Israel's new gov't has many political fires to put out

INSIDE POLITICS: The new government spent its first week initiating its promised reforms and causing its prime minister no shortage of headaches.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset this week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset this week.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In its first week in office, the sixth government of Benjamin Netanyahu worked overtime and went many extra miles to pronounce the arrival of the new kid on the block.

After campaigning on a wide range of issues and promising to change laws and the direction of the country, the parties in the coalition wasted no time in doing just that.

On Sunday, only a few hours after taking office, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich gave his first official directive, ordering to cancel the tax on disposable plasticware and soft drinks imposed by the former government and widely resented by the ultra-Orthodox constituency.

A few hours later, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told the Supreme Court that he decided to reverse the previous governmental policy regarding the illegal outpost of Homesh.

Meanwhile, Transportation Minister Miri Regev announced her plans to cancel highway public transportation lanes and most everything else promoted by her predecessor from the left, Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli.

 FOREIGN MINISTER Eli Cohen attends a ceremony at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on Monday, at which he is welcomed as the new minister. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) FOREIGN MINISTER Eli Cohen attends a ceremony at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on Monday, at which he is welcomed as the new minister. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The freshman foreign minister, Eli Cohen, made one of his first phone calls to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, marking the first contact at this level since the beginning of the Ukraine war, departing from former top diplomat Yair Lapid’s stance, and possibly signaling a pro-Russian shift in the Israeli position.

Education Minister Yoav Kisch rudely dismissed his immediate predecessor, Yifat Shasha-Biton, during their ceremonial swap, rebuking her: “We listened to you for a year and a half.”

“We listened to you for a year and a half.”

Yoav Kisch

By Tuesday, however, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir overshadowed all the other headline grabbers by making his first visit to the Temple Mount bearing his new title.

As expected, the visit sparked international outcry, confronted the new government with its first UN Security Council debate, and cast a cloud over the prime minister’s plans to launch his term with a historic visit to Abu Dhabi next week.

Ben-Gvir’s flexing his muscles also drew a rare rebuke from the ultra-Orthodox press, which described it as a “dangerous and unnecessary provocation.”

The incident only added to simmering haredi discontent with the appointment of the first openly gay Knesset speaker, Amir Ohana, which was greeted by several senior homophobic rabbis with outrageous bigoted comments.

Overshadowing everything: Yariv Levin's plans for Israeli judicial overhaul

But even the controversy over Ben-Gvir’s questionable decision to visit the Mount was soon set aside in favor of the constitutional bombshell laid down by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who summoned the press on Wednesday evening to introduce a sweeping plan for a radical overhaul in the judicial system.

Levin, a longtime Netanyahu confidant and loyalist as well as a staunch critic and opponent of the Supreme Court, proclaimed a legislative blitz that would “rebalance” the three branches of government, including an override clause that would enable the Knesset to cancel High Court decisions. Levin’s plan also includes enhancing political control over judicial appointments and an annulment of the test of “reasonableness” by which the High Court has hitherto analyzed and contested government decisions.

Levin presented his reform a few hours before the Supreme Court convened to hear petitions against the ministerial appointment of convicted criminal and Shas leader Arye Deri. Though Levin denied any linkage, the message was clear: Whether the court disqualifies Deri or not, the government is heading to an unprecedented constitutional confrontation.

Levin also unconvincingly insists his plans have nothing to do with his boss and his legal troubles, which is only partially true: He indeed is a hardline ideologist who has dreamed of revolutionizing the judicial system for ages. For many years, Netanyahu confined his dreams to the dark, thwarting any attempt to undermine the Supreme Court. Only when he turned into a criminal suspect and defendant did he discover Levin’s agenda and allow him to play.

The enthusiastic justice minister purposely didn’t set a binding time table for the judiciary revolution and supposedly committed to a thorough dialogue with its opponents. Former defense minister Benny Gantz called on Netanyahu to establish a wide-spanning cross-party committee to deal with judicial reform, but Levin’s radical opening terms are nonstarters for most of the top legal echelon, and could rule out any sincere process or dialogue.

The common political wisdom is that Netanyahu and Deri are utilizing Levin’s reactionary reforms to deter the legal system in their own personal proceedings.

“Levin loaded the gun, but didn’t reveal when he intends to pull the trigger, and now Netanyahu is waiting to see how the judicial system reacts,” one of the premier’s confidants explained this week, waiting to see how the High Court reacts on the Deri petition.

WITHIN ONE week of its inauguration, Netanyahu’s extremist government has little fires everywhere.

Netanyahu didn’t give the international community any time of grace to register Israel’s radical change of political direction before Ben-Gvir shoved it in the world’s faces. So far, His Temple Mount visit passed without any violent ramifications, but it put the Palestinians and the Arab world on high alert that could easily escalate in the future.

The fire raging over the judicial front is even bigger. Levin’s draconian presentation immediately put the whole legal apparatus in survival mode, and is likely to prompt a strong wave of civilian protest against the proposed changes.

Levin’s reform also includes plans to replace all of the government’s legal advisers with personal appointments, further removing any gatekeeping or breaks with political decisions. Netanyahu’s ministers already fired most of the government officials who were associated or appointed by their forebears, launching a massive draft of their own political appointments. They intentionally gave no honeymoon period for a goodwill transition of power, and are flagrantly showing their muscles and marking their territory, messaging they are back and unstoppable.

Netanyahu is not known to be a pyromaniac, but he has apparently surrounded himself by fire-setters. And on his first week back in office, he unleashed them to light sparks all around.

His earnest proponents are hailing the swift and decisive turnover, citing the overwhelming right-wing election victory to justify the rapid radical changes. His terrified opponents believe the chaos is intentional, designed to pave his path of escaping from justice, and that he will spare no means for the sake of his own personal plight.

The main question remains: Will he be able to continue to put out the fires that his partners set, before they engulf his coalition in flames and take the country along with it?