Israel’s new government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yet again, was sworn in on December 29, nearly two months after he and his allies won a parliamentary majority in the November 1 general election, the fifth since 2019.
By any yardstick, this is the most right-wing, religiously conservative government in Israel’s history. Critics, lambasting it on the basis of its unsettling guidelines and the composition of its cabinet, fear it will undermine Israel’s system of liberal democracy and destroy the prospect of two-state solution, which has been on life support for years now.
Several days before Netanyahu assembled his sixth government in twenty six years, the outgoing centrist prime minister, Yair Lapid, claimed that Netanyahu’s budding coalition was committed neither to democracy nor to the rule of law. And he said it would tarnish Israel’s international image and damage relations with the United States and the Diaspora.
“The government being formed here is dangerous, extremist, irresponsible,” Lapid warned on December 22.
Isaac Herzog, Israel’s president, sounded the alarm as well, expressing “deep concern” about its positions on LGBTQ rights and racism.
The attorney-general, Gali Baharav-Miara, condemned its planned legislation, saying it could render Israel a “democracy in name only.”
Israel’s former prime minister, Ehud Barak, minced no words either. “This government is carrying out a regime coup in Israel in front of our eyes, with its racism, corruption, neutering of the justice system, politicization of the police, and undermining of the Israel Defence Force’s chain of command.”
In the United States, more than 300 Reform and Conservative rabbis signed a letter warning it could do “irreparable harm” with extremist policies.
Netanyahu, who is currently on trial on corruption charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, has categorically rejected these warnings as fear-mongering and promised to act in the interest of all Israeli citizens.
“They’re joining me, I’m not joining them,” he said of his allies in his six-party coalition, which consists of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party, Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power Party, Avi Moaz’s Noam Party, Aryeh Deri’s Shas Party and Yitzhak Goldnopf’s United Torah Judaism Party.
“I’ll have two hands firmly on the steering wheel,” Netanyahu added. “I won’t let anybody do anything to LGBTQ people or deny our Arab citizens their rights or anything like that.”
As if to underscore his first point, Netanyahu appointed Amir Ohana, the former justice minister, as the first openly gay speaker of the Knesset.
Should Netanyahu’s words of assurance be taken seriously or with a large lump of salt?
We will have to wait and see.
But what is ironically apparent is that Netanyahu — a secular Zionist Revisionist who has always taken a hard line toward the Palestinians and who advocated the annexation of the Jordan Valley during his last term of office — is now widely regarded as the main moderating force in this government.
The extent of his moderation, such as it is and can be, cannot be divined at the present time. But Thomas Nides, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, has come up with a sensible formula by which to judge him and his government.
The Biden administration will respond to Israel’s actions rather than to its coalition agreements, which may or may not materialize, Nides said the other day.
As if to give Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt, Nides said, “We’ve been told over and over again by Prime Minister Netanyahu that he has his hands on the wheel and wants to be the prime minister of everyone.”
That may very well be true, but judging by its guidelines, Netanyahu’s government will attempt to consolidate Israel’s vast network of settlements, annex parts of the West Bank, and eviscerate the very idea of Palestinian statehood, thereby demolishing the underpinnings of a two-state solution.
The guidelines affirm the Jewish people’s “exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel” and state that Israeli sovereignty will be extended to “Judea and Samaria,” subject to Netanyahu’s considerations with respect to timing and Israel’s national and international interests. In addition, Netanyahu has pledged to legalize unauthorized and illegal outposts in the West Bank.
Smotrich, the finance minister, believes that much of the West Bank should be annexed. Netanyahu has given him authority over agencies in the Ministry of Defence dealing with the network of Israeli settlements and with Israeli and Palestinian civilians in the West Bank.
Smotrich, however, cannot dictate policy unilaterally and must take decisions in consultation with Netanyahu. Which means that Netanyahu can theoretically block Smotrich’s initiatives.
Netanyahu has assured Israelis that Ben-Gvir — the national security minister and a follower of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who called for the expulsion of Israeli Arabs — has moderated “a lot of his views” and will act in a responsible manner.
According to the guidelines, the status quo will prevail at “holy places, including the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem, which has been the scene of periodic clashes between the Israeli police and Palestinians. This means that Jewish prayer at the site, one of the holiest in Judaism and Islam, will be forbidden, much to Ben-Gvir’s disappointment.
On the domestic front, the coalition partners intend to weaken the powers of the Supreme Court, which they regard as an unelected body that arbitrarily runs roughshod over elected governments. Their proposals would permit the Knesset to override court verdicts and involve politicians in the selection of judges, which would be a step in the wrong direction.
Supporters of the court view it as a bastion of liberal democratic values and minority rights. But Netanyahu and his allies believe that the balance between the branches of government has been impaired by “unchecked judicial power.”
There is concern, too, that Netanyahu will try to use his office to upend the legal process in his trial, which began in May 2020 following his indictment in November 2019. Netanyahu’s allies have said they will attempt to legalize the crimes of which he has been accused and thereby end his trial altogether. Netanyahu denies he would participate in such a travesty of justice.
Netanyahu, of course, is not the only minister whose record is marred by criminality. Deri, the interior, health minister and deputy premier, is currently serving a suspended sentence for tax evasion.
The guidelines sanction legislation enabling service providers, from doctors to hotel owners, to cite their religious beliefs to deny services to gay couples or LGBTQ people. If enacted, this would be an immoral and dangerous precedent in Israeli law.
It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu will accede to Ben-Gvir’s demand to lift the ban on racist candidates running for office. This ban disqualified Kahane from running for reelection.
The new government may propose legislation to amend the Law of Return, which governs Israel’s immigration policy. At present, Jews with at least one Jewish grandparent qualify for immediate Israeli citizenship. But if the religious parties prevail, this right will be cancelled and Jewishness will be strictly defined on the basis of Jewish law, much to the chagrin of liberal Jews.
The legitimacy of Reform and Conservative conversions to Judaism has been challenged by Orthodox rabbis, and if this change goes through Israel’s relations with Jews in the Diaspora would be seriously strained.
Under the guidelines, the government would allocate budgets to foster “Jewish identity,” increase stipends to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, and allow young haredi men to avoid conscription. These allocations will surely upset secular Israelis who believe that the haredim cynically exploit Israeli society without giving back anything in return.
The new government is a source of shame and embarrassment to Israelis who dislike or despise Netanyahu and his religious allies, but only time will tell whether it will be as bad as is commonly assumed.