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Religious zealots waging a quiet revolution in Israel

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Reprinted from The National

In a surprise move, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week forced out his long-serving defence minister, Moshe Yaalon. As he stepped down, Mr 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.

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But Mr Yaalon was also condemning extremism closer to home, in Mr Netanyahu's Likud Party. Mr 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 goal 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 Mr 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.

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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 Mr 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 Mr 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 "subhuman" 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.

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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.

But, despite this rising tides, Israel's traditional secular elite -- mostly of European extraction -- have desperately clung on to the top rungs of the army command.

Mr 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, Mr Netanyahu tried to promote the religious Yair Naveh as military chief last year, but was blocked by the top brass.

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of 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: (more...)
 

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