year. He was a long-time resident of Kiryat Arba, one of the most violent settlements in the occupied territories.

The force’s most recent campaign, “Believing in the police”, is designed to recruit more religious hardliners. Behind the program are settler-politicians who have called Palestinians “sub-human” and expressed sympathy for those who burnt to death a Palestinian family, including a baby, last summer.

The other security agencies are being transformed too. Religious nationalists now hold many of the top posts in the Shin Bet intelligence service and the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency.

In the army too, the settlers are today heavily over-represented in the officers corps and combat units. For more than a decade their rabbis have dominated the army’s education corps, invoking God’s will on the battlefield.

But, despite these rising tidewaters, Israel’s traditional secular elite – mostly of European extraction – have desperately clung on to the top rungs of the army command.

Netanyahu bitterly resents their continuing control. They stood in his way at two momentous occasions, as he tried to overturn the Oslo accords in the late 1990s and to bomb Iran five years ago.

In a bid to curb their influence, Netanyahu tried to promote the religious Yair Naveh as military chief last year, but was blocked by the top brass.

Lieberman’s arrival as defense minister, however, may mark a turning point.

In some ways, less is at stake than Yaalon’s hyperbolic warning suggests. For decades the secular generals have been in charge of an occupation that has crushed the rights of Palestinians and caged them into ever-smaller holding pens. These generals have been just as cruel as the religious officers replacing them.

Nonetheless, the reverberations of this quiet revolution should not be ignored.

The old elites have lived off the fat of the land in the kibbutz, Israel’s spacious farming communities built on the ruins of hundreds of Palestinian villages ethnically cleansed in 1948.

After the 1967 war, the kibbutz-generals happily exported the same model of industrial-scale theft of Palestinian land to the occupied territories.

But their security obsessions were ultimately rooted in Israel, where they fear having to account for the crimes of 1948 from which they profited. Their abiding nightmare is a right of return to Israel of the lands’ original owners – Palestinian refugees today numbering in the millions.

The religious camp’s priorities are different. The lands they defend most passionately are not in Israel but in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That is where many live and where the holy places that sanctify their territorial greed are located.

The spread of this zealotry into the army has deeply discomfited its more liberal elements. In recent years, small numbers of whistleblowers have emerged, from military intelligence unit 8200 through to a group called Breaking the Silence.

The recent video of an execution of a badly wounded Palestinian by army medic Elor Azaria – and the outpouring of public support in Israel for him – has only intensified these tensions. This month the army’s deputy head, Yair Golan, compared Israel to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Lieberman, meanwhile, is Azaria’s most vocal supporter.

The goal of the religious nationalists is undisguised: to remove the last restraints on the occupation, and build a glorious, divinely ordained Greater Israel over an obliterated Palestinian society.

That means no hope of a peaceful resolution of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians – unless it is preceded by a tumultuous civil war between Israel’s secular and its religious Jews.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi

Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is

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14 Responses

  1. Mike Hite on May 23, 2016, 6:37 pm

    Israel moves farther and farther to the religious right which it abhors in Muslim countries

    • Misterioso on May 23, 2016, 8:05 pm

      Israel is moving further than to “the religious right.” It is being swallowed whole by pure, unadulterated fascism.

      • johneill on May 23, 2016, 11:18 pm


    • Stephen Shenfield on May 24, 2016, 7:53 am

      Mike: You mean: “which it pretends to abhor in Muslim countries.” If it really abhorred the Islamists it would not be providing aid and supplies to the ISIS fighters in the area adjacent to occupied Golan.

      • Rashers2 on May 24, 2016, 3:56 pm

        Israel is content to provide covert support for those Islamists it perceives to be instrumental in furthering its regional, divide et impera vision. Al Nusra and IS are extremist, Sunni factions opposed to Israel’s hated, Shi’ite Hezbollah. The fragmentation of Syria and Southern Iraq and the eradication of cohesive nation-states in each of these political geographies mightily suit the Eretz Israel agenda – after all, where does Eretz Israel encompass? All the land “from the Nile to the Euphrates”…… It’s not exactly a closely-guarded secret whispered only at dead of night in desolate, Prague graveyards.

      • Pixel on May 26, 2016, 8:49 pm


  2. Mooser on May 23, 2016, 8:01 pm

    “Religious zealots ready for takeover of Israeli army”

    Oh no. I was hoping the IDF leadership could be a counterweight or alternative to Netanyahoo. Maybe not.

  3. inbound39 on May 23, 2016, 9:14 pm

    If ever there was a time America was looking for a wake up call it is now. It globally cannot afford to remain in bed with Israel. It cannot afford to remain complicit in the abhorrent crimes the Israeli Government is committing. And it can certainly cannot continue to arm and grant aid to Israel that it uses to continue these attrocities. The World is scratching its head and wondering when America is going to stand up and demand change from Israel. America more than any other Nation has the power to bring Israel to its senses rapidly. The American Government is obligated to change direction and end this repeat of 1939.Put your votes with Sanders and guarantee the change required and send a message to Hilary her love affair with Netanyahu is over…..divorce is imminent.

    • Marnie on May 24, 2016, 1:03 am

      I don’t look for the u.s. to do anything anymore, it is as morally intransigent as the zionist state, helped birth it and has provided the teet for 70 years. I love where I grew up, I love the people but I don’t see amerikkka doing anything but continuing to look the other way, as with the bombardment of Gaza every 2 years since 2008 and the routine, weekly, if not daily, murder of Palestinians as SOP. I thought the murder of Abd al-Fatah al-Sharif would have made some waves, but nothing. The beating of Maysam Abu-Alqi’an, an israeli Arab employed at a Tel Aviv grocery store in broad daylight (See more at: by ‘undercover police’ because of a) His enthnicity and b) He refused to show his ID to what appeared to be just a couple of men in civilian clothing who refused to identify themselves! A woman was threatened by these thugs just for expressing concern over the beating they were giving this man. Everyone knows this kind of behavior is not the hallmark of a ‘democracy’. How much worse does it have to get before there is any intervention? That’s the question that scares me the most.

  4. lysias on May 24, 2016, 10:22 am

    Uri Avnery compares what is going on in Israel now with the last days of the Weimar Republic that he experienced as a boy. Israeli Weimar: It Can Happen Here.

    • Marnie on May 24, 2016, 10:48 am

      Thanks for this link lysias

    • Rashers2 on May 25, 2016, 5:05 am

      A friend some days ago pointed out Avnery’s article in Counterpunch: it is a good piece but, I fear, over-optimistic – perhaps a function of wishful thinking on behalf of the author, who may be reluctant to concede complete déjà vu, namely that the “Weimar Republic” (to the extent that it has ever really existed in Israel) has already collapsed and Israel is at that stage of uneasy coalition which subsisted in 1933, until the Nazis were able to consolidate their lone grip on the reins of power. The ascendancy of Fascism in Israel has passed the point of no return and the deterioration will continue until external forces (whether physical or economic) bring it to a peaceful or a violent end.

  5. Mayhem on May 26, 2016, 9:34 am

    It is totally unacceptable for a military officer to make political statements. For Yaalon to condone what Golan did cannot be countenanced by any country that has a responsible government. Allowing such behaviour could lead to and encourage a complete breakdown of the fundamental fabric of a democracy. If the party/parties in power can be undermined by their own armed forces, a climate is created that can threaten the very security of the nation and create a climate conducive to military coups.

    • eljay on May 26, 2016, 12:47 pm

      || Mayhem: It is totally unacceptable for a military officer to make political statements. For Yaalon to condone what Golan did cannot be countenanced by any country that has a responsible government. … ||

      Not a problem for Israel, which has an irresponsible government.

      It’s funny that Zio-supremacists are more troubled by a comparison made by the concerned deputy head of Israel’s army than they are by their unapologetically (war) criminal and religion-supremacist state’s decades-long and on-going campaign of aggression, oppression, theft, occupation, colonization, destruction, torture, murder, belligerence and intransigence.

      || … Allowing such behaviour could lead to and encourage a complete breakdown of the fundamental fabric of a democracy. … ||

      Israel was envisioned as, established as, and has been operating for almost 70 years as a religion-supremacist “Jewish State”. Its “fundamental fabric of a democracy” has been completely broken down since Day One.

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