Ministers from Israel’s extreme right have been making increasingly controversial statements since the Hamas attacks on October 7 in a game of one-upmanship that has seen the right wing seek to extend its influence over Israel’s government and beyond.
In a radio interview on November 4, Israel‘s Heritage Minister Amihai Eliyahu said there were “no non-combatants” in Gaza before adding that providing medical aid to the enclave would amount to a “failure”. Dropping a nuclear bomb on the Gaza Strip would be “one of the options” for dealing with Hamas, he said.
Eliyahu is a member of the religious supremacist party Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”), part of Israel’s ruling coalition.
Public outrage was swift and furious. “Amihai Eliyahu has got to go” ran an editorial headline in the Jerusalem Post on November 6. Liberal newspaper Haaretz went farther, with a call to “fire Israel’s far right” altogether.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was also quick to condemn the statement, saying Eliyahu was “divorced from reality” before suspending him from government meetings until further notice.
“It doesn’t sound like something a savvy politician would say,” says Eitan Tzelgov, a specialist in Israeli politics at the University of East Anglia in the UK. “[It is] just outrageous and so wrong on many levels – one of them being that Israel has never officially acknowledged it has the nuclear bomb.”
Tzelgov says such declarations are symptomatic of a culture of one-upmanship among politicians on Israel’s extreme right, who have been vying to make increasingly outlandish statements since the deadly Hamas attacks in Israel on October 7.
Omri Brinner, an Israel analyst and specialist in Mideast geopolitics at the International Team for the Study of Security Verona says these declarations have included warnings that Arab-Israelis “are about to embark on a violent campaign within Israel” – from National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is also leader of the Otzma Yehudit party – or that “Jews murdered in the West Bank are more important than Jews murdered in Gaza, because the former are right-wing settlers and the latter are left-wing kibbutz members”, from Simcha Rothman of the far-right Religious Zionist Party.
Eliyahu’s comments on nuclear weapons were not his first brush with controversy. In a Facebook post from November 1, he wrote that north Gaza was “more beautiful than ever” following Israeli bombardments.
He also called for the “mass movement” of Palestinians out of Gaza, reiterating a longstanding and controversial talking point from the extreme religious right.
Many Israelis reject the views of the far-right ministers who entered into government following electoral gains in 2022 that saw them acquire six seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, heralding the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.
For some, the Otzma Yehudit party is the political offspring of the radical orthodox Kach party, which was banned under Israel’s anti-terrorism laws in 1994.
But widespread public shock at the brutality of Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel has played into the hands of the most radical fringe of the Israeli government, and making brash statements has become part of a calculated political risk.
“Right now, it may be more acceptable for the constituency to say things like this because of the emotional state in Israel,” says Artur Skorek, Israel specialist at Jagiellonian University in Krakow and director of the European Association of Israel Studies.
Netanyahu is personally reliant on politicians on the extreme right to maintain his grip on power and avoid the damning legal charges against him for fraud, breach of trust and accepting improper gifts.
Right-wing politicians “are crucial for the survival of the coalition”, says Brinner. “Without them Netanyahu doesn’t have a majority in the Knesset, meaning that he will not be able to continue as prime minister, which means that he will not be able to weaken the judicial system and cancel the trial on the three charges he faces.”
So far, the prime minister has avoided taking a firm stance on the most controversial of the far right’s comments, with the exception of condemning Eliyahu’s endorsement of using a nuclear bomb.
But beyond their hold over Netanyahu, far-right ministers are likely using strong rhetoric to mask their waning influence.
“This war marks a reduction in their influence at the heart of Netanyahu’s government,” says Peter Lintl, a specialist in Israeli politics at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik).
This is partly because Netanyahu’s war cabinet has seen the return the centrist Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) party to government, led by retired army general Benny Gantz – a fierce opponent of Israel’s extreme-right parties and Netanyahu.
Within the cabinet itself, “the extreme-right ministers and Knesset members do not have direct operational influence on how Israel conducts the war”, adds Brinner.
“The state and security executives who run the war don’t take them into consideration and even look down at them. None of them even served in the military.”
Lacking tangible power, the far right “are trying to win [over the electorate] by making outrageous comments like this – they can use this language because they don’t have influence and power on how the war is fought”, Skorek adds.
Targeting the West Bank
But Israel’s vocal far-right ministers are likely aiming to do more than just persuade potential voters with outlandish statements.
Despite the shock waves that have swept through Israeli society since 7 October, the far right seems focused on longstanding goals: the “transfer” of Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank and the eradication of the Israeli secular left.
“Their ultimate goal is to have a very different Israeli state – religious rather than secular – and it starts in the West Bank,” says Brinner.
“Keeping the eyes of the world on Gaza allows them and their followers to advance extreme right-wing agendas in the West Bank, even violence against Palestinians there; the bigger the war in Gaza, the less oversight there is in the West Bank.”
Ben-Gvir has already succeeded in playing on fears stirred up by the Hamas attacks to advance a long-held political goal – loosening firearms regulations to allow more Israelis to carry guns.
Since October 7, more than 180,000 applications for weapons permits have been submitted in Israel. “The minister has used this crisis to promote a plan to make it easier for citizens to carry weapons,” says Tzelgov.
“His followers will be the first to ask for them.”
Far-right politicians are also playing a long game, aiming to be as aggressive as possible now so that once the war is over, they can settle scores with political opponents.
“They are preparing the stage for the next round: continue to target their opponents – [including] the left, NGOs and the media – as not sufficiently aligned with what was necessary to defend Israel’s interests,” says Tzelgov.
At the same time, provocative rhetoric from far-right ministers is likely to cause “great damage” to Israel’s overall war effort, says Brinner, stirring discontent both inside and outside the country.
“People who support the religious parties are going to question why the government is not being more aggressive in the war against Hamas,” adds Lintl, while internationally, the extremely nationalist tone risks weakening support for Israel and accelerating calls for a ceasefire.
In the long-term, Lintl says, the inflammatory statements could also have a lasting negative impact on relations with allies – including the US and regional powers like Saudi Arabia – who might be less inclined to sit around the negotiating table with an Israel that is so unwaveringly combative.
This article was translated from the original in French.