Israel’s 37th government, led by Binyamin Netanyahu, who has returned for a third term as premier after a year and a half in the opposition, has begun advancing its agenda.
In power now less than a month, it has begun enacting its multi-topic controversial – some would say radical – agenda. It has started with several proposed judicial policy changes that will significantly alter the balance between the courts and government by weakening Israel’s thus far independent judicial system in several ways, from making judges political appointees to weakening the courts’ authority to challenge the legality of questionable laws passed by the government.
Equally far-reaching policy changes are planned for security, education, West Bank strategy and more.
To what degree does the change in government represent the will of the people?
On the one hand, the present government has a clear majority. It holds 64 out of 120 Knesset seats won in a fair and free election. While its political agenda was not part of an organized pre-election platform, none of the proposed changes should come as a surprise as its stances were well known.
For decades now, the Israeli public has been divided equally between Right and Center/Left. During the pre-election period, parties from the center and Left, devoted a lot of energy to competing with one another, rather than simply uniting forces against Netanyahu’s team. This was epitomized by (Left) Labor leader Merav Michaeli’s refusal to join forces with the more left-wing Meretz. As a result, Meretz failed by a small number of votes to obtain the minimum number of votes necessary to cross the electoral threshold, and four potential Knesset seats for the Left and Center were lost. This misstep was compounded by the behavior of Gantz’s Blue and White party and Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which, although having overlapping policy views, likewise competed with each other. Apart from being counterproductive, this internecine infighting was also sadly out of place, as these same parties and people had all worked harmoniously together in the previous government. As Israeli governments have always been coalition based, by using this strategy the Left and Center were merely competing with other parties they would have had to work together with anyway, had their side won. The added benefit for any party that managed to gain a couple more Knesset seats at the expense of a possible coalition partner would not have significantly changed the composition of the future government while losing outright to the other side has had a drastic effect.
One can surmise that egos and insignificant differences played too dominant a role. Here, we see that the arrogant driving force of hubris undermined and overwhelmed the humility necessary for cooperation.
Netanyahu brilliantly adopted the opposite strategy. Rather than wait for the election results before forming a coalition, he pursued a coalition approach as part of his election strategy even though the political disparities among the present coalition partners are greater than those among the parties on the other side. Nevertheless, they all agreed before the election to join forces under Netanyahu. Netanyahu simply played his cards better. In my view, his election victory was the result of a more effective campaign, rather than an ideological shift in party support.
To what extent do the proposed platforms reflect a change in the nation’s perspective?
Public and political opposition to the policy agenda has already been wide-ranging, furious, and even fearful. One concern is that checks and balances on government actions will eventually be reduced to a point that will allow the coalition to enact unfit policies. There is also fear that if the courts are sufficiently weakened and politicized, Israel’s currently high international judicial standing will be compromised. Another concern is that this government will promote Haredi interests both by imposing additional religious proscriptions on the secular and traditional Jews along with the non-Jewish population and by further subsidizing Haredi families and institutions at the expense of the already over-taxed working public.
In terms of public opposition to these plans, the 80,000 people who demonstrated in Tel Aviv on a cold and rainy Saturday night were supported by parallel protests in Jerusalem, Haifa and elsewhere. The extent and vehemence of the protests exceeded what would normally be expected of public and political protests. Furthermore, former high-ranking political leaders from both Left (Ehud Barak) and Right (Tzippi Livni and Dan Meridor,) have re-emerged from the shadows to protest vociferously. On the judicial front, both present and former Supreme Court presidents and numerous judges, who typically do not express their opinions publicly, have conveyed their deep concern over the implications of the proposed legislation, while eight deans of law schools at Israeli universities and colleges across the country have published an open letter deploring the planned changes. They wrote: “The extreme change in the constitutional structure that the new government wants to implement would remove important checks and balances on the government and Knesset, which are necessary and in place for every democratic country acting in accordance with the principle of separation of powers.” We may surmise that the opposition to the proposed judicial changes is genuine and authentic.
There is also a nagging concern that the proposed judicial legislation is not motivated solely by purportedly righteous ideology, but also by self-interest: a weakened judiciary will be less able to prosecute PM Netanyahu effectively in his forthcoming trials. Moreover, government appointed ministers such as Deri and Katz, who have already been convicted of illegal shenanigans, will be less likely to be re-prosecuted, even if they break the law again.
For their part the new cabinet ministers have steadfastly downplayed the protests. One has countered with the simple argument that winning the election gives them a mandate to legislate change. Justice Minister Yariv Levin asserted that judicial activism in the past has destroyed public trust in the legal system and made it impossible for governments to rule effectively. Blanket statements like this, particularly from a justice minister, utterly de-legitimize current protest rather than condoning and refuting it. The bottom line is that none of the opposition’s objections appear to be taken seriously, nor do they appear to be giving government policymakers cause for second thoughts. The extreme degree to which opposition arguments are being pooh-poohed and invalidated can be seen as an expression of hubris, excessive self-confidence, and a conviction that only one’s own beliefs are valid.
It is unfortunate that a confluence of events has led to the formation of a government that is more a hodgepodge of self-interest and radical ideology than a representation of the public consensus. In terms of political views, Netanyahu is closer to Ganz, Lapid, Lieberman and even Michaeli than he is to his present coalition partners. A government formed of Likud and the Center and Left-wing parties would better represent the country’s political preferences. The new government platforms are a consequence of the views of the winners rather than a shift in the public consensus.
Why then did a unity government of this kind not emerge? The answer is that there was an unbridgeable impasse which has repeated itself in the last few elections. Every one of the Center and Left-wing political leaders rejected leadership by Netanyahu, whom they deemed untrustworthy, and they all adamantly refused to serve in a government of which he would be prime minister. Netanyahu, for his part, was equally determined to lead no matter what, even if this meant heading a non-consensual government motivated by radical ideologists and primarily self-interested parties.
Protest alone, however vigorous, is unlikely to weaken the resolve of the new government, as its ministers have clearly stated that they do not intend to be swayed by opposition. As we can see from countries like Iran, protests alone, even when extensive, rarely lead to change in government policy.
In my view, if members of the Knesset opposition are to have any chance of modifying government policy rather than merely conveying indignation, they must instead look inward and analyze why they lost the election. Hopefully they will conclude that they must now change their strategy and direct their energies differently. Above all, they should consider moving towards a cooperative strategy, both by deflating their egos and by minimizing their political differences. This is the approach which sustained the previous government until some right wing politicians resigned from and deserted the government. In addition, as every vestige of support is essential, they should stop dithering and actively reach out to those moderate Arab Israeli leaders who support the Israeli political process.
The present government configuration is an anomaly that is profoundly upsetting to at least half the Israeli population. Along with the resolute public protest which is likely to continue, the only possibly effective way to thwart government progress is to also take coordinated political action by uniting the opposition under a single leader and a shared banner.