Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, UTJ setting tone for government, not Netanyahu - analysis

Since winning the election, Netanyahu has been largely silent except for messages of condolences to victims of terrorism.

 Likud party chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands with United Torah Judaism MK Yitzchak Goldknopf a plenum session in the assembly hall of the parliament (Knesset) on November 21, 2022.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Likud party chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands with United Torah Judaism MK Yitzchak Goldknopf a plenum session in the assembly hall of the parliament (Knesset) on November 21, 2022.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

In the early morning of November 2, when it became clear that the right-wing bloc built by Benjamin Netanyahu would have the votes needed to form the next government, he delivered a relatively subdued victory speech in which he indicated that he would be the prime minister of everyone, and would proceed with caution.

Many are the leaders who, after a divisive election campaign, deliver a conciliatory speech promising to unite the country and be everyone’s prime minister, even those who voted against them. Donald Trump did it. Naftali Bennett did it. Joe Biden did it.

This time, however, Israel desperately needs these words to be more than just perfunctory.

Why? Because many among that half of the country that did not vote for the pro-Netanyahu parties feel that the election results delivered a state to them they don’t recognize.

A cartoon the next day in Yediot Aharonot summed this up well. Two similar-looking men were seen in the frame, one wearing an “Only Bibi” black T-shirt, and another wearing an “Anything but Bibi” black T-shirt.

 Far-right Israeli lawmakers Itamar Ben Gvir, center, and Bezalel Smotrich, right, attend the swearing-in ceremony for the new Israeli parliament, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (credit: MAYA ALLERUZZO/REUTERS) Far-right Israeli lawmakers Itamar Ben Gvir, center, and Bezalel Smotrich, right, attend the swearing-in ceremony for the new Israeli parliament, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (credit: MAYA ALLERUZZO/REUTERS)

The pro-Netanyahu man held a sign that said, “The country is lost,” and handed it to the anti-Netanyahu individual, telling him: “Your turn.”

In his election-night speech, Netanyahu seemed to recognize the truth in that cartoon, and as a result, said that while his will be a right-wing government, he intends to be the prime minister of all Israelis, “Right and Left, Jews and non-Jews alike.” Likewise, he sent out reassuring messages to the world, commenting that he would act responsibly and “not get into unnecessary adventures.”

Netanyahu has not backed up his words

The problem is that 30 days after the election, Netanyahu has done nothing to back up those initial words.

Granted, the coalition negotiations are still underway, and it is still being determined who will be given what ministerial responsibilities, and what policies will be enshrined in the coalition agreements. But statements coming from the parties involved in the negotiations with the Likud, all religious– Otzma Yehudit, the Religious Zionist Party (RZP), Noam, Shas and United Torah Judaism – are anything but calming to the half of the country that feels they are losing their state.

Listening to the various party leaders’ demands, many among the country’s Arab, gay, female and secular population are genuinely concerned that their rights will be trampled by ministers intent on implementing their own worldviews.

This is a recurring problem here: Every time there is a new government, there is a sense that since the ball is now in their hands, they can do with it whatever they want.

 This is not something, by the way, that only characterizes the Israeli Right. When the Left returned to power after Yitzhak Rabin’s victory in 1992 with a slim majority in the Knesset thanks to Shas, they ignored the half of the country that voted against them and steamrolled the Oslo accords through, despite vehement opposition. The sense was that they were in charge, and could do as they pleased – regardless of what the other half of the country thought or said.

Now the shoe is on the other foot, and – with a right-wing government – there is talk of a judiciary bypass law that will only need 61 MKs to override the Supreme Court; of moving the Civil Administration over to the Finance Ministry, which is to be given to RZP head Bezalel Smotrich, in a move that some view as de-facto annexation; of a fundamental change in the Law of Return; and of putting the Border Police operations in Judea and Samaria under the authority of the newly named National Security Ministry that will go to Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Ben-Gvir has already rebuked Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi for writing a reprimanding letter Saturday after a Givati soldier was filmed throwing a far-Left protester to the ground and punching him in the face in Hebron. Another soldier boasted before a camera that Ben-Gvir will institute order. And then on Tuesday, the Otzma Yehudit leader – as if he was still in the opposition – castigated the army for jailing the latter soldier for 10 days.

There is undoubtedly concern, not only in Israel but also abroad, about the composition of the new government, and fears that it will lead Israel down an extreme right-wing rabbit hole where checks and balances will be destroyed, open season will be declared on Palestinians and left-wing protesters, and the delicate status quo regarding religious-state issues will be trampled.

Whether justifiable or not, there is a fear among many that the country is about to perform a U-turn on everything that has to do with democratic and minority rights.

One argument against this doomsday scenario is that Netanyahu – at heart a man with respect for liberal democracy and checks and balances, and someone concerned about his legacy – will stand in the breach, and that he will be the brake on any over-zealousness of the Right upon its return to power.

After all, goes this argument, it is Netanyahu’s government, not Ben-Gvir’s: The returning prime minister will again be the one in charge.

However, a month after the elections, Netanyahu has done little to prove that he will stand in the breach, that he himself will be a significant check on the possible over-reach of the Right.

Netanyahu has said little – other than issuing statements of sympathy to the families of those killed or injured after terrorist attacks. Granted, he is in the midst of sensitive coalition negotiations, and anything he says on the burning issues of the day can and will be used against him by his potential coalition partners. Still, he has done nothing to call Ben-Gvir to order when criticizing the IDF’s top brass, and has kept mum as reports emerge of one demand after the other being made by his potential coalition partners with whom he is negotiating.

Some argue that in closed meetings, he is reading the riot act to Ben-Gvir, Smotrich and Shas leader Arye Deri, making sure they understand the limits of their power and that he is in charge.

But none of this is being seen in public. Publicly, it looks as if Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, UTJ and Shas – not Netanyahu and his Likud Party – are setting the future government’s tone.