|Tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in recent weeks to show their opposition to the formation of Israel’s most right-wing government.
- The new coalition government, led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is made up of six parties: right-wing Likud, far-right Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit, far-right homophobic Noam, and Haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism.
- Within days of the government’s formation, Netanyahu announced a number of major ministerial positions, including defence minister Yoav Galant, foreign minister Eli Cohen and justice minister Yariv Levin, all from Likud.
- Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners were appointed to cabinet positions following weeks of haggling, including Itamar Ben Gvir as national security minister and Bezalel Smotrich as finance minister.
- 3 January also saw a provocative 15-minute visit to the Temple Mount by newly appointed national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, which has been condemned across the Arab world.
- The past two weeks have also seen some policy announcements from the new government, which have reflected its sharply rightward turn.
The 1 November election which began nearly two months of coalition negotiations was called in June last year, when the ‘change’ coalition government of anti-Netanyahu parties collapsed following a series of legislative defeats and defections from its left- and rightmost wing. From April 2022, the coalition had been governing without an outright majority in the 120-member Knesset, when Yamina MK Idit Silman quit the government to join the opposition. Simultaneously, in line with the 2021 rotation agreement that founded the Bennett-Lapid ‘change’ government, sitting foreign minister Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, became prime minister.
- This weekend saw the governing coalition publish justice minister Yariv Levin’s plans for sweeping judicial reform, which would see the relationship between political and judicial power dramatically rebalanced in favour of the government.
- The plans would give the government and its allies control over the appointment of judges and allow a simple majority in the Knesset to override decisions by Israel’s high court to strike down laws.
- Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners have long resented what they see as the judiciary gradually assuming powers it was never formally granted, which they claim has been used to promote a “left-wing” agenda.
- Attempts at judicial reform must also be viewed in the context of Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial.
- This weekend also saw an order from public security minister Itamar Ben Gvir for police to remove Palestinian flags from public places, reportedly in response to the release of a freed convicted terrorist, Karim Younis, who waved the flag upon his release last week.
- Though this move does not make it illegal to display Palestinian flags – it expands the police’s capacity to remove them – the measure is expected to increase friction between police and Israel’s sizeable Arab population, much of which identifies with the Palestinian flag.
- It is unclear if police will enforce the order, with the government currently receiving legal advice regarding how, if at all, the order can be carried out.
- Some extremist Knesset members have also made alarming comments in recent days, including far-right MKs Zvika Fogel and Almog Cohen, both from Otzma Yehudit, calling for opposition leaders to be arrested for “treason” and “incitement and desire for bloodshed on the streets”.
The Israeli centre and left, which now finds itself back in opposition, has led criticism of the government’s moves. Benny Gantz, leader of centrist National Unity, warned that the government’s judicial reform plan risked leading to “civil war” and encouraged the public to lawfully take to the streets: “it’s time to go out en masse and demonstrate”. Leader of the opposition and former prime minister Yair Lapid echoed Gantz: “this is extreme regime change”, he said, adding that the reforms would “eliminate democracy”. He characterised the political battles ahead as “a war over our home”, promising to keep up street protests. The centre-left Labor party, led by Merav Michaeli, has likewise submitted a petition to Israel’s supreme court against Ben Gvir’s order against the Palestinian flag, warning against the police becoming “an armed force at the service of political parties, contrary to its intended role of fair and impartial law enforcement”.
Israel’s president Isaac Herzog, a former Labor leader, has used his position as Israel’s apolitical head of state to inject some calm to the febrile situation.
- Herzog urged politicians to “lower the temperature” over the government’s plans to reform the judicial system, offering to host a discussion about the controversial proposals, according to Israel’s public broadcaster.
- “I turn to you, elected officials from both ends of the political and public spectrum – show restraint and responsibility”, Herzog tweeted. “We don’t have another country”.
- The president also vowed to protect the values laid out in Israel’s declaration of independence, which he “our nation’s compass”.
- He appealed directly to “people’s sorrows, concerns and anxieties”, adding that these did “not go unnoticed” and that he was “not blind” and was “constantly occupied” by the “sensitive and volatile” situation the country faced.
- In a phone call with Herzog on Tuesday, Netanyahu attempted to distance himself from the most extreme comments by members of his coalition, saying: “in a democratic country, we do not arrest the heads of the opposition”.
Not coming quietly
The Israeli people have similarly reacted to the new government, with over 10,000 protestors taking to the streets in Tel Aviv on Saturday after the announcement of Levin’s judicial reforms. Protestors chanted “incitement begins in the halls of government” and “Netanyahu is dangerous, corrupt and racist”, as a number of opposition Knesset members joined the rally, including Merav Michaeli and Gilad Kariv from Labor, Aymen Odeh from the Arab-majority Hadash-Ta’al alliance, and former minister Tzipi Livni. “Together with thousands of amazing demonstrators we went out to protest and to yell with a clear voice: we wont allow the destruction of our country! We will continue to fight for our democracy”, Michaeli tweeted.
The region reacts
The new government’s inauspicious first weeks have been met with scepticism across the region, including among Israel’s allies in the Middle East and beyond.
- Saudi Arabia, with which Israel’s ties have been growing over the past decade, joined the chorus against “the provocative action”.
- Following some speculation to the contrary, US ambassador to Israel Tom Nides clarified on Tuesday that the Biden administration would not boycott interacting with Ben Gvir outright, but added that Washington would seek to work primarily with Netanyahu while the government lasts.
- This reflects a new approach from Washington by which Netanyahu will be held responsible for the policies of his far-right coalition partners, briefing from Biden administration officials has claimed.
What happens next
The first two weeks of Israel’s new government have been rocky, reflecting the sharp rightward lurch its composite parts represent. How long it will last, and how effective it will be able to be, remains to be seen. What is clear is that the Israeli centre and left will not let it push through its will without a fight.