Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images

Israel lurches right with formation of new government

Analysis: Benjamin Netanyahu’s government will maintain status quo abroad, push right-wing entrenchment at home

Despite his resounding victory at the polls in March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took 42 days — the maximum allowed by law — to form his fourth government. Things got complicated in the last minute: Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned from his post as foreign minister earlier this week, decided not to join the government, forcing Netanyahu to settle for the narrowest possible coalition, consisting of 61 legislators out of the Knesset’s 120, and to pay a higher-than-anticipated price for his coalition partners.

The biggest winner of the negotiations was the right-wing Jewish Home party, which represents the interests of the settler movement. Its leader, Naftali Bennett, will be Israel’s new minister for education, and his deputy, Ayelet Shaked, will lead the Justice Ministry — a powerful position, which also heads the government’s committee for legislation, the forum where the coalition decides which bills to shelve and which to try to pass. The Jewish Home will also receive the deputy position in the Ministry of Defense, which oversees affairs in the West Bank. 

This will be the most right-wing coalition in Israeli history. Not only is the government composed of conservative parties, but also those parties have become more hard-line than ever before. All of Likud’s senior leadership, starting with Netanyahu, is on record against the idea of a sovereign Palestinian state. To the right of Likud is the empowered Jewish Home party, with fewer legislators (eight, as opposed to 12 in the previous Knesset) but with Netanyahu completely dependent on every single one of them. The Jewish Home’s influence is likely to go beyond the Cabinet positions Bennett was able to secure.

After serving two years in the opposition, the two ultra-Orthodox parties are re-entering government with a vengeance. The coalition agreement signed by United Torah Judaism and Shas with Netanyahu cancels all legislative achievements by the secular Yesh Atid party in the previous government, from relaxing certain conversion laws to drafting some Orthodox into the Israeli military. (The ultra-Orthodox are exempt from military service and have full control over certain aspects of Jewish life. Both issues continue to be a major source of contention within the Israel body politic.) In return, Netanyahu will get his most trusted allies — two parties that will never break from the government over issues of war and peace, the settlements or the economy.

The relatively centrist element in the government will be the new Kulanu party, headed by former Likud minister Moshe Kachlon. Prominent members of Kulanu include Yoav Galant (the Israel Defense Forces southern command chief during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008 and 2009) and Michael Oren (a former ambassador to the U.S.). While Kachlon, Galant and Oren do not rule out the idea of a Palestinian state, they blame the Palestinians for prolonging the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza and are in no rush to change the status quo. Kachlon, who will become Israel’s new finance minister, is especially vague on the issue of the occupation; he is expected to focus entirely on the economy and probably will not confront the settlers, since he’ll likely need their support in his effort to bring down housing prices and reform the country’s banking system.

Constituencies hoping to see a change in policy toward the Palestinians are likely to be disappointed. Netanyahu and his partners can be expected to maintain and even deepen the trends in the West Bank — namely, more settlements and land appropriation. Israel will continue to depend on Palestinian security coordination while confronting the Palestinian Authority in the international arena. Almost nobody in Israel, particularly the country’s security establishment, wants to see the Palestinian Authority collapse, but there appears to be little willingness to grant Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas any political favors either.  

As strange as it may seem, the dynamic between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is not entirely different, with many in the Israeli government now viewing Hamas rule in the territory as an unavoidable political reality. Some members of the security establishment even see some advantages to this state of affairs, most notably that it keeps Palestinians divided between Gaza and West Bank leaderships while having a sovereign power in Hamas to act as a bulwark against more radical Sunni groups that might want to create a foothold in historic Palestine.

For these reasons, none of the more radical ideas that are often brought up by right-wing populists in Israel, such as toppling Hamas in Gaza or annexing the 60 percent of the West Bank currently administrated by Israel (as opposed to the Palestinian Authority), are likely to materialize under the new government. But concessions aren’t likely either, especially given the veto power of the settler parties in the new government; it would take the exit of only two of their Knesset members to bring down the entire coalition.

One of the first things the new government is likely to do is consider Israel’s options on the Iranian nuclear program, especially if negotiators for Iran and the six world powers in talks finalize an agreement by their June 30 deadline. This is perhaps the only issue where Netanyahu might find some support from the opposition, especially in the ranks of the Labor Party, which includes some hawkish voices on Iran (the party’s candidate for defense minister in the last election, retired Gen. Amos Yadlin, advocated for a military strike against Iran in the past.) However, the window of opportunity for military action is likely closing, if it hasn’t shut already. Despite Netanyahu’s distaste for the White House’s negotiating posture on the Iranian nuclear program, risking an outright attack in spite of a possible agreement would be a massive gamble.

With Iran partly out of hand and little apparent desire to change the status quo on the occupation, much of the political energy of Netanyahu’s fourth government is likely be turned inward, to what some Israeli right-wingers see as the enemy within — peace groups, human rights activists, some elements in the media, the Supreme Court and Palestinians citizens. Already last week, Yinon Magal, a new legislator for Jewish Home, demanded that the government’s attorney file treason charges against Alon Liel, a former chief of staff in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after his lobbying for international recognition of Palestinian statehood. A probe against Liel is unlikely, but the letter and the support for it on the right suggest where things could be headed.

Among other ideas floated by right-wing legislators during coalition-building negotiations were a law that would subject grants by other governments to human rights organizations to approval by the Ministry of Defense and the Knesset’s Committee for Security and Foreign Relations; a structural change that would give the Knesset the final word in the committee that nominates Supreme Court justices; several versions of the nation-state law, which seeks to elevate “the Jewish nature of the state” over its democratic principles; a bill that would allow the government to confiscate Palestinian private land for settlement construction (aimed to stop the torrent of lawsuits by landowners whose property was already built on); and a bill that would allow expatriates to vote in elections (aiming to decrease Palestinian representation in the Knesset, which has for some time been on the rise.) Some of these ideas were raised in the past, but they now have a better chance of passing, given the nature of the new government.

If Netanyahu is able to last more than two years in power with the new government, he will break the record held by Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion for consecutive years in office. There is a generation of Israelis who spent most of their adult lives with Netanyahu at the helm. And while he is certainly a product of the current era of Israeli politics that is both right-leaning and status quo oriented, Netanyahu’s footprint on Israeli political culture — with its internal culture war and confrontational attitude toward both friend and foe in the world — is likely to be felt for a long time.

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