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Managing his new government will be Netanyahu’s greatest political challenge

Jan 3, 2023 | Tzvi Fleischer

Israel's 37th Government, sworn in on Dec. 29.
Israel's 37th Government, sworn in on Dec. 29.

An edited version of this article was published in the Australian on Dec. 24, 2022. 

 

Even the harshest detractors of long-serving Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu admit that he is a master of the complex coalition politics that are always necessary to form, and then maintain in power, any Israeli government. However, the new government he announced on Dec. 21, uniting his own Likud with a coalition of far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties, will test his political skills to the fullest.

Under Israel’s pure proportional representation system, no party has ever managed to gain a majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats. All governments are coalitions of often-disputatious parties, whose demands must constantly be managed. Yet Netanyahu’s record of doing so is as good as anyone’s in recent decades – which is one reason he has been so politically successful.

Yet this new coalition will likely be harder to manage than any of the five he has led previously, for a number of reasons.

This government’s mandate is narrow. The Israeli right won a bare majority of the popular vote –  driven in part by voter weariness over five inconclusive elections since 2019, and by a wave of Palestinian terrorism this year, as well as fear prompted by the unprecedented violence by Arab residents against their Jewish neighbours in mixed Israeli towns during the war with Hamas in May 2021.

Also, in all previous coalitions, Netanyahu has tried to include at least one party to his left, as well as parties on his right, positioning himself as the government’s moderate centre. This time around he was not able to do this because all centre and left-wing parties reject serving with him after he was indicted for corruption charges.

In addition, more than in the past, some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners have a record as political arsonists, prone to attention-grabbing stunts and rabble-rousing rhetoric. The worst of these is Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the Jewish Power party, and the new Public Security Minister. A former disciple of the banned racist extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, he has a history of deliberately provoking tensions at hot spots and also of run-ins with the law. Yet he is now in charge of the police.

Also potentially problematic, though not quite in the same category as Ben-Gvir, is Religious Zionism party head Bezalel Smotrich, who, under the coalition deal, will be Treasurer for the next two years. He has also been given a role in the Defence Department overseeing West Bank settlements. Smotrich has a radical right-wing nationalist agenda but, unlike Ben-Gvir, does have ministerial experience. He served as Transport Minister for 14 months, with reasonable success.

Netanyahu will have to tame the wilder impulses of individuals like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, making them act like responsible ministers, meaning avoiding public rhetoric that would damage the government’s credibility.

He will also have to put a dampener on some of their more extreme policy plans.

He cannot let Ben-Gvir change police rules of engagement with Palestinian terrorists or violent protestors to the point where it escalates or exacerbates that violence.

Similarly, he cannot allow Smotrich too much latitude with respect to West Bank settlements.

Claims that expansion of settlements is destroying hopes for a two-state resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians are often poorly-informed and demonstrably wrong, but Smotrich is not a two-state supporter. He can genuinely damage two-state hopes if he presses too far or too fast with plans to legalise small illegally-built outposts in remote parts of the West Bank. The two-state option is not currently on the table because the Palestinian leadership is unwilling to negotiate – nonetheless, it must be preserved for the future.

The same applies to judicial reform. There is a case for such reforms in Israel – which possesses arguably one of the most powerful supreme courts among any Western democracy. However, the proposal for judicial reforms put forward by Smotrich goes too far in tilting the balance of power away from the judiciary toward the legislature. Netanyahu will need to force a pullback toward a more modest reform.

Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox parties in the new coalition are demanding changes to the religious status quo in Israel – including permanent draft exemptions for religious students, and dropping any requirement that secular subjects be taught in state-funded ultra-Orthodox schools – that will be deeply unpopular with most Israelis.

Netanyahu has reassured Israelis and supporters of Israel concerned about his new coalition partners that it will be his hand, not theirs, on the steering wheel of the new government.

Furthermore, contrary to his reputation and some of his rhetoric, Netanyahu has historically been a fairly cautious leader, both in terms of avoiding and minimising conflict with the Palestinians, and in terms of tampering with either Israel’s religious status quo or the checks and balances of Israeli democracy.  Also, despite verbal support for settlements, on the ground Netanyahu-led governments have generally quietly instituted more restraint on settlement growth than the Israeli governments that preceded his return to the top job in 2009.

So Netanyahu will likely want to keep a firm check on his coalition partners – the only question is, will he be able to? His reputation as a mastermind of coalition politics suggests he probably will, but this challenge is likely to be daunting and constant as long as the current government is in power.

Dr. Tzvi Fleischer is editor of the Australia/Israel Review, published by the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC).

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