With so many events and attacks taking place and declarations being made, hardly anyone seemed to notice that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sixth government marked its first month anniversary this week.
The most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history took off with a loud and rocky start, shooting in all directions, and within one month in office it has opened aggressive fronts all around.
The government’s plans to revolutionize Israeli democracy, politicize the judicial branch, and crack down on public broadcasting have been opposed by a wide range of judges, lawyers, legal advisers, human rights professors and journalists. The radical and aggressive judicial overhaul has also awakened the big financial and hi-tech players and moneymakers, who typically shy away from politics, to unprecedented activism against the government.
In his victory speech on the November 1 election night, Netanyahu promised to be the “prime minister of everyone.” But his government’s opening salvo was a direct attack on the liberal camp which didn’t vote for him, prompting the highest level of political division and loudest civil unrest in ages, even in comparison with five election campaigns in four years. Not a day goes by without a new rally or petition, and dozens of thousands of demonstrators are flooding Tel Aviv each weekend to voice their opposition to the judicial plans. Even last Saturday evening, after the horrendous and tragic weekend terrorist attack in Neveh Ya’acov, the protests prevailed, preceded by a moment of silence.
Adding to the sizzling internal tensions, the security situation is boiling as well, scorching the coalition from within. The deadly Jerusalem terrorist attack on Friday evening posed the government with its first major security test, followed Wednesday night by rocket fire from Gaza and the ongoing rising of tension in West Bank cities.
Netanyahu’s allies, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, who both made a career campaigning for forceful responses to terrorism, are now senior cabinet ministers eager to leave their marks, but also bound to the broad set of strategical interests and calculations steering the prime minister’s decisions.
Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, rushed to the cameras to accuse the attorney-general of preventing punitive steps against the Neveh Ya’acov terrorist, signaling a hollow search for someone to blame instead of admitting the government has no good answer to stop the terrorism.
He and Smotrich also silently signed off on the government’s request to the High Court of Justice to postpone the demolition of the Khan al-Ahmar Bedouin village this week, after years of protesting against the continuing delay of the court order. Ironically, within one month, the “most right-wing” government has evacuated an illegal Jewish outpost in the West Bank while refraining from evacuating an illegal Palestinian one. Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have voiced their objections, and still, it is happening under their watch, undermining essential factors of their political existence.
Meanwhile, Smotrich is heating up another internal front, struggling to gain control over the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria, control Netanyahu promised him in the coalition agreements. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who adamantly objects to transferring any power over the IDF units or chain of command, is disrupting Smotrich’s plans and dreams, and the prime minister is trying to mediate and avoid the first coalition crisis from emerging.
Other tensions in Israeli politics
Tensions among the allies are already high, following the High Court decision to nix Shas leader Arye Deri’s seat in the government. Deri is demanding to promote speed legislation to override the ruling and enable him to serve as a minister, but most of the coalition partners are reluctant to do so, unconvinced the court won’t disqualify him again. They also are loath to jeopardize the overall judicial reform by staining it with Deri’s disgrace of ongoing corruption.
As news of the domestic turmoil spread overseas, international pressure was added to the problematic mix on Netanyahu’s desk earlier than expected. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the prime minister this week in Jerusalem with a friendly smile and diplomatically polite manner, but the message was clear: Blinken’s call for a broad consensus conveyed the White House’s discontent with the radical judicial proposals and its request that Netanyahu moderate, halt or abandon the reform.
Netanyahu was headed to Paris on Thursday to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron, who might echo a similar anxiousness, on camera or behind closed doors.
Netanyahu has been brushing off internal and international critics and concerns about the judicial reform by repeating a talking point about strengthening Israeli democracy, pledging to hold a sincere and thorough discussion with the reform’s adversaries and to include them in the process.
In reality, Justice Minister Yariv Levin is speeding forward with the legislation without the professional legal apparatus behind him, and MK Simcha Rothman, the head of the Knesset law committee preparing the bills, is aggressively humiliating almost any speaker who has reservations about the proposed plans.
President Isaac Herzog, who has been trying to mediate between the government and the reform’s adversaries, has made little progress so far. Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and the leaders of the protests and the opposition are demanding to halt the hardline reform as a precondition for any substantial negotiation, while Netanyahu, Levin and Rothman are intent on approving it within two months, by April 2.
Despite the government’s attempt to identify its bitter political rivals as the engine behind the civil unrest and awakening, Netanyahu’s close confidants observe he is indeed concerned with the internal and international ramifications of the judicial reform, most notably with the American warnings and emerging economic fallout. He granted an hour-long interview to CNN’s Jake Tapper this week in an apparent attempt to offset all the noisy headlines coming out of Tel Aviv streets and markets.
“I’m controlling the government, and I’m responsible for its policies, and the policies are sensible and responsible and continue to be that,” Netanyahu told Tapper.
However, providing a suitable closure to the government’s first feisty month, Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara warned Netanyahu on Wednesday that he himself cannot be involved in the judicial reform, given the conflict of interest over his corruption trial.
“I’m controlling the government, and I’m responsible for its policies, and the policies are sensible and responsible and continue to be that.”Benjamin Netanyahu
If the government continues to promote its fiery agenda, the domestic barrages could exact a heavy toll, and with Netanyahu’s eager hardline allies, he might find it difficult to impose his control.