Can Netanyahu sell an annexation-bent, judicially constrained Israel? - analysis

Western allies who hold that Israel's democracy is one of the sacred bonds on which their relationship is based will need more than just assurances.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators protest against the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestinian territories during a rally at the Washington Monument in Washington, U.S., May 15, 2021.  (photo credit: YURI GRIPAS / REUTERS)
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators protest against the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestinian territories during a rally at the Washington Monument in Washington, U.S., May 15, 2021.
(photo credit: YURI GRIPAS / REUTERS)

It would be hard to bet in favor of Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to woo the Western world given the nature of the government he plans to swear in on Thursday.

For the Right, it is an enormous, hard-fought victory, decades in the making.

This is not Israel’s first right-wing government, but it is the first one they call in Hebrew a “full, full right-wing government,” as in one that has no constraining influences.

It is also the first unabashedly right-wing government, willing to promote policies that past governments with a strong right-wing presence refused to tackle fearing a domestic, political or international backlash.

But this government has laid it all out on the table. They want to strengthen Israel's identity as a Jewish nation, based on religious Jewish law, pushing back the growing secular and non-Jewish identity of the state.

Protesters call for boycott of Israel [file] (credit: REUTERS)Protesters call for boycott of Israel [file] (credit: REUTERS)

Government politicians want to take a stand against what they feel is a tyrannical judicial system that fails to represent the values of elected officials and stymies right-wing legislative initiatives.

At a time of rising antisemitism and a strengthening of the false narrative of how the Jews never actually inhabited the land of the Bible, they want to clarify that the Jews have a right to live in their ancestral homeland.

Then the Netanyahu-led government wants to sell this new Israel to the Western world as its natural democratic ally that protects individual rights and wants to make peace with its neighbors, including the Palestinians.

Incoming finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, who heads the Religious Zionist Party, turned to the American public on Tuesday and urged it not to prejudge the new government, explaining that he and the new government have been misunderstood.

“The United States media has vilified me and the traditionalist bloc to which I belong,” Smotrich wrote in an opinion in The Wall Street Journal.

Opponents have warned that “our bloc will usher in a ‘halachic state’ in which Jewish law governs,” Smotrich wrote.

“In reality, we seek to strengthen every citizen’s freedom and the country’s democratic institutions, bringing Israel more closely in line with the liberal American model,” he wrote.

If anything, there are those on the Right who have argued that this government has not gone far enough. A group of the Likud Party that calls itself the Land of Israel Faithful, said its policies were not those of a truly right-wing government.

But for all those who feel that the incoming government has not gone far enough, there are domestic voices that fear it has already gone way too far.

One need look no further than the government’s policy statement, which states, “The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all areas of the Land of Israel.”

The Land of Israel is often the term used by the Right to speak of a greater Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Israeli-Arab NGO Adalah immediately noted that this could be read to effectively say that Palestinians have no rights to any of that territory.

On top of that, there is the pledge to begin applying sovereignty to portions of the West Bank, which the Palestinians claim as part of their future state.

Netanyahu might have spoken to the international media in recent weeks of his desire for a peace deal with the Palestinians, but the very opening line of his government’s new policy seems to say it disavows Palestinian statehood.

Then there is the issue of judicial independence. Israel’s judiciary is often lauded internationally, but this government wants to create a system by which the parliament can override judiciary rulings.

Will Israel's new government be racist?

That follows laws that could allow private businesses to refuse to provide a product or service due to religious belief, a move that many fear will allow for discrimination. Then there are other moves that would weaken support for women and minority groups, such as Arab-Israelis and the LGBTQ community.

Labor Party head and outgoing Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli didn’t mince words, calling the incoming government racist.

In a speech to her party’s Knesset faction on Monday, she recalled how almost 50 years ago, “The person who would later become the president of the State of Israel, Chaim Herzog, stood at the podium of the United Nations and tore to shreds the scandalous statement that equated Zionism with racism and established this scandalous assertion. He tore up this decision because Zionism is the opposite of racism.”

Today that is no longer true, she said. The policies of Netanyahu, Smotrich and incoming national safety minister Itamar Ben-Gvir will promote “legally sanctioned racism” and will support “discrimination based on race, sex, origin and sexual orientation,” Michaeli said.

Netanyahu and his political allies might dismiss her words as a cynical political stunt designed to discredit their government.

Pragmatically, however, it is not enough to just say Israel is and will be democratic under the Netanyahu-led government.

Western allies who hold that Israel’s democracy is one of the sacred bonds on which their relationship is based will need more than just assurances.

Netanyahu’s most immediate diplomatic task will now be to demonstrate how a judicially constrained Israel that has removed some of its legislative protections will still meet the test of protecting democratic rights.

After that, he will need to assure his allies that somehow he can both apply sovereignty to the West Bank and push for Palestinian statehood.

After decades in politics, Netanyahu has shown that he can often pull a rabbit out of the diplomatic hat in moments when defeat seems certain.

That being said, his ability to walk a tightrope between Western demands and the policies of his new government still has the appearance of mission impossible.