Two months on from Israel’s 1 November elections, Benjamin Netanyahu has completed the formation of his sixth government. The process officially called “coalition negotiations” could be seen as a witty satire about the nature of politics: corruption, crime, cynicism, racism, crookedness and greed.
Unfortunately, it’s not a satirical play. These are the elements that make up the new Israeli government, the one in charge not only of quality of life but life itself for all Israel’s citizens – Jews and Arabs – as well as the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Here the witty satire turns into a nightmarish drama. It is not that previous governments were made up of righteous and benevolent members. Yet this one is different in many respects.
Those who claim that the new government – an explosive combination of ultra-Orthodoxy and the most radical and racist right wing – represents the real face of Israel 2022 are only partly right. If the outgoing “government for change” was an artificial creation of right, left and centre (whatever those terms still mean) alongside the Palestinian party Raam, it was also in fact a reflection of the fragmented Israeli society. The new one is a purely political construct with no representation of Israel’s diversity.
It is a twisted combination of the worst of Poland’s clerical ultra-conservative government, which is on a mission to undermine its own judicial system, and a touch of Donald Trump’s homophobic, xenophobic, racist, far-right America, with scary overtones of Germany in the 1930s thrown in for good measure.
Political analysts estimate the new government will last about two years.
Let us have a look at “who’s who” in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government. The new/old incoming prime minister himself has been indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust as of May 2022. He denied the charges and his criminal trial is still continuing. The only motivation of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is his personal need to cling to power in order to avoid prison by cancelling, or at least deferring, his trial. He needs this coalition to allow him to impose the legislation required to achieve that goal.
The anti-Netanyahu coalition led by outgoing prime minister Yair Lapid and his defence minister, Benny Gantz, refuses to help him, making a unity government impossible. That leaves him only the “Bibi block”, the far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties that defy democracy and despise the rule of law. Racism and discrimination have always been part of the system. Few tried to fight them; many more just tried to keep it hidden with a grain of shame. Now it is all out in the open, embedded into coalition agreements and legalised.
Netanyahu makes his partners’ life easy. The days of “King Bibi” on the cover of Time magazine are long gone. He is now more the pauper than the prince, a weakened and needy version of the old King Bibi, easy to give in to pressure and even political extortion. He gave his coalition partners everything they asked for and more. All he wants in return is their votes in a series of new laws that will secure his freedom. Since they share the same desire to weaken the judicial system, the trade-off is easy.
Yet, in this seemingly ideologically homogenous coalition, Netanyahu finds himself in a situation he has been carefully avoiding: for the first time, he finds himself not only outsmarted by media-savvy coalition partners, but also representing the most left-wing elements of the government he heads.
The days of ‘King Bibi’ on the cover of Time magazine are long gone. He is now more the pauper than the prince, a weakened and needy version, easy to give in to pressure and even political extortion
Over his 15 years in office, Netanyahu was often cautious enough or cowardly enough to include a partner oriented towards the “left”, somebody to use as a pretext for not implementing all the overtly right-wing policy he promised. That could be Ehud Barak or Benny Gantz as his defence minister, or Tzipi Livni as his minister of justice. The casting allowed him to say whenever necessary to his allies and voters – “I wish I could, they wouldn’t let me” – and remain the unbeatable leader of the right and far right.
Not any more. The repercussions are immediate. Surrounded by far-right politicians, having transferred control over security and occupation to racists and Jewish supremacists, he is now the “leftist” in his own government.
When probed by Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya TV on far-right politicians taking control of the occupied West Bank, he was quick to deny and declare: “All decisions will be made by me.” Hours after the interview, he published a clarification appeasing Bezalel Smotrich, the incoming finance minister from the far-right Religious Zionism party, the man given a special status in the defence ministry that allows him to control civil administration in the West Bank.
In an early December interview to controversial Canadian right-wing commentator Jordan Peterson, Netanyahu defined the ultra-Orthodox community as an economic burden, despite doubling their allowances in recent coalition agreements. He certainly brings a new meaning to the term “bilingual” – making fluently opposing statements in Hebrew and English. The new government is double faced: a moderate face for export, and a radical-racist domestic face.
Lapid has noted this contradiction, describing Netanyahu as a “minor partner in his own coalition”. He is not totally wrong. In a poll published by Kan Public Radio on Sunday, 42 percent of respondents – 30 percent of which voted for “Bibi’s block” – believe that the situation in Israel will worsen with this government. Only 29 percent believe the situation will improve. Many in Israel sense it is not just a change of governments, but rather a regime change. With ministries torn apart, new ministerial titles made up and the most racist ever coalition agreements signed, chaos prevails.
No justice, no peace
The most important position personally for Netanyahu to appoint is that of justice minister, and it is no coincidence that role goes to his confidant Yariv Levin.
Levin has for years been the most vocal critic of the judicial system and proponent of far-reaching judicial reforms. Over the years he has referred to the judicial system as “sick”, said the courts had “seized control” of parliament, and claimed Netanyahu’s indictment was no less than a coup d’etat. Certainly, he’s a convenient ally to oversee the justice system during Netanyahu’s trial.
The new government was born in legal sin. It took unprecedented speedy personal and retroactive legislation to make the necessary changes to allow its formation. The law named after Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and now minister of both interior and health, clears the way to allow him to take office despite his conviction over tax offences and a suspended prison sentence. The law passed despite reservations of the attorney general, herself under personal assault by the right wing, which is eager to see her resign and is threatening to fire her. Deri is Netanyahu’s most experienced ally in this coalition.
Shas leader Aryeh Deri in the Knesset, 29 December 2022 (Reuters)
It took another speedy piece of legislation to allow Smotrich to simultaneously serve as finance minister and within the defence ministry to oversee the West Bank. To both positions, this Jewish supremacist brings the same ideology. As future finance minister, he said his economic strategy would be infused with religious beliefs, as the Hebrew Bible taught that obeying God brought prosperity.
The same strategy will be applied when dealing with Palestinians in the West Bank. During the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, Smotrich was arrested for allegedly trying to light a fire on a major Israeli highway to protest against the pullout. He was arrested and detained by the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, for three weeks. After two years in office, Deri will replace him as finance minister.
Confused? Appalled? It is getting worse. The new national security minister is Itamar Ben-Gvir, a dangerous far-right racist extremist who has faced dozens of charges of hate speech against Palestinians and been convicted of criminal offenses. The very title “national security minister” he demanded is custom made for him, and a new tailored law allows this agent of chaos far more authority over police officers than ever before in the history of the state.
According to the new coalition agreement, he is in fact the new chief of police, a force now subordinated to a politician. His new ministry will also control the border police force in the West Bank, which previously answered to the military. Good luck to both Jews and Palestinians. The new defence minister, Likud’s Yoav Gallant, gets about one third of the previous portfolio, the rest is divided between Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.
Until few years ago, Ben-Gvir’s ministry was simply the Ministry of Police. Then the name changed to Ministry of Public Security. Ben-Gvir demanded it be changed again, to become the national security ministry, and Netanyahu agreed. Many positions in the new government carry the prefix “Jewish” or “national”. For instance, “Jewish identity”, “Jewish legacy”, “national missions”, “Jewish heritage”, etcetera. The message of Jewish supremacy is loud and clear, but so is the sense of insecurity that needs to be covered up by new terminology.
Thus, we get a far-right activist from the illegal Jewish settlement in Hebron, Orit Strook, as the first ever minister of national missions, whatever that means. Yitzhak Wasserlauf from Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party becomes minister of national resilience. Avi Maoz, a blatant homophobe and racist from the Noam faction, is a deputy minister in the prime minister’s office in charge of a new unit, the national Jewish identity department.
On top of it, Maoz – known for his offensive comments against members of the LGBTQ community, women and all progressive agenda – gets control over a unit in the education ministry that authorizes meetings between schools and NGOs. To appease Deri, Shas too will get another minister within the education ministry, with yet-unclear authority. For obvious reasons, the now dismembered education ministry was not much sought after and almost forced upon Yoav Kish, a first-time minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Both hostage and captor
Likud MPs that felt so victorious in November with their 32 seats and total dedication to their leader turned in December into pictures of bitter resentment and disappointment. They began to refer to Netanyahu’s coalition agreements as a “liquidation sale”: liquidation of portfolios, power and even dignity, anything to attract his coalition partners. To keep dissatisfied Likudniks locked in with no emergency exit, Netanyahu was quick to pass a law that requires at least one-third of Likud to leave the party if a new faction is to be started. If Netanyahu himself is the hostage of his partners in the new government, Likud’s unhappy MPs are now his captives, for better or for worse. It’s a government based on balance of horror and on total lack of trust between partners.
The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party has years of experience dealing with Netanyahu. Its coalition agreement with him looks more like a legal contract, with 205 clauses securing its community’s particular demands only. It says a lot that US Ambassador Thomas Nides has referred to UTJ as the moderate partner in this government, one Americans can cooperate with.
What do Israelis get out of this Likud-UTJ partnership? A housing minister, Yitzhak Goldknopf, who claimed on camera he does not know if Israel actually has a housing crisis. Any Israeli can tell you that house prices rocketed 20 percent this year and it takes an average of 220 salaries to buy an apartment. However, Goldknopf, unlike the poor and modest ultra-Orthodox community he represents, is not an average Israeli, but a prosperous businessman and real estate dealer, owner of several apartments and one building.
Incoming housing minister Yitzhak Goldknopf in the Knesset, 29 December 2022 (Reuters)
Amir Ohana’s nomination as speaker of parliament, the Knesset, is a carefully premeditated choice. Ohana, who was Israel’s first openly gay minister and is married to his partner and a father of two children, is to send a reassuring message both to liberal Israelis and the international community, who are appalled by the overt discrimination of the LGBTQ community by members of the new government.
The Knesset speaker does not only run parliament, but more importantly now represents it overseas and fills in for the president. Knesset speakers and their spouses get to be buried alongside presidents and prime ministers in the state burial grounds. Perhaps he had this in mind while keeping silent when all the discriminatory clauses in the coalition agreement caused public uproar. It paid off.
Elsewhere, Ron Dermer, former ambassador to the US and key player in the Abraham Accords normalization deals with Arab countries, becomes minister of strategic affairs. Netanyahu sees him as his potential heir. For political domestic reasons he could not make him foreign minister, so he found a detour. Dermer will play a key role in his relations with US administration. Though not a member of parliament, he will be member of the security cabinet.
On the world index of the most religious countries, Israel is now number two, right after Saudi Arabia and before Iran
One appointment outside of the government deserves special attention. Netanyahu appointed Tzachi Hanegbi, a veteran Likud lawmaker, as head of the national security council. In an interview on Channel 12 last month, Hanegbi said he believed Netanyahu would order a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities if the US administration failed to reach a new nuclear deal with Tehran. At the time, he insisted it was his “assessment only”. In his new position that assessment looks more significant by the day.
Israelis looking for solace see Netanyahu’s aspiration to reach a normalisation agreement with Saudi Arabia, as he did with UAE and Bahrain in 2020, as a sign of restraint and moderation. Political sources in Israel claim far-right elements in the government promised not to stand in the way of his efforts and would suspend annexation plans in the West Bank in exchange for that normalisation. Riyadh has previously conditioned normalisation with Israel on a Palestinian state.
Newly formed, the Israeli government is already making headlines and breaking records. The previous government was 47th in the world when it came to representation of women. Now, with just four female ministers out of 32, Israel is 140th. On the other hand, on the world index of the most religious countries, Israel is now number two, right after Saudi Arabia and before Iran.
The sole source of consolation now is the very fact that Netanyahu is never true to his promises or signed agreements. Let us hope that now much-cherished characteristic survives the regime change.
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