Richard Pater, a political analyst based in Jerusalem and the Executive Director of BICOM.
Israel’s new coalition is currently dealing with the aftermath of the horrific 27 January terror attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem, which has further increased simmering tension and raised the prospect of further Israeli–Palestinian violence. In parallel, led by conservative Members of Knesset, it is advancing a raft of proposed judicial reforms considered by some to be threatening the fabric of Israel’s democratic traditions. But in order to understand the current machinations one needs to understand the domestic political context.
Netanyahu Returns to Divided Nation
The Israeli election on 1 November 2022, the fifth election in under four years, highlighted once more how split the country is over Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, with the so-called ‘popular vote’ dividing almost 50-50. Despite this, the Right-wing’s more effective political organization and ground game won it a significant victory.
While these elections were largely a referendum on Netanyahu, the key difference this time was the substantial support received by the far-Right, in particular the popularity of previously convicted inciter Itamar Ben Gvir.
Inclusion of Far-Right
Following two months of negotiations, Netanyahu’s sixth government was sworn in in late December. One recurring feature of Netanyahu governments is the presence of ultra-Orthodox parties, both Middle Eastern Jews represented by Shas and European Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism.
Uber conservative, both parties have proven to be loyal allies, focusing mostly on issues that matter to their constituents such as child and housing benefits and generous stipends to their young men that do not serve in the army and instead learn in religious seminaries.
The composition of the cabinet, however, did signal one significant change in the new government. Netanyahu traditionally always tried to position himself in the center of his own coalition. To that end, he previously gave key appointments to the political center/center-left. Ehud Barak (2009-2013) and subsequently Benny Gantz (2020-21) served as his Defense Minister, Yair Lapid (2013-14) and Moshe Kahlon (2015-20) as Finance Ministers, and Tzipi Livni as Justice Minister (2013-14).
Yet, in 2022, Netanyahu no longer had that option. Every liberal and center party boycotted him out of principle due to his ongoing trial for fraud, breach of trust, and bribery charges in three separate cases. This included Gantz (once bitten twice shy – Netanyahu’s previous government fell when the PM failed to honour their rotation agreement) and others including Lapid’s centrist party, other ‘stately Right’ parties and what’s left of the Left. This political vacuum opened the door to the far-Right.
By nature, the Israeli electoral system requires coalition building in order to reach the threshold of a 61-seat majority. The Likud and ultra-orthodox were this time joined by the far-Right. Running as a block, the far-Right received 14 seats, just under 11% of the vote.
They have since split into their three composite parts: The Religious Zionist Party led by Bezalel Smotrich, the new finance minister, leads a seven-seat faction. Itamar Ben Gvir, the new national security minister, heads Jewish Power’s six seats, and Avi Maoz is a one-man faction in his ‘traditional family’ (homophobic) Noam Party. Their electoral power should not be minimized nor should it be blown out of proportion.
Exploiting Netanyahu’s Weakness
Netanyahu’s lack of alternatives allowed the far-Right to eke out impressive, even unprecedented concessions on paper during the coalition negotiations. Beyond the distribution of regular portfolios, Smotrich was also able to extract control of the Civil Administration from the Defense Ministry, making a distinction for the first time between security and civilian affairs in the militarily-controlled West Bank.
Netanyahu’s concessions to Ben Gvir are even more unusual. For starters they renamed the ministry, with ‘public security’ becoming ‘national security’. With ministerial oversight over the police, Ben Gvir demanded more input into operational police matters including loosening the protocol for opening fire (the oft-cited example is that under the current rules of engagement someone holding a Molotov cocktail can only be shot once the explosive is thrown).
Ben Gvir was also promised extended operational oversight of Border Police units operating inside West Bank, that until now has operated under the auspice of the military rather than the police.
In both these cases, the army has registered its displeasure at these proposed moves, arguing that there can only be one chain of command and not two commanders.
Similar to all coalition agreements, they are not legally binding documents. It thus remains to be seen how (or if) they will be implemented in practice. Or like Mark Twain’s famous statement about lies and statistics — there are election slogans, coalition agreements, and actual policy implementations.
The government was given its first test two weeks in, after Defense Minister Gallant approved the dismantling of an unauthorized new settlement outpost. The Religious Zionist Party ministers boycotted the next cabinet meeting, for what they perceived as a violation of coalition agreements.
It ties into what will be one of the key battlegrounds between pragmatists and hardliners — the extent and pace of settlement building. Another coalition agreement commits to legalizing unauthorized, illegal outposts (referred to as ‘young settlements’ by their supporters). It remains to be seen whether the government will deliver on this to the extent the far-Right is hoping.
Netanyahu has historically preferred a balanced approach of conflict management when it comes to the West Bank, which places him in conflict with his Right-wing partners who seek annexation or at least continued Jewish settlement to make a two-state solution no longer viable.
The counterterrorism operation in Jenin (which is supported by the majority of Israelis) and the spate of terror attacks last weekend has brought the new government’s security credentials into focus. The Israeli media noted the absence of implementation of Ben Gvir’s extreme pre-election promises (like committing to kill 50 terrorists in response to a single rocket fired).
When measuring the influence of the far-Right on the government security policy, one thus needs to balance the extremism of Ben Gvir with several moderating factors inherent within the Israeli establishment.
When it comes to security policy in the West Bank (and across all fronts) the influence of the heads of the security services — the IDF, Shin Bet and Mossad — all have great influence, along with battle-hardened, pragmatic strategic thinker Defense Minister Gallant (a former Maj Gen, now Likud Party).
It is also instructive that although both Ben Gvir and Smotrich are members of the inner security cabinet (protocol mandates finance and public security ministers attend) Netanyahu has deliberately weighted the highest decision-making body with a majority of Likud pragmatists and relative moderates.
The second fundamental issue this government has chosen to prioritize is judicial reform. The proposed policies include various components such as: an ‘Override Law’ that would allow the Knesset to reinstate legislation annulled by the Supreme Court; altering the committee that selects judges to give politicians more control; abolishing ‘reasonability’ as grounds for the court to cancel government decisions; altering the role of ministerial legal advisors; and allowing ministers to appoint their own advisers.
A confluence of interests exists among the coalition partners which has combined with the strong conservative ideologies of some coalition members.
The ultra-Orthodox hold pent up resentment against the predominantly secular judiciary for consistently rejecting government proposals to reach accommodation over their young men avoiding the military draft — the court blocked compromise legislation on the ground of inequality.
Shas’s resentment against the judges has been compounded following the decision preventing its leader Aryeh Deri from continuing to serve as a minister following a plea bargain for tax offenses (the irony is that on security issues Deri is a moderate). The far-Right and Likud object to the court intervening to overrule government decisions on the grounds of protecting universal human rights — for example, relating to settlements built on private Palestinian land or the rights of illegal migrants.
Ironically both pro and anti-reformers claim they are working to strengthen Israeli democracy. The pro-reformers argue that the will of the people should allow parliament to be sovereign. The opponents argue that without checks and balances the absolute power of the Knesset will lead to tyranny of the majority. The proposed reforms have caused widespread anxiety and popular demonstrations.
Devil in the Detail
For much of this, the devil is in the detail. For example, the idea that a sovereign parliament can override a court decision is not in itself problematic, but more balanced criticism suggests that the threshold to overturn needs to be greater than the simple 61-59 Knesset vote currently being proposed.
Another concern is the apparent speed in which such radical moves are being advanced in tandem. Netanyahu himself has historically-demonstrated support for the independent judiciary, but carried by his Right-wing coalition and with his criminal trial continuing, he has so far not yet stepped in to reign in the zealots.
The next couple of months present huge challenges to the government and Israeli society as a whole. The security situation is liable to dominate, with the far-Right likely to continue to stoke populist fervor and demand harsh responses to rocket fire and terror attacks.
Meanwhile the debate of judicial reform is pulling at the fabric of Israeli society from within.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.