Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, made up entirely of right-wing and haredi parties, made a whirlwind start, making clear it had a mandate to govern as it began implementing a radical agenda aimed at changing the face of Israel.
Those on the Center and Left expressed concern that Israeli democracy was in danger and the country could shift in the direction of a theocratic state.
Netanyahu began his sixth term as prime minister as 2022 drew to a close; and if the first week of the new government is any guide, we are in for a turbulent four years, assuming the coalition lasts that long.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem’s Old City prompted a furious reaction across the Arab world, international condemnation, and a special United Nations Security Council meeting.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin outlined plans to dramatically weaken the power of the judicial branch the day before the Supreme Court considered petitions against the appointment of Arye Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, as minister of the interior and health minister, even though he is currently serving a suspended sentence for tax fraud.
The government is the most right wing and religious in Israel’s history, but it remains to be seen how much of the policy guidelines agreed to during the coalition negotiations will actually be implemented. Netanyahu understands the need to maintain a delicate balancing act of appeasing his coalition partners while simultaneously maintaining Israel’s image as a liberal democracy, preserving friendly ties with Western allies, and expanding the circle of peace in the region.
Itamar Ben-Gvir's visit to the Temple Mount sparks condemnation
A case in point was the controversial visit by minister Ben-Gvir, the firebrand head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) party, to the flashpoint Temple Mount, revered by Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), the site of al-Aqsa Mosque. The early morning visit lasted only 13 minutes and passed without incident but, nonetheless, it marked the first international challenge the government had to face.
At the UN Security Council meeting, hastily convened to discuss the visit, Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour issued an ominous warning that if the Security Council did not stop what he termed Israel’s attempts to alter the status quo at the holy site, the Palestinian people would.
For Netanyahu, the visit marked an early warning that actions in Jerusalem and the West Bank will impact directly on his declared aim of expanding the Abraham Accords to additional Arab states into the circle of peace, with Saudi Arabia remaining the jewel in the crown.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates joined the chorus of condemnation over the Temple Mount visit.
Netanyahu was scheduled to visit Abu Dhabi the following week in his first trip abroad as prime minister but postponed his plans. An Emirati official said “the visit will be postponed until tempers in the Arab and Muslim world calm down.”
Relations with the Palestinian Authority swiftly deteriorate
And relations with the Palestinian Authority quickly deteriorated when the first meeting of the new security cabinet imposed a series of sanctions on the Palestinian Authority (PA) in response to the decision by the United Nations to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice regarding the legality of Israel’s “occupation” of Palestinian territories, a move initiated by the PA.
The measures included freezing Palestinian construction in Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank; withholding tax money; penalizing Palestinian officials; and taking steps against NGOs that Israel claims are involved in hostile acts.
“Whoever operates against us will pay a heavy price, and this is just the beginning.”Bezalel Smotrich
“Whoever operates against us will pay a heavy price, and this is just the beginning,” said Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the far-right Religious Zionist Party.
Ramallah described the move as “theft” and urged the international community to intervene.
Common ground: All coalition parties want to change Israel's judicial system
All the parties in the new coalition are united in their hostility toward the judiciary, which is viewed as a self-perpetuating bastion of a leftist, secular elite, and the plan to shift the balance of power away from the courts was a major issue in the recent election.
Presenting his radical reform plan, Levin (Likud) argued that his reforms will “strengthen democracy” and restore the balance among the three branches of government.
“Confidence in the justice system has fallen to a dangerous nadir. We went to the polls, and time and time again people whom we never elected made choices for us. That is not democracy.”Yariv Levin
“Confidence in the justice system has fallen to a dangerous nadir. We went to the polls, and time and time again people whom we never elected made choices for us. That is not democracy,” he said.
The changes include an override clause which will grant the Knesset the power to overrule any high court decision by a simple majority of 61 out of its 120 members. The system under which judges are chosen will be changed to give the Knesset more influence at the expense of judges and lawyers.
Levin also wants to turn the legal advisers who serve Israel’s government ministries from professional appointees who report to the attorney general into political appointments answering to ministers. And he wants to cancel the “reasonableness” standard that has been used by the court over the years to reverse government decisions.
Thousands protested in Tel Aviv against what they termed a coup d’etat.
Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist National Unity party, condemned the reform plan.
“Israel will become a hollow democracy if Levin’s plan is implemented,” he warned. “Everyone understands that the next stage of the plan will focus on either suspending or canceling Netanyahu’s trial.”
Netanyahu is being tried on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust – something he strongly denies.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid accused the government of threatening to demolish Israel’s entire legal system.
“Judges will not be chosen by corrupt politicians looking for the criminal charges against them to be dropped,” he said, promising to cancel all the changes if he returns to power.
Addressing the new government’s first cabinet meeting in early January, the prime minister criticized the previous government but promised that his coalition will change things.
“The previous government was not united on any national goal. They had only one goal – to prevent this moment; beyond that, nothing. Everyone pulled in a different direction, and the country stood still,” he said. “Our government is different and will act differently. We are united around clear national goals and will work together to realize them.”
What are the new government's other priorities?
Among the priorities he outlined for the new government was preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb; preventing a return to the JCPOA nuclear agreement; and expanding the regional circle of peace.
Jewish settlers in communities across Judea and Samaria were among the most enthusiastic supporters of the new ‘fully right-wing” government, and they believe their time has come.
A majority of the 64 Knesset members in the parties making up the new coalition support annexation of at least parts of the West Bank.
Netanyahu is reluctant to take the plunge and formally annex areas of the West Bank – home to more than three million Palestinians and almost half a million Jewish residents – fearing a backlash from the international community. However, he has agreed to a number of steps which, according to critics, amount to de facto annexation.
As part of understandings reached with the Religious Zionist Party, scores of illegal settler outposts scattered across West Bank hilltops will be authorized by the government within 60 days after the government was sworn in. Such a step will allow these communities, dubbed “young settlements” by their supporters, to be hooked up to Israel’s electricity, water and sewage infrastructure and make funds available for the paving of new roads and security installations.
Netanyahu also agreed that Finance Minister Smotrich will also serve as an independent minister in the Defense Ministry in charge of settlements and Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank – territory under Israeli military and civilian control.
The government also declared its intention to rebuild the Homesh hilltop settlement, destroyed as part of the 2005 Gaza Disengagement plan, along with three other Jewish communities in Samaria.
The move prompted a possible showdown with the Biden administration.
“Our call to refrain from unilateral steps certainly includes any decision to create a new settlement, legalize outposts or allow the building of any kind deep in the West Bank adjacent to Palestinian communities or on private Palestinian land.”Ned Price
“Our call to refrain from unilateral steps certainly includes any decision to create a new settlement, legalize outposts or allow the building of any kind deep in the West Bank adjacent to Palestinian communities or on private Palestinian land,” US State Department Spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington.
Other ministers were also quick to get to work and cancel many of the policies introduced during the governments of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid.
Haredi politicians are planning a stricter enforcement of the Shabbat status quo and the expansion of gender separation in the public sphere.
Just after taking over as finance minister, Smotrich announced the cancellation of the taxes that his predecessor, Avigdor Liberman, had imposed on disposable plastic goods and soft drinks.
New Education Minister Yoav Kisch from the Likud canceled matriculation reforms introduced by his predecessor Yifat Shasha-Biton, which replaced school testing with new methods of study, work, and evaluation. “The humanities, Bible and history are an important part of shaping a student’s personal and national identity…. We are returning them to their rightful place,” Kisch said.
The opposition has spoken out against the new measures, particularly the plans to weaken the judiciary, but at this juncture it remains fragmented and lacks the sense of purpose that characterized the Netanyahu camp when it sat on the opposition benches.
The LGBT community took to the streets, blocking Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway shortly after the government was sworn in, fearing that the presence of avowed homophobes in the new government will lead to measures against the community.
That demonstration may herald the beginning of a wider protest movement by the various sectors of Israeli society who feel threatened by the new government.
“Losing elections isn’t the end of democracy – it’s the essence of democracy.”Benjamin Netanyahu
The years of political instability have come to an end with a fully right-wing government that believes it has a mandate to act. Netanyahu dismissed the claims that democracy is under threat. Outlining his government’s agenda to the Knesset plenum, he had this message for the opposition: “Losing elections isn’t the end of democracy – it’s the essence of democracy.” ■