New Government in Israel: Meet Reality

A new government begins its term with an advantage: It has enough votes to survive for a full term and implement its plans. But there is also a disadvantage: Very little good will from all those who did not vote for it.
December 29, 2022
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir react after sworn in at the Israeli parliament during a new government sworn in discussion at the Israeli parliament on December 29, 2022 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Consider the irony: The most conservative-religious coalition in Israel’s history is also the first one to make a gay couple eligible to be buried alongside the nation’s greats on Mount Herzl. Amir Ohana of the Likud party, the new Speaker of the Knesset, is married to a male spouse. As Speaker, he will receive a burial plot for both him and his spouse. We wish him a long life, after which he will make history. The flowers go to the ultra-Orthodox parties who made it possible.

A new government begins its march through Israel’s treacherous political waters. A new government begins its term with an advantage: It has enough votes to survive for a full term and implement its plans. But there is also a disadvantage: Very little good will from all those who did not vote for it. In fact, there is apprehension, there is tension, there is more than a grain of desperation, and there is readiness to push back against some of this government’s plans with full force.

Only time will tell which plans becomes actuality that merit a push back. Only time will tell if the opposition can truly master an effective push back.

But let’s begin with the basics. Two months ago, Israel went to the polls for a fifth time in less than four years, having failed to elect a mix of parties that could form a durable coalition. The fifth was a charm—64 seats were allocated to four parties who vowed to form a rightwing-religious coalition. These are Likud, with 32 seats, Religious Zionism with 14, Shas with 11, and United Torah Judaism with seven. One ruling party, three religious parties. It is a relatively coherent group, but also a group with very little room for maneuver. Every member is needed for every vote; every party is essential to the mix. No party has a viable substitute for the current coalition. Whether they like each other or not, they are stuck together. For how long depends mostly on their ability to govern and keep the group intact.

Do they like each other? Consider the following fact. Even though the elections were two months ago (a long time), even though the structure of the coalition was determined by the voters with no alternatives for anyone, and even though all members of the coalition vowed to join what ultimately became the new government, it took Prime Minister Netanyahu more than two months to complete the task.

There are two reasons for this. First, the other members of the coalition may like Netanyahu, or at least have respect for him, but they do not trust him. A long history of leading his partners astray left its mark on all potential allies. As a result, they want everything in cash, upfront. Promises and commitments no longer work for the PM. Second, with a decisive victory after four years of instability came a great appetite. The leaders of the coalition see an opportunity to make great things in a short time, to change Israel’s course. They have no patience and show very little restraint in their quest to move fast, go big, get what they want.

Netanyahu, the man In charge, had to navigate a delicate course: He wanted this government to form and had no other government he could form; he wanted to advance some of the bold plans that his allies were pushing for; he also wanted to avoid overreaching, and make sure that the government will not be biting off more than it could possibly chew; and he is the one with the experience, the one who knows what could happen when a government acts hastily, without regard to social, political and international realities.

Add another layer of complication, an elephant in the room: Netanyahu is a man on trial, and is likely to remain on trial for many months, or years. One doesn’t have to be highly suspicious of his intentions and motivations to understand that such a situation must have some measure of influence on his calculations. Surely, he wants Israel to be a thriving country. Surely, he wants to keep Israel safe and leave a legacy of a great leader. And yet, the trial poses a risk of jail time. Not even a saint could carve a way forward without leaving some room for this fact to be factored in as he makes decisions.

Netanyahu’s first term as Prime Minister was in 1996. That’s a long time ago. Looking at the photo taken on the day that long-forgotten group was sworn in one realizes that only one of them survived: Netanyahu. You can easily find the photo, and see for yourself. Alongside the then young Netanyahu sits President Ezer Weitzman, long gone. Then there are the ministers, very few in comparison to the mammoth government that was sworn in last week. The less stable Israel’s governments become, they larger they are. Handing portfolios is no longer about wanting politicians to implement policies; it is about wanting politicians to have something to lose, to keep them loyal.

On the right side of the 1996 photo is Yuli Edelstein. Last week, Edelstein, former Health Minister, former Speaker, a man who seems to still entertain the idea of one day succeeding Netanyahu, was notified that he will get no ministry to manage. To his left in the photo is Tzahi Hanegbi. He did not even run, but will get an influential job as National Security Advisor. He is no longer a political player, but Netanyahu needs his sound advice, moderation and experience.

The list is long, and there’s no need for further detailed elaboration. Natan Sharansky is retired. Refael Eitan is dead. Moshe Katzav first became President, then was jailed for rape, then retired. Eli Yishai lost the battle for Shas and left. Benni Begin is retired. Dan Meridor is retired. Many members of the 1996 government became, with time, Netanyahu’s greatest critics. But he was shrewder, crueler, more determined and more charismatic than all of them. They perished, he stayed. As a young PM with older peers, he became an older PM (73 years old) with mostly younger peers. And these new peers, many of whom have little experience and even less patience to make their mark, are making Netanyahu’s life difficult.

Netanyahu learned some of his lessons the hard way—hard for him and hard for the citizens of this country. More than a quarter of a century ago, the then inexperienced new PM ordered the removal of a few inches of rock in Jerusalem, opening an exit from the Western Wall tunnels. This sparked bloody riots, forced Netanyahu to rush back to Israel from a visit to Europe, and precipitated a dramatic crisis. He thought he was making a bold yet small decision. The result was 17 dead Israeli soldiers and close to a hundred dead Palestinians. The result was also a weakened Netanyahu. A direct line can be drawn from his rush decision in the fall of 1996 to the Hebron Agreement he was forced to sign in January of 1997. One could argue that this agreement, opposed by some of Netanyahu’s rightwing allies, was the beginning of the end of his first short-lived government.

So Netanyahu knows that for a PM and a government, even small plans, presumably of little consequences, can produce dramatic results. And his partners have no small plans. They have only big ones—a blueprint for a revolutionary term of government. That’s why the opposition is so nervous and desperate.

Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to the press before a party meeting on November 28, 2022 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

The new Homeland Security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, plans to control the Border Police on his own. He intends to detach it from the main police force and use it to implement his ambitious plans to restore order in the Negev Desert. The new Finance Minister intends to legitimize and formally legalize distant outposts in the West Bank, a move that has the potential to open a rift with an already suspicious Biden administration. The new Justice Minister, Yariv Levin, plans to alter the way justices are elevated to the Supreme Court, and make it more political. Levin is one of Netanyahu’s most trusted allies. He managed the coalition negotiations for him and sat as the interim Speaker to pass the urgent laws that the coalition was committed to passing even before the government is sworn in.

Among these laws is one that makes Shas leader Aryeh Deri serve as a minister. Deri was tried, convicted and jailed in the nineties for bribery. He had to wait seven long years before rejoining the political arena as a full member. Then, last year, he was in trouble, again, for tax evasion. A plea bargain saved him from having to serve more jail time, but whether he could become a minister without having to wait until after the cooling period, again, was not clear. To make it clear a law was passed that makes it legal for him to be a minister. On January 5, the Supreme Court is slated to consider the legality of this new legal construction. An especially large group of 11 justices will hear the case.

Deri is a leader of an ultra-Orthodox party and the agenda of such parties for the coming term is also ambitious: They want more funds to keep their schools running, without having to submit to a curriculum mandated by the state. They want to make sure that further attempts to force their youngsters to join the IDF do not materialize. In fact, this is one of the meeting points of two agendas. Levin in Justice believes that the legal system is too powerful and uses its power to limit the government’s ability to implement its plans. The Haredi politicians agree. A law to absolve Haredi men from the draft was struck down by the court because it violated equality. The ultra-Orthodox would thus push any law that would make it impossible for the court to strike down a new draft law.

Aryeh Deri during a parliament session on November 28, 2022 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

The power of ultra-Orthodox legislators is one of this government’s weaknesses. Many voters who wanted the incoming coalition voted for it because of its promise to provide security, tame Arab violence and reign in the court. But these voters, some of which are secular or traditional or even moderate Orthodox, did not intend to hand the Haredi leaders a license to overhaul Israel’s culture. Thus, when last week it was suddenly revealed that the government plans to pass legislation that could potentially lead to discrimination against minorities, the outcry was loud.

In fact, this is a case worth examining in more detail, as it can be a prelude for many such plans.

The idea, still part of the coalition agreement, is to delete the part in the anti-discrimination law that makes it illegal to decline providing service to someone on religious grounds. Americans are familiar with this type of controversy, which not so long ago revolved around whether a bakery owned by a religious person must bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. But it is also about other things. For example, interviewed on the radio, Minister Orit Strock of the Religious Zionism party said that when the change is made, doctors could refuse to provide medical treatments that contravene their religious beliefs if there’s another doctor that could provide the same treatment.

This ignited a storm of resistance and condemnation—and some threat of action. One bank declared that it would not hand loans to institutions or businesses that discriminate on such basis. Legal offices declared that they will not represent such businesses. Municipalities, hospitals, universities, organizations, all expressed indignation and vowed action. Can the coalition still pass such legislation? Maybe. But what would be the price, and what would be the reaction, and what other plans could such controversy spoil? Netanyahu was quick to declare that no one is going to enact discrimination on his watch. Other speakers were sent to clarify the true intentions of the proposed change.

That was all too little, too late. The government hit a brick wall. It was facing its first reality check. The opposition scored a small victory. True, the jury is still out, the coalition agreement still declares an intention to alter the law, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if this idea is buried alongside many other such ideas. The dynamic is familiar to all careful observers of politics. In a democracy, a new government comes with many plans, and implements, if it’s lucky, just a few of them. There’s always a more urgent crisis to handle, there’s always this or that legal or bureaucratic obstacle, there’s public opinion and international pressure, as well as budgetary constraints. An experienced politician would not let such spoiled plans ruin his day. An experienced politician knows that plans are made to be reexamined and reconsidered based on circumstances. But a government with an impressive cadre of high-ranking inexperienced leaders could be challenged by the all-but-guaranteed frustration it will encounter.

Designated Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich reacts at the Israeli parliament during a new government sworn in discussion at the Israeli parliament on December 29, 2022 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Examples? The coalition agreement vows a change to the Law of Return. It vows such change will be quick. And change is possible, but quite far from guaranteed. The outcry over the discrimination clause proved that not all plans of all members of the coalition could pass a reality check.

Again, history could be a good teacher. More than a decade ago, Netanyahu shelved a proposed conversion law because of a call he received from Washington. Congresswoman Nita Lowey was on the line. She told him the law caused her to worry. “She is concerned,” the spokesperson explained, “that this bill would alienate Jews around the world and risk weakening the sense of unity within the Diaspora that is critical to Israel’s security.” Netanyahu knew that a worried Lowey was not good for Israel. A Democrat from New York, she was a member of a Conservative synagogue, but also a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and chair of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee.

The PM is wiser as a political survivor than all his partners, and he knows that the trick is to make a change as dramatic as one can without letting a dangerous genie of resistance out of a bottle. In 2011, he watched with horror as hundreds of thousands of Israelis marched in demand of social justice. Luckily for him, that movement, as charmingly young and photogenic as it was, did not have a clear agenda with which to force the hand of the government. And yet, Netanyahu remembers how such eruptions of protest and indignation can take a country by storm. Netanyahu knows that next time he might not be so lucky. Thus, he will try to convince his partners to prioritize and be careful—to do what they can without handing the opposition another easy victory.

This will not be easy for him to achieve because, as has already been said, his partners have a large appetite and they don’t trust him. When he tells them that they must be careful, they suspect that he doesn’t truly want to implement their agenda—not because of tactical reasons (let’s not wake the opposition) but because of strategic reasons (Netanyahu was never quite enthusiastic when proposals to tame the court came to the fore). Hence, he will preach moderation, and his partners will try to force his hand. He will deliberate and delay, while his partners will make political threats and push even harder.

What would be the result? Last week, the time for bold promises ended, and the time for responsibly managing a state with many challenges began. A mature opposition would take a “wait and see” approach before it panics. A mature coalition would wipe the slate of grand plans clean and act responsibly.

In short, we need all our politicians to be mature. Is this a naïve proposition or a realistic expectation?

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