Is Israel’s antidemocratic government cracking up?
It is puzzling to witness a coalition government that enjoys a comfortable majority in parliament rushing through radical legislation with far-reaching implications for the future of the Israeli democratic system, or taking deliberate measures that inflame relations with the Palestinians, instead of taking time to consider the consequences of its actions before surging ahead.
A closer look reveals that Benjamin Netanyahu and his bunch of antidemocratic merry men and women are in a hurry for a number of reasons. To begin with, many of the leading figures in this government do not only represent ultra-right religious ideology, but are also inexperienced ministers who are behaving like children in a sweet shop who want to grab all the goodies at once. Second, many members of this coalition do not believe that it will last for a full term or even half a term, hence time is of the essence in their project to fundamentally change the balance of power between the different branches of government.
Third, there is very little trust, if any at all, between Prime Minister Netanyahu and some elements of his coalition, who suspect that he would sack them at the first opportunity. Fourth, the right in Israel has fallen for its own demagogic claims that the left is in control of all the centers of power, including the media and big businesses — no irony here — and with protests gathering momentum they would rather continue to create facts on the ground even if it hastens the fall of the government. And, lastly, they fear that international pressure will become too intense and that others — especially Netanyahu — will buckle and “go soft.”
To less trained ears, Netanyahu, at least in terms of content if not style, does not sound very different from the more far-right partners within his Likud party or from the Religious Zionism party. However, there is a marked difference between them and it is already causing some cracks to show in this coalition, which is more about disruption and chaos than reform. These cracks might lead to a serious crisis and even the collapse of the government long before the next general election.
While for Netanyahu, especially at this late stage of his life, populist rhetoric is more of a means to remain in power than a genuine ideological stance, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and their supporters like to follow their rhetoric to the letter, come rain or shine. Moreover, unlike the motives of his more ideological friends, for Netanyahu, his planned judicial reform — or judicial coup, to be accurate — is a mixture of political expediency, which would like to see more power handed to the executive branch, and the sheer opportunism of weakening the Supreme Court and the justice system more generally in the hope of disrupting and derailing his ongoing corruption trial.
Their inexperience in dealing with affairs of state, and ignorance of the likely impact of their policies on relations with significant elements of the international community, leaves a significant number of those within the government dangerously unfazed by the negative reactions from abroad to both their proposed overhaul of the judiciary and the deterioration of the situation in the occupied West Bank in the wake of several aggressive interventions.
When a less than thoughtful minister, Amichai Chikli, rebuffs US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides for his firm request that Netanyahu “pump the brakes” on weakening the judicial system, telling him to “mind his own business,” he unnerves the more pragmatic elements in government. Chikli is flexing his muscles to impress his domestic supporters, but conveniently forgets that, like it or loathe it, Israel is indeed America’s business, not least because the US assists it with $3.8 billion a year, provides it with some of the most sophisticated weaponry available, shares important intelligence with it, helps with containing the Iranian threat, and is the country’s biggest trading partner.
Hence, it makes very good sense to listen not only to Nides, but also to President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who have already warned Israel against going down this route, as has President Emmanuel Macron of France and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk. Netanyahu, for all his faults, understands the danger of falling out with the international community.
May the people confine this government of Netanyahu’s to a very short chapter in the history books.
The number of times Netanyahu has had to apologize for or retract irresponsible outbursts by the ultra-right members of his coalition has become a source of embarrassment and distraction. For example, following a terrorist attack outside a synagogue in Jerusalem in January, National Security Minister Ben-Gvir, without any discussion in the security Cabinet, ordered police to prepare for “Operation Defensive Shield 2,” referring to one of the largest military operations carried out in the West Bank during the Second Intifada, which resulted in hundreds of people killed, the vast majority of them Palestinians. This idea was immediately rejected by the prime minister and defense minister, but the damage had been done.
When Ben-Gvir lives up to his farcical self, he comes up with wheezes such as ordering the closure of the bakeries where Palestinian prisoners make their own pitta bread or limiting prisoners’ showers to four minutes. He deals with the insignificant to garner headlines, but by doing so unsettles a fragile calm in these prisons and fuels anger among Palestinians.
The relatively responsible elements in government — and regrettably there are very few — understand that upsetting the progressive forces in Israel, who happen to contribute most to its economy and security, and seeking to inflame the already tense and deteriorating relations with the Palestinians, in the process falling out with the international community, does not serve Israel, even if it might help Netanyahu stay in power and eventually get his trial abandoned.
Cynics would argue that this is all part of Netanyahu’s ploy to lure into his government, should he ultimately walk free, the more centrist parties that have vowed not to sit in government with a defendant in a corruption trial. The argument goes that, by forming a coalition with Israel’s most extreme antidemocratic, racist, misogynistic, homophobic warmongers, he is using them as a stick to beat those who refuse to share power with him.
Netanyahu might remain a cynic to the very last, but no one should fall for his ruses. May the people confine this government of his to a very short chapter in the history books, and resist it by all legal avenues open to them.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg