The first 11 days - opinion

My main concern is whether Netanyahu is really in control of what is going on. Two highly controversial events of the last week come to mind.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, last week. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, last week.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Our new government was inaugurated 11 days ago, and if this is the overture, I hate to think what the rest of the concert will be like. At least according to some of the opinion polls from last week, it is not just the likes of me who feel this way, and I suspect that even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a little apprehensive about what he will have to deal with.

My main concern is whether Netanyahu is really in control of what is going on. Two highly controversial events of the last week come to mind. The first was the decision of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, to go up to the Temple Mount in the early hours last Tuesday, accompanied by an entourage of security men, in order to demonstrate that Jews in general and ministers in particular have the right to go up there at any time, even if only for a provocative early morning 13-minute stroll.

While there is no doubt that Netanyahu did not initiate the act, and must have said to himself that he needed this initiative at this juncture like a hole in the head, one wonders why he decided that it was preferable from a national point of view, to enable Ben-Gvir to get his way, even if under constrictive conditions, instead of preventing the minister from realizing his plan. Doing the latter would have risked a coalition crisis but would have saved the prime minister a totally unnecessary international embroilment.

The fact that Netanyahu also chose not to refute Ben-Gvir’s statement that “the Temple Mount is the most important location for the Jewish people” also raises some question marks. The importance of the Temple Mount to the Jewish people cannot be denied, but is it important because it is part of 2000 years of Jewish history, or because it is the heart of our existence?

When Netanyahu speaks of his main immediate goals, he speaks of peace with Saudi Arabia, and thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In no way did Ben-Gvir’s act serve either of these goals; perhaps the contrary.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin holds a press conference at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem on January 4, 2023. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)Justice Minister Yariv Levin holds a press conference at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem on January 4, 2023. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The second event was Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s decision to present the elements of the legal reform/revolution he plans to implement as soon as possible, on Wednesday evening – 12 hours before the High Court of Justice (HCJ) was to start dealing with the question of whether the appointment of Shas leader Arye Deri as minister at the head of two ministries was a reasonable decision. Some believe otherwise, given the fact that over the course of the last year, Deri reached a plea bargain on financial offenses, after having spent two years in prison some 20 years ago on more serious financial offenses. Levin’s decision to present his plans before the trial opened was interpreted by many as placing a loaded pistol on the bench of the HCJ, as if to say “watch it.”

WE WERE told in the past that while Netanyahu will welcome changes in the legal system, which will help him wriggle out of his trial on three criminal counts, he would like to slow down the change for fear that trying to catch too much too fast might defeat the whole move. Netanyahu has also never tried to conceal the fact that he believes that Deri’s presence in his government is vital, due to his wisdom and experience. However, though apparently Netanyahu gave Levin a green light to deliver his speech on Wednesday evening, he must have been aware of the problems of the timing.

No matter what the HCJ decides, and what effect Levin’s move will have on its decision, it is expected that all hell will break loose after the verdict is given, especially if the decision is made to reject Deri’s appointment as minister.

Disrespectful handover ceremonies at Israeli government ministries

A little less dramatic was the process of the transfer of power that took place last week. In three ministries – the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Transportation and Road Safety, and the Justice Ministry there were no official ceremonies at the behest of the incoming Likud ministers, Netanyahu, Miri Regev and Yariv Levin. The first two also demonstrated disrespect and even contempt for the ministers they came to replace. In the case of Levin and the departing justice minister Gideon Sa’ar, the circumstances are more complicated, as I mentioned in one of my previous articles.

Especially embarrassing was the ceremony in the National Security Ministry in which the outgoing minister, Omer Bar Lev (Labor) was scolded by the incoming Ben-Gvir for complaining about threats to his life by extremist settlers. “You are not the only one being threatened” he stated defiantly.

“You are not the only one being threatened.”

Itamar Ben-Gvir

In most of the ministries, the changing of the guard ceremony was perfunctory. Only in one case was the ceremony warm and even emotional – that of the Culture and Sports Ministry, between Chili Tropper (National Unity Party) and Miki Zohar (Likud). But as someone said about Tropper: “How can one fail to feel respect and warmth toward a man who donated a kidney to an absolute stranger?”

An ugly phenomenon in the changing of the guards has been the explicit and offensive act of several incoming Likud ministers declaring immediately upon taking up their new posts that they would throw out the policies introduced by their predecessors. In the case of Miri Regev, she declared that she would oust the color purple from all posters and pictures related to the ministry, which her predecessor Merav Michaeli had introduced.

Regev also declared that she would oust various reforms introduced to encourage the use of public transportation, such as separate lanes for the use of buses, taxis and private cars with at least four passengers in them.

The new Education Minister Yoav Kisch (Likud), from whom I expected civilized behavior, declared that he would cut short the reform of the outgoing minister – Yifat Shasha-Biton (National Unity Party) – in the sphere of the humanities (history, literature, bible and civic studies). According to the reform, matriculation exams in these subjects would no longer be obligatory (though they still exist for anyone interested) and instead of the external exams, high-school students would prepare written research papers. The subjects were to remain part of the curriculum. 

However, Kisch (and other critics of the idea from the Likud and haredi MKs) claimed that the four subjects (including Torah studies) had been taken out of the curriculum altogether, which is an absolute lie. When Shasha-Biton protested and asked Kisch to listen to what she had to say on the subject, he brushed her off impolitely, saying “we listened to you for a year and a half.” Whether or not Shasha-Biton’s reform is a positive development, it is not clear what will happen with this year’s 11th and 12th high-school students to whom the reform still applies. 

However, the most outrageous reversal of policy was Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s decision to cancel the taxes on soft drinks with sugar, and disposable eating utensils, which were intended to help confront the problems of overweight and diabetes, and environmental pollution, but which the haredim considered a direct attack on them by former finance minister Avigdor Liberman.

Now that the overture is over – let’s move on to the show itself.

The writer worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her most recent book, Israel’s Knesset Members – A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job, was published by Routledge.