Despite turbulence, Israeli government likely to remain intact

Experts predict that Netanyahu’s coalition will manage to hold, even as the prime minister faces growing public dissatisfaction and intracoalition tensions

 Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu waves as he addresses his supporters at his party headquarters during Israel's general election in Jerusalem, November 2, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu waves as he addresses his supporters at his party headquarters during Israel's general election in Jerusalem, November 2, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)

As the Israeli summer comes to a close, many predict that the tumultuous state of Israeli politics will become increasingly knottier. Since being sworn in in December 2022, the coalition, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has stumbled from crisis to crisis. Regardless, experts expect that the government will remain intact.

Days after entering office, Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced his intention to implement a massive overhaul of Israel’s judicial system. The announcement led to a standoff between the ruling coalition and the opposition in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, as well as numerous public demonstrations both against and in favor of the judicial reform.

“The question is not whether the stability of the current coalition is threatened, but rather whether we will be seeing the same coalition come September”

Dr. Yonatan Freeman, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The Knesset ended its summer session in July on a dramatic note. Soon before the summer recess, the government approved a bill that removed the Supreme Court’s ability to overturn a government decision on the grounds of the decision’s “reasonableness.” That piece of legislation marked the first law related to judicial reform passed by the Knesset. Immediately after the divisive vote, anti-judicial reform demonstrators intensified their protests.

The coalition treated the passage of the reasonableness bill as a major victory. But the path forward for the coalition is not simple.

While Netanyahu has promised to reach a broader consensus before proceeding with the judicial overhaul, it is unclear whether he has the political backing to do so. A large portion of his coalition, including far-right, nationalist, and religious parties, wants him to push forward with the parliamentary majority he already has and not seek additional support.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his coalition celebrate the passage of the state budget yesterday. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his coalition celebrate the passage of the state budget yesterday. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Also threatening to destabilize the coalition is the push from the ultra-Orthodox parties to legislate a blanket exemption from military service for ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. The highly contentious move may not have the full support of Netanyahu’s Likud party. In the tense political atmosphere, Netanyahu may try to convince his religious partners to back down from their demand in order to avoid further controversy and internal party strife.

All the while, growing tensions with the Palestinians and a spike in homicides within the Israeli Arab population create an even more unstable political situation. The public, including those who voted for the parties in the coalition, is increasingly critical of a government that has apparently failed to address these issues. A continuous rise in the cost of living is also contributing to public dissatisfaction with the government.

Amid all these issues, Netanyahu and his Likud party have consistently received unflattering results in the polls. Since the announcement of the judicial overhaul, the right-wing bloc has declined in popularity in most surveys conducted by the Israeli media. Israelis report a decreasing sense of personal safety and growing dissatisfaction with the government.

The current coalition is a cohesive one, with 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. It has the potential to last a full four-year term. Managing to do so would be notable in Israeli politics, the fractured nature of which often dictates frequent elections.

“None of the coalition partners have an alternative,” Eran Vigoda-Gadot, a professor of public administration and political science at the University of Haifa, told The Media Line. “They will not topple a government that is the government of their dreams, their only chance to implement their ideologies. Any threats are empty ones.”

The current government, which is the most right-wing in Israel’s history, has made a range of promises. From increasing settlement construction in the West Bank to weakening the judiciary, many of the endeavors promised would be impossible in a different political constellation.

Yet with so many contentious issues on the agenda and a very active protest movement, it seems the coalition is constantly being contested.

“On the one hand, the different parties in the coalition may be feeling there is a new election coming and they are speaking to their base with different promises,” Dr. Yonatan Freeman, a political science lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Media Line. “But also, elements from outside of the coalition are signaling they may be inclined to enter a coalition in return for more extremist members exiting.”

“The question is not whether the stability of the current coalition is threatened, but rather whether we will be seeing the same coalition come September,” Freeman said.

A poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 12 on Friday found the public believes the previous government, which was not led by Netanyahu, was more successful in handling terrorism, crime, and the economy.

When asked who is more fit to be prime minister, almost 40% preferred Benny Gantz, former defense minister and senior member of the opposition, over Netanyahu. Only 34% preferred Netanyahu, marking a widening gap between the two. Throughout his six terms as premier, Netanyahu has enjoyed positive approval ratings and has almost always been seen by many Israelis as more fit than any other politician to serve as prime minister.

The latest poll also found low approval ratings for other cabinet ministers, signaling a problem for the coalition in the court of public opinion.

“Rather than this threatening the stability of the government, these numbers could increase the possibility of Netanyahu asking Gantz to join his coalition as potentially being a better partner and a better fit,” Freeman said.

But Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is a seasoned politician who may not be so easily swayed by unflattering polls.

“The numbers for Gantz are a signal of a general mood that will not necessarily be reflected in a vote,” Vigoda-Gadot said. “Netanyahu is the master of turning lost situations around. He knows that today’s polls mean nothing about tomorrow.”

Some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners have caused headaches for the veteran politician. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir are both ultra-nationalist right-wingers who have put the government at odds with the United States. From supporting full annexation of the West Bank territories to making racist remarks, the two have also managed to reduce the appeal of the coalition to more moderate Likud voters.

For several months now, polls have shown that the sitting government would not have a majority should elections be held again.

Gantz, who is polling ahead of opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, has an appeal to the Israeli public as a moderate figure who strives to achieve consensus and avoid controversy. His willingness to compromise has made him an object of criticism for the opposition and the grassroots protest movement. He is not hated by the right wing nor is he considered as anti-religious as Lapid, making him a less divisive figure than any of his competitors in the opposition.

Gantz backtracked on his refusal to sit in a Netanyahu coalition

Gantz and Netanyahu have a tricky history. Upon entering the political scene, Gantz had ruled out sitting in a coalition with Netanyahu on account of his legal troubles.

In context: After an investigation that began in 2016, Netanyahu was indicted in 2019 on several counts of corruption. The criminal trial is ongoing.

After successive elections that left Israel in crippling paralysis, Gantz reluctantly entered a coalition with Netanyahu. The partnership lasted a little over a year. Gantz, who now leads the National Unity Party, has since renewed his vow to never sit with a prime minister on trial, but the political turmoil may now have him thinking otherwise.

“Gantz is being very careful about who he criticizes, mainly focusing on Netanyahu’s partners,” Freeman said. “He appeals to the public by being someone who takes a more moderate, mature position with less populist and absolute statements.”

“Gantz has a military record that could deal with the current threats in a better way,” he added.

Not only does Gantz come out ahead of Netanyahu on the question of fitness to rule, but his National Unity Party has also consistently polled stronger than Netanyahu’s Likud.

Netanyahu now faces the decision of whether to push forward with the judicial reform. Doing so would appease his partners but further fuel the protests.

“This comes at a huge risk of further damage,” Vigoda-Gadot said. “We could see violence in the streets, economic sanctions, and a constitutional crisis. But Netanyahu is unlikely to give up because, as long as Israelis are preoccupied with the reform, they are less attentive to his trial.”

The protest movement has made a dent in the government’s plans, though. As a result of the protests, the judicial reform is unlikely to be implemented in the sweeping manner that was initially intended. But as long as the coalition has a solid majority, it could continue to legislate in a gradual manner. Amid the uncertainty regarding the judicial reforms and numerous other tensions, the forecast for Israel remains stormy.