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Alex Lederman

The Coalition’s Ideological Homogeneity Was a Mirage

When Binyamin Netanyahu triumphantly came to power in the waning days of 2022, the sense among most analysts of Israeli politics was that he was poised to bring political stability. Netanyahu’s bloc had achieved Israel’s first decisive victory in five election cycles and won 64 Knesset seats out of 120, in contrast to the previous government’s precarious 61-MK majority. Also unlike its predecessor, this government was supposedly from one political camp—yamin maleh-maleh, “full, full right-wing.” 

Now, with the second Knesset session of this government’s term underway, the verdict on its cohesiveness has drastically shifted. Fault lines in the coalition abound. National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and his Otzma Yehudit party recently threatened to quit the government in protest of the government’s cautious response to last week’s Gaza escalation, and only just ended its boycott of government activity once it initiated Operation Shield and Arrow against Gaza militants. Questions remain about the extent to which Ben Gvir’s threats led Netanyahu to move forward with more extensive military action in the Strip. Simultaneously, Haredi leaders have issued their own ultimatum to the prime minister in order to pressure the coalition to pass legislation granting their community permanent exemption from the IDF draft. The recent right-wing “million-man” march, a show of force by Yariv Levin, Bezalel Smotrich, and other judicial overhaul advocates, was also a thinly veiled threat to Netanyahu given his freeze of the judicial legislation. 

The prime minister himself has never seemed weaker, caught between his partners’ demands and his personal interests of preventing more social upheaval and staying in power. It is clear now that proclamations of this government’s air-tight unity were overblown. Meaningful disagreements were always inevitable.

While all from one side of the political map, this government’s parties represent different constituencies with often converging yet far from identical goals. Shas and United Torah Judaism, for instance, are narrowly committed to Haredi sectoral interests. Their longstanding alliance with Netanyahu’s Likud is not based on shared values or vision. It is transactional: in exchange for perpetuating the Haredi draft exemption, the religion-and-state status quo, and policies that benefit Haredim economically, the Haredi parties support their partners on everything that does not affect or offend them. 

Netanyahu’s other key partners, Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism and Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit, have entirely different interests. They are far-right nationalist parties whose aspirations lie in exclusive Jewish sovereignty throughout the Land of Israel, as opposed to protecting and funding a cultural bubble. Ben Gvir in particular tries to portray himself as the most tough on terror and unafraid to use force against security threats, despite having scant military experience or national security expertise. Smotrich and Ben Gvir also have distinct modi operandi, the latter known for click-bait provocations and the former more strategic in advancing his long-term goals. But they are both status-quo disruptors who actively seek to transform Israel from a liberal democracy to a state that privileges Jews and is more explicitly religious. The Haredim are no liberal democrats, but they are more content with maintaining stability under the current framework and allowing demographic trends that favor them to play out. 

And then there’s Likud. Historically a liberal right-wing party, it garners support from Jews of various religious backgrounds and is a mainstream political movement. Though hawkish on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pro-settlement, it is often more sensitive to other concerns, like Israel’s economy, security needs, and international relations. This characterization applies to Netanyahu, who allowed suitcases of Qatari cash to enter Gaza in exchange for quiet, forwent annexation to normalize ties with the UAE, and has allowed right-wing West Bank priorities like building in E-1 and demolishing the bedouin hamlet of Khan al-Ahmar to remain frozen amid international pressure. Over the past few months, Netanyahu has sidelined his security cabinet to minimize the influence of far-right ministers in sensitive security decisions, instead relying on the defense establishment.

We’re also seeing stark divisions emerge within Likud. While David Bitan, Yuli Edelstein, Yoav Galant, and other figures who remain accountable to mainstream, liberal Israel are not willing to sacrifice the country’s security and social cohesion for the judicial overhaul, ideologues like Yariv Levin and culture-war provocateurs like Dudi Amsalem, May Golan, and Tally Gotliv certainly are. Netanyahu now finds himself at odds with both sides for initially catering to the extremes and then subsequently putting the brakes.

Given the myriad points of tension emerging within the coalition, it is clear that the judicial overhaul is not the sole culprit of its political woes. Yet we can see how over the past few months weakening judiciary went from unifying the coalition parties to sowing discord among them. Various elements within the coalition had different reasons for wanting to rein in the court. Smotrich and the pro-settlement ideologues seek to prevent the court from serving as a check on settlement construction. Along with Yariv Levin, for whom “reforming” the court has been a lifelong crusade, they desire a court entirely subservient to the Knesset majority. The Haredim, meanwhile, primarily seek to prevent court interference in their draft exemption, separate education system, and near-monopoly on religious affairs. As Anshel Pfeffer points out, they see Israel’s secular legal system as inherently illegitimate. In the government’s initial phase, their policy demands mirrored those of Smotrich and Ben Gvir in their shock factor, from banning electricity production on Shabbat to increasing gender segregation in public places. But once they saw that this approach was stoking unrest and fomenting secular resentment, they backed down and turned to the more urgent priority of a legislated draft exemption. The Haredim do not seek confrontation for confrontation’s sake.

The marriage of the provocative, bombastic far-right and the more cautious Haredim was destined to be uneasy. It was also inevitable that Smotrich and his ilk would grow frustrated with Netanyahu’s foot-dragging on hot-button West Bank issues and that Ben Gvir would chafe under the confines of Bibi’s relative pragmatism. While Netanyahu has apparently healed his rift with Ben Gvir and may likely find a way to shore up the Haredi parties’ support to pass the budget, if the overhaul remains frozen indefinitely, disgruntled far-right or Likud MKs could stick to their ideological guns and send the country to elections. This was never the monolithic government many claimed it was. Had it not committed to implementing changes to the political system that much of Israel sees as existentially dangerous, it might have had a better chance of delivering political stability. 

About the Author
Alex Lederman is the policy and communications associate at Israel Policy Forum.
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