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As Netanyahu brings in the far-right, the U.S. is paying attention


In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is set to become prime minister again after last week's election and to have a majority coalition in parliament. And what could make this conservative government different from Netanyahu's previous ones is that he's expected to partner with some of the most far-right figures on the Israeli political scene. Israel's friends in the U.S. and the region are paying close attention, as NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Tel Aviv.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The Netanyahu ally getting the most attention is Itamar Ben-Gvir. Fifteen years ago, an Israeli court convicted him of inciting racism and supporting an outlawed anti-Arab organization. A few weeks ago, he took out a gun during a street fight between Jewish settlers and Palestinians.


ESTRIN: He said, "If they throw rocks, shoot them." Earlier this year, Ben-Gvir visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, or Temple Mount, a contested religious site where there's often violence between Israeli police and Muslim worshippers. He said, we're the master of the house here. Now Ben-Gvir hopes Netanyahu will appoint him as the cabinet minister whose duties would include policing and access there.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Having someone who's going to, I fear, play with matches, given this flammable piece of real estate, I think is a real danger.

ESTRIN: David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy served in the Obama administration working on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. He says Netanyahu will struggle if he thinks he can gloss over Ben-Gvir's radioactive reputation.

MAKOVSKY: I think he's going to be swimming upstream if he feels that he's going to be able to normalize the position of Itamar Ben-Gvir.

ESTRIN: Makovsky says he's familiar with the Biden administration's thinking and expects the U.S. will not want to deal with Ben-Gvir.

MAKOVSKY: I think the U.S. is likely to boycott him. I have reason to think that they are strongly considering this.

ESTRIN: Danny Danon, a Netanyahu ally hoping to be the next speaker of parliament, told NPR he believes Israel will maintain good ties with the Biden administration because Netanyahu's party will be in charge of that relationship, not Ben-Gvir.

DANNY DANON: I think all the issue of Ben-Gvir - it's overblown. We will be running the government, and we will be dealing with important issues. And we proved in the past that we can be responsible about many of the issues concerning foreign and domestic issues.

ESTRIN: There are other red flags the U.S. is watching. Some of Netanyahu's new allies support weakening the courts, are religious fundamentalists and are hostile to LGBTQ rights and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Another question is how Netanyahu would handle relations with Vladimir Putin. The two worked together closely before the war in Ukraine.



ESTRIN: Netanyahu's election victory speech seemed aimed at calming some fears. He said, our policy will be considered balanced and responsible. We won't pursue pointless adventures. He said he seeks more deals with Arab countries, like the one with the United Arab Emirates. But Israeli media reported the Emirati foreign minister already told Netanyahu he's concerned about the far right being in the government. Then there are Jewish communities worldwide, which Israel relies on for support.

AVITAL LEIBOVICH: There are some concerns for Jews in America and Jews around the world regarding statements of some of the incoming members of the next government coalition in Israel.

ESTRIN: Avital Leibovich directs the Jerusalem Office of the American Jewish Committee, a major Jewish group in the U.S.

LEIBOVICH: And this is raising some concerns on issues that the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish diaspora prioritize, such as opportunities for peace, pluralism, inclusion and other values we cherish.

ESTRIN: But she says the group will work with those in the Israeli government to promote democracy and peace. Another issue important to the U.S. is the Palestinians. President Biden supports the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Netanyahu doesn't. Yohanan Plesner of the Israel Democracy Institute thinks Netanyahu is a cautious tactician who will try to maintain the tense status quo with the Palestinians. But there's a wild card - Itamar Ben-Gvir.

YOHANAN PLESNER: Who is probably the most experienced provocateur in Israeli public life over the past decade.

ESTRIN: The U.S. ambassador to Israel congratulated Netanyahu on his win. Back in Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. hopes Israeli officials will continue to share the values of an open democratic society, including tolerance and respect for all.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.