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Israeli Democracy May Not Survive Netanyahu’s New Government

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:
Nechin, a contributor to Haaretz, is a New York-based Israeli independent writer

Less than two weeks in, it’s becoming apparent that Israel’s new government led by Benjamin Netanyahu is the most hardline extreme-right Israel has ever known. But even more disturbingly it is actively working to dismantle Israel’s fragile checks and balances and to give unprecedented powers to the executive and legislative branches.

In his inaugural speech, Netanyahu said, speaking to his opponents, that “losing in an election doesn’t spell the end of democracy.” But many fears that this government spells a threat to democracy and civil society.

On January 3, newly appointed Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a convicted terrorist-sympathizer who in the past incited against assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, visited Al Aqsa Mosque complex, an act security experts warned might spark a regional war.

A day later, Yariv Levin, the newly appointed Justice Minster, laid out his plan to reform the judicial system. The plan includes giving the Knesset—Israel’s legislative branch—the power to override court rulings with a simple majority of 61 lawmakers out of 120, including legislation struck down by the Supreme Court for constitutional reasons; to greater government power in appointing justices; and having ministers appoint their legal counsels and not from the Justice Ministry.

Levin’s plans could be labeled a constitutional crisis, but Israel does not have a constitution, and the separation between the legislative and executive is almost non-existent. For Israel’s liberal society, the Supreme Court is seen as the only institution that can curb governmental actions and legislation passed by a parliamentary majority.

The opposition is calling this plan a regime change designed to get Netanyahu out of his ongoing trial for bribery and corruption and to enable Arye Dery, the leader of the Orthodox party Shas, to be appointed a cabinet minister despite being convicted and sentenced to a suspended prison term.

If this plan succeeds, it will have a broader impact than just getting Netanyahu and Dery out of their political woes. An untethered right-wing, Orthodox government with a majority in parliament will be able to disqualify Arab parties from running, annex the West Bank without giving rights to Palestinians, give surplus budgets for preferred sectors, discriminate against the LGBT and other marginalized communities, crush state education, dismantle social services, and silence dissent.

It could spell an end to the religious status quo that has kept Israel in balance without a clear separation between church and state, like exists in the U.S. There has been a give and take between Jewish institutions and civil society: an Orthodox rabbinate that oversees Jewish life, shutdown of public life on Saturdays and funding for Yeshivas in exchange for the Orthodox leaders not intervening in everyday life, economy, the military, and culture.

Now that Orthodox parties have unprecedented power, they’re demanding more concessions from liberal society. The United Torah Party has secured extra funding for their communities, especially men who don’t work and don’t serve in the army. This is a measure that will increase the burden on working taxpayers. More so, Netanyahu gave power over schools to Avi Maoz, the head of the homophobic Noam party, who claimed that forms of ‘liberal religion’ are ‘darkness’ that must be expelled and whose party had a list of LGBTQ media workers.

The new government is shaping to be the biggest challenge to Israel’s civil society. It aims to alter the fragile balance of power that has kept Israel afloat, both nationally and internationally. The possibility of a full-scale annexation isn’t far-fetched. Given the right circumstances, like another Trump win in 2024, along with strengthening ties with the Gulf states against Iran, Israel might take over more and more areas in the West Bank and even return to Gaza, as some lawmakers are hoping, turning Israel into a pariah state.

Netanyahu has been trying to calm liberals, mostly abroad, but his words don’t seem to align with the members of coalition: He boasts that his coalition has a gay Speaker of the Knesset while homophobic, racist lawmakers and ministers in his coalition suggest doctors could refuse to treat gay patients and warn against intermarriage. He speaks about free market capitalism with Jordan Peterson while subsidizing Orthodox communities and the settlements project.

Netanyahu has effectively provided the most vitriolic elements in Israeli-Jewish society political immunity and ministries from where they can advance their extreme agendas. Beyond rolling back the policies of the previous short-lived government, they will exact revenge on the left, Arab citizens of Israel, and Palestinians.

The question now is can liberal Israelis respond?

Since the ebb of the Second Intifada and the failed Arab Spring, Israelis have been living with the belief they will never pay the price for the occupation: The separation wall, limited Israeli casualties in operations, normalization with Arab states through the Abraham Accords, a transformation of the Israeli market from quasi-socialist to American-style capitalism, made the occupation invisible, and Israel largely palatable to investors and tourists.

Under Netanyahu’s previous reign, many voices on the left were marginalized, attacked, and muzzled. In the November 2022 elections, Meretz, that party that is the bastion of liberal Israel failed to cross the threshold for the first time in its existence. The reason why so many young people and soldiers voted for the hard right isn’t just demographic. Twenty years of right-wing governments that stalled any chance for peace negotiations and sowed divisions within Israeli society resulted in a generation that grew up with little ability to articulate a different, hopeful vision for the future.

But while Israelis did vote for this coalition, polls show that so far the majority aren’t backing his agenda to weaken the judiciary. Even for the many who voted for him, the specter of this coalition has served as a rude awakening.

Israeli hi-tech executives penned an open letter warning Netanyahu that this government will have “devastating consequences for the economy.” More than 200 Israeli activists and human rights organizations sent a letter to U.S. Ambassador Thomas Nides of ” inciting genocide against the Palestinian people. “More than 50 municipal officials and 300 school principals said they would resist Maoz’s educational reforms. On Saturday, January 7, thousands took to the streets to protest the government. Organizers vowed to turn up the pressure on for the weeks and months to come.

This backlash comes as more voices are warning about the corrosive power of the new government, U.S. lawmakers who are slowly working to hold Israel accountable, and a U.N. resolution passed to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to give an opinion on the legal consequences of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

With the ascension of this unapologetic extreme-right government, it seems that the world is finally awakening to the fact that Israel isn’t the only democracy in the Middle East. Many Israelis are awakening to the fact that Netanyahu, who for three decades has been at the center of Israeli and world politics, isn’t the protector of Israel, but a threat to Israel’s fragile and tenuous democracy.

Updated, January 12: The piece was updated to reflect that Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the Al Aqsa Mosque complex

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