Netanyahu's discovering it's not easy to form a government - opinion

EDITOR'S NOTES: Israel is still a democratic country, but with the balance between the separation of powers changing, the character of the state is also changing.

 LEADERS OF the new Knesset’s parties. Making a government is not as easy as it seems (photo credit: Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)
LEADERS OF the new Knesset’s parties. Making a government is not as easy as it seems
(photo credit: Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)

It was almost as if Itamar Ben-Gvir had missed the results of the election three weeks ago. On Wednesday, after the double terrorist bombings in Jerusalem, Ben-Gvir did what he has done after almost every other terrorist attack in recent years – he immediately came to the scene. 

“We need to go back to carrying out targeted killings,” Ben-Gvir told the journalists who had assembled at the bomb scene. “We need to retake control of the State of Israel, to deter terrorism and to make them pay.”

It was classic Ben-Gvir. Terror strikes and then Ben-Gvir shows up. That is how it has been for the last few years. This time though, he seemingly forgot that he is going to be the public security minister in just a couple of weeks when prime minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu and Bezalel Smotrich stop fighting over portfolios and finally swear in the new government. 

Ben Gvir will learn: Change does not just happen

Israel doesn’t need a politician who comes to scenes of attacks and issues campaign slogans. Ben-Gvir is just weeks away from taking office. He will be able to push that policy in the security cabinet, which he will be a member of by law. 

This should not be a surprise though. While Ben-Gvir ran a successful campaign ahead of the election, he is coming into executive leadership without management experience. He has never managed a big organization or institution and has never had to grapple daily with the Israeli government’s notorious bureaucracy. 

Things, he will soon learn, don’t get done because of slogans thrown out at terrorist attack scenes. To affect change, you have to work hard. It doesn’t just happen on its own

Itamar Ben Gvir (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)Itamar Ben Gvir (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

And change is exactly what this government appears bent on carrying out. Every day seems like Netanyahu and his partners pull another new policy out of their hat. There is the High Court override bill, the legalization of gender separation, the doubling of subsidies for yeshiva students and, on Wednesday, the latest idea – ministers will be able to appoint their own ministerial legal adviser. 

On the one hand, there is an argument to put forth in favor of such a move. Ministers are politicians who were elected into office by voters who want to see them be able to act on their declared policies. Ben-Gvir wants to restore Israeli sovereignty? He needs to have the tools to make that happen, and having an adversarial legal adviser in your office can prevent a minister from being able to do so.

On the other hand, if the legal advisers – the officials who need to sign off on legislation, spending of money and important ministerial decisions – are no longer professionals and apolitical, then what is going to stop a minister from appointing someone who will function solely as a rubber stamp? Who will ensure that the law is upheld? Who will protect the public’s interest? 

There is a common denominator between the different reforms the new government is trying to pass. The override bill and personal appointments of legal advisers come from the same source – a desire to remove any checks and balances or oversight over the executive branch and give it complete authority over the management of the country. 

A slim override bill that requires just 61 MKs would eviscerate the High Court. Personally-appointed legal advisers would eviscerate the attorney-general’s oversight. Giving the public security minister authority over the police’s operational decisions would politicize the police in a way not yet seen in this country. 

Is Israel slipping toward a dictatorship?

I do not agree with the doomsayers who claim that Israel is slipping toward a dictatorship, but we are transitioning from a liberal democracy to a type of authoritarian democracy. Israel is still a democratic country, but with the balance between the separation of powers changing, the character of the state is also changing. 

This will all be true only once a government is formed. That is not going as smoothly as Netanyahu initially planned. Ben-Gvir was actually the easier party to finalize a deal with but Smotrich is proving to be extremely difficult for the Likud leader. The reason, as one senior minister explained this week, is that Smotrich has something of a messianic complex. 

“He will not give up that easily, and the tactics that Netanyahu usually uses to pressure coalition partners will not work on him,” the outgoing minister explained. 

The minister was only partially right. On the big issue – the defense portfolio – Netanyahu was able to maneuver Smotrich away. On the smaller issues – Smotrich’s demand that he be put in charge of the Civil Administration – which approves settlement construction – Netanyahu might have to bend. 

Behind the tension between the two is Netanyahu’s understanding that he is on a collision course with the Americans due to the makeup of his new government. The statement that the White House put out after the Jerusalem bombings on Wednesday said that America’s “commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad and unbreakable” but that will not mean that everything will be ignored. 

Massive settlement construction, restrictions clamped on the Palestinians and moves perceived as anti-democratic could lead to the automatic veto at the United Nations being lifted or just daily condemnations like the one the State Department put out after Ben-Gvir attended the memorial service for Meir Kahane. That will be enough to create significant daylight for the entire world to see. 

Netanyahu knows all of this and it understandably makes him nervous. Within the next few weeks, his new government will take office and at least one immediate change will go into effect: Ben-Gvir will realize that running to terror scenes and demanding action will be like speaking to himself in front of the mirror. It will not be enough. 

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Writing a new chapter

In April 2019, I received an email one day from David Weinberg - a veteran columnist at the newspaper - who asked if I would be willing to meet with a Moroccan newspaper publisher who was visiting Israel that week. I was intrigued by what a Moroccan newspaper publisher was doing in Israel – this was 18 months before the Abraham Accords – and I naturally said yes. 

A few days later, Ahmed Charai came to my office in Jerusalem and I was deeply impressed. Charai is deeply committed to journalism but also to Israeli-Moroccan relations and the role the US plays in the region. In the years that have passed since our first meeting, Charai and I have spoken and met frequently and he even penned a number of insightful opinion pieces for The Jerusalem Post

I mention this since last week, The Jerusalem Post and Charai’s Global Media Holding – the parent company of L’Observateur du Maroc et d’Afrique, MedRadio, Pouvoirs d’Afrique (Powers of Africa) and other media – jointly put on the Global Investment Forum in Marrakech

The forum brought together businessmen from around the world – Israel, Morocco, the US, the United Arab Emirates, France, the United Kingdom and more. It was a reminder that despite the great challenges we all face in our respective countries, what matters – as news organizations – is to keep telling the story of this fascinating region to the world. 

Charai and his staff of journalists – like L’Observateur editor Mohammed Zainabi – are genuine partners in telling this region’s stories and writing a new chapter, together, in our shared history.