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Israelis and Palestinians fear what the new Israeli government could cause

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Ultranationalists are about to have a lot more power in Israel. And in a moment, we're going to get a tour of some hotspots where they could exert their influence the most. Benjamin Netanyahu is returning as prime minister with a coalition that includes the far right. It will be perhaps the most right-wing government in Israel's history. One prominent member will be Itamar Ben-Gvir, previously convicted for anti-Arab racism and now on tap to oversee the Israeli police. NPR's Daniel Estrin has been exploring what this could mean, and he joins us now from Jerusalem. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Daniel, this government is being watched for how it might change the nature of Israel's democracy and whether it could escalate ongoing violence between Israelis and Palestinians. And you started at perhaps the most combustible place, the Al-Aqsa mosque compound.

ESTRIN: Yeah. This is the most revered holy site in the Holy Land. It is often the eye of the storm here. This is a place that's sacred to Muslims around the world. It's associated with the Prophet Muhammad. It's also sacred in Jewish tradition as the spot where the ancient temple stood in biblical times. And nationalist Jewish groups have been asserting their presence at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound more and more. They want the right to pray there. Whenever we've seen that Palestinians perceive Israelis are encroaching on this site, we've seen violence, and that violence spreads.

And there is the chance that the potential for violence could be higher under the incoming Israeli government. Itamar Ben-Gvir has been a long time proponent of Jewish prayer at this Muslim-run site. He is tapped to oversee the police as the minister of national security. And so nationalist Jewish groups who visit there every day are feeling really good right now. They're feeling that they're going to get more rights at what they consider to be the Temple Mount. I was there with them recently.

SUMMERS: So who were you with, and what did you see there?

ESTRIN: Yeah. I was with a group of 20 Orthodox Jews. They walk the perimeter of this compound every morning. And when I spoke with one of the Jewish activists, Rabbi Shimshon Elboim, he says, listen. Our strategy is baby steps. He's hoping that this new Israeli government might start with allowing them more expanded visiting hours for Jews, maybe eventually leading to Jewish prayer. I asked him, could Jewish prayer at this Muslim-run site inflame the entire Middle East?

SHIMSHON ELBOIM: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: And he says, you know, Israel the country also came into being through war. No one gives up their dreams just because it comes with a price.

SUMMERS: So, Daniel, what do Palestinians at this religious site think about what the new Israeli government might end up doing?

ESTRIN: I spoke about that with a member of the Muslim advisory council there, Mustafa Abu Sway. And he says, you know, listen. This is a mosque complex. It's administered by Jordan. It's been a Muslim-run religious site for hundreds of years. And he thinks Jewish groups are trying to change that.

MUSTAFA ABU SWAY: I am worried. I am very worried. I'm really worried.

ESTRIN: And remember; last year tensions at this site concerning Israeli police violence against Palestinian demonstrators escalated into a full-fledged war with Gaza.

SUMMERS: I'm curious. What about inside Israel? How could this new government affect relationships between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis who sometimes are sharing the same towns?

ESTRIN: That's right. We're talking about the 20% of Israel's citizens who are Palestinian Arab. And this is a big question that Israel faces. Can it be a Jewish state and still protect democracy and equal rights for its Palestinian citizens? These are people who frequently face discrimination in Israel. And this new Israeli government is going to be prioritizing Israel's Jewish character.

So a good place to imagine how these tensions might be playing out is a city called Lod. This is a city where Arabs and Jews literally live in the same apartment buildings side by side. Last year, when there was tension at the Al-Aqsa mosque, Palestinian citizens in Lod protested, and there were street fights. I was there. I saw burned-out cars. I saw synagogues and mosques that were damaged and attacked. Arab and Jewish neighbors in this city were killed. And when I went back to that city last week to ask people about this new Israeli government, I met a rabbi there, Hagai Greenfield. His synagogue was damaged last year, and he is happy about the new government.

HAGAI GREENFIELD: The story is a struggle between identities, the Jewish identity and the Arab identity. It won't be solved by regular civilian riots. It cannot be solved by that way. It has to be solved by showing the Arabs that the Jews are the ones that rule over.

ESTRIN: And he told me that he only felt safe last year when armed Israeli volunteers, basically militia, were roaming the streets. And Itamar Ben-Gvir was actually the one who encouraged those armed Israelis to go to that town last year. And now as minister of national security, he wants tougher policing of Arabs and Palestinians. This has Palestinians in the city worried that this is just a preview of what is to come under the new government. I spoke with an Arab city councilman from a neighboring city. His name is Mino Abu Laban. Here's what he said.

MINO ABU LABAN: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He told me a man like Ben-Gvir who incites against me is now going to be responsible for my safety.

SUMMERS: So, Daniel, we have talked about Palestinian-Israeli relations, Arab-Jewish relations. What else can you tell us about what these incoming far-right leaders plan to do in government?

ESTRIN: They are talking about a lot of far-reaching policies that could affect pluralism and could affect democratic institutions in Israel. I attended a meeting of democracy activists who are trying to map out what to expect. This is Shatil, an umbrella organization that advises NGOs, civil society groups in Israel. And they're predicting that the first major step this Israeli government could take is a major overhaul of the legal system - the independence of the judiciary, making the Supreme Court not be the final say in Israeli legislation. And remember; the Supreme Court in Israel is historically the branch of government that defends Palestinians and minority rights and protections for African asylum seekers and so many more.

SUMMERS: So, Daniel, given all of the scenarios that you've described so far, it leaves me wondering, will Benjamin Netanyahu let his far-right allies really do all of these things?

ESTRIN: It's an excellent question because the far right does have a lot of leverage over Netanyahu. He is on trial for corruption, and his far-right allies are willing to manipulate the legal system to shield him from prison time. Now, Netanyahu is making the case he's going to be the one in control here. He's going to be protecting LGBTQ rights. He's going to be responsible with policy. Another question is, how will the U.S. view all of this? The Biden administration is concerned about Israeli democracy under this new government. It's concerned about policy it might take toward Palestinians. The question is, how much will the Biden administration be willing to push back on the far right in Israel's new government?

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Daniel, thank you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.