Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government has already met one expectation: it will not be boring.
Consider what has transpired in the government’s first 12 days: National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir went up to the Temple Mount, triggering international condemnation and a special session to discuss the matter at the UN Security Council.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin unveiled his judicial reform, triggering outrage among many – including former Supreme Court justices Aharon Barak, Elyakim Rubinstein, Menachem Mazuz, Ayala Procaccia, and others – which served as a catalyst for a major protest in Tel Aviv.
Construction and Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf wrote a letter to Transportation Minister Miri Regev demanding a halt to railway maintenance work that took place last Shabbat, potentially triggering the first – but assuredly not the last – coalition crisis over matters of religion and state.
“We cannot put up with a continuation of this situation,” he wrote in a veiled threat to the coalition’s stability. “I ask for your urgent intervention in this matter.”
If all that happened in the government’s first 12 days, one can only imagine what will happen in its first 120.
Netanyahu needs to set the tone
While Netanyahu’s comments at Sunday’s cabinet meeting made clear that he supported Levin’s judicial reform, Ben-Gvir and Goldknopf only complicated matters for him: Ben-Gvir on the international scene, Goldknopf on the domestic political one.
To keep matters inside his government from spiraling out of control, Netanyahu needs to set the tone – and to do so quickly. The tone he needs to establish is that he is in charge, and that not every minister can do whatever they see fit. If they do, the government will not last.
Netanyahu’s need to make clear who is the boss also extends to his own party. Disgruntled MK David Amsalem – passed over by Netanyahu when he made ministerial appointments – is hinting at trouble inside the Likud if he doesn’t get what he wants, suggesting ridiculously on Friday that he was passed over for the job of justice minister and speaker of the Knesset because of his Mizrahi background.
This places Netanyahu in a difficult position. If he doesn’t bend to Amsalem, then this MK – not known as the most diplomatic of Israel’s parliamentarians – will make his life miserable. But if he caves in to Amsalem’s demands now, it will signal that all one needs to do to get anything from Netanyahu is to threaten him.
That already seems to be what Goldknopf has internalized.
The coalition agreement signed between UTJ and Likud includes purposely vague language on the status quo, saying that it “will be preserved in issues of religion and state according to what has been accepted for decades in Israel.”
Since railway maintenance similar to what took place on Shabbat has taken place for years, Goldknopf is testing the boundaries.
New Israeli gov't testing boundaries
When the prime minister was made aware that Goldknopf sent his letter to Regev, including the not-so-subtle threat to the coalition, he must have had a strong sense of deja vu: he has dealt with these issues as prime minister many times in the past.
In fact, Netanyahu has dealt with the specific issue of railway maintenance work on Shabbat. In 2017, United Torah Judaism threatened to bring down the government if infrastructure railway work on Shabbat went ahead as planned. This crisis was ultimately resolved when a compromise was reached whereby the work on Shabbat would be limited to emergency repairs.
Netanyahu needs to make clear early on in the life of this government that he will not capitulate to haredi demands. Because if he does, there will be no end to them. He must remember that just as he needs the haredi parties for his coalition, they also need him.
Goldknopf’s veiled threat to leave the coalition over this issue is hollow. After getting more from this government than any other in the state’s history, it will take a lot more to pry the haredim away from big budgets and the ability to keep their sons out of the army than railway work on Shabbat that has been taking place for years.
The early days of the government are when ground rules are set and patterns are formed. Netanyahu needs to stand up to Goldknopf now, or pay a heavy price later.