Israeli Elections Stir Concern Among Holy Land Christians

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is poised to return to power, supported by other even more right-wing parties.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog (seated 2nd L) sits in front of Israel's veteran ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and next to outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid (seated 3rd L) as he poses with the heads of all parties of the 25th Knesset at the Marc Chagall hall at the Israeli parliament after Israel swore in a new parliament in Jerusalem, on November 15, 2022.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog (seated 2nd L) sits in front of Israel's veteran ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and next to outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid (seated 3rd L) as he poses with the heads of all parties of the 25th Knesset at the Marc Chagall hall at the Israeli parliament after Israel swore in a new parliament in Jerusalem, on November 15, 2022. (photo: Menahem Kahana / AFP/Getty)

JERUSALEM — The results of Israel’s Nov. 1 elections — the return of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, which is expected to form a government with the support of other, even more right-wing parties — have many people worried, and Holy Land Christians are no exception. 

While Christians comprise just 2% of Israel’s population, the fallout from a government that will almost certainly oppose the creation of a Palestinian state while supporting the expansion of Jewish settlements and large budgets for ultra-Orthodox institutions may be disproportionately felt by Israel’s Christian Arabs. 

Wadi Abunassar, a prominent Catholic activist who lives in northern Israel, identified four areas of concern for Israeli Christians, the majority of whom are Arabs of Palestinian descent. 

“The first is from hate speech. The atmosphere isn’t pleasant. This is bad for everyone, including Arab Christians,” Abunassar said, referring to the troubling rhetoric spewed by religious far-right-wing candidates both before and during the election campaign. 

Abunassar fears that under the government that Netanyahu will likely form in the coming days, ultra-nationalists, including some settlers, “will feel they are immune” from Israeli law.  

“They might carry out some provocations against Palestinians or holy places such as the Al-Aqsa Mosque that could ignite tensions” between Muslims and Jews, which could lead to violence throughout the country.  

Another fear is that the incoming government will pass legislation that could disenfranchise Israel’s Arabs, who comprise about 21% of the population. Although Israel’s informal constitution calls for equal rights for all of its citizens, “since Israel’s founding, Arabs have not been treated as equals,” Abunassar asserted. 

Under a previous Netanyahu government, the parliament passed the Nation State Law, which states that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people but also a home to minorities.  

“The Nation State Law was just the tip of the iceberg,” Abunassar said. “There is a fear that the Knesset will pass further legislation, and not only against Arabs.” Like many Israelis, he worries about the fate of Israel’s robust judicial system, which safeguards the rights of all Israeli citizens. 

Finally, Abunassar fears that the more extremist politicians in the upcoming government will want to condition funding to minority communities on pledging loyalty to the state. 

During the election campaign, Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the far-right Religious Zionist Party, claimed that the largest security threat to Israel is “the threat at home from nationalist elements among Arab Israelis,” who, he said, could riot and commit “massacres” against Jewish Israelis. 

Although long considered to be on the fringe of Israeli society due to his controversial and often inflammatory views, including his dislike for Arabs and non-Orthodox Jews, Smotrich was able to appeal to more mainstream social conservatives, which fanned the opposition’s worries that he would bring a divisive element to the new government. While Abunassar received assurances from some Likud activists that the government will never demand a loyalty oath, and that Netanyahu won’t give the far right too much power, “you never know,” he said. 


Bishop Shomali

Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali, general/patriarchal vicar for Jerusalem and Palestine, said Holy Land Christians share the fears of other Palestinians, the international community and many Jews: that far right-wing elements in the Israeli government “will be a threat to coexistence and peace between Israelis and Palestinians and for sure against a two-state solution.” 

Bishop Shomali, himself a Palestinian Catholic, predicted that these elements will push for the expansion and creation of more settlements and put important ministries like the ministries of finance and defense into the hands of political extremists. 

“We also know that they have hatred toward Palestinians. They also have ambitions to share the Temple Mount [with Muslims],” Bishop Shomali said. 

The Temple Mount, which is the holiest site in Judaism and third holiest in Islam, is under the control of Muslim authorities, who do not permit non-Muslim prayer at the site. 

Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of one of the far-right-wing parties, has stated many times that Jews should be allowed to pray on the Mount, where the ancient Jewish temples once stood. The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound was built atop the destroyed temples. 

Jewish prayer on the Mount “could trigger another cycle of violence between the two communities,” Bishop Shomali said.  

On a more local level, the auxiliary bishop is concerned that it could become harder for West Bank and Gaza Palestinians who marry Israeli Palestinians to receive Israeli residency permits if far-right-wing politicians head the Ministry of the Interior.  

“All of our worries may not come to pass, but I can’t ignore them,” Bishop Shomali said.  

 

Low Expectations

Auxiliary Bishop Rafic Nahra, the Latin patriarchal vicar for Israel, said he and many Arab Israelis are taking a “wait-and-see” attitude toward the incoming government, whose exact makeup and various roles have yet to be decided.  

“Arab Israelis didn’t expect much from the government we have now and don’t expect much from the future government,” Bishop Nahra said. “Many didn’t vote, not even for left-wing or centrist parties, believing that at the end of the day, it’s practically the same thing.” 

BIshop Nahra noted that Yair Lapid, the outgoing prime minister, said he would fight crime within the Arab sector, but that the improvement has been only marginal.  

“Almost every day people are shot,” the bishop said. “We’ve asked the Israeli government to help stop this. Is it any wonder that people don’t have big expectations?” 

Bishop Nahra said that Israel’s Arab and Christian Arab communities will cope, regardless of how the new government acts. 

“The elections were democratic,” he said. “Like it or not, we’ll have to deal with the new upcoming government.”

While the extreme right wing said and did many provocative things, he said, “perhaps if they join the government, they will be more pragmatic. What you do and say before an election to get people to vote for you is one thing. What you have to deal with in reality, and in the face of international scrutiny, is another.” 

Asked whether a government that includes far-right-wing parties can be pragmatic, Bishop Nahra grew pensive. 

“Sometimes, right-wing governments make unexpected and courageous decisions,” he said. “They can do it because they’re considered very strict on security. They might take courageous decisions others might not take. Let’s wait and see.” 

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