Netanyahu’s Coalition of the Unwilling

After Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprising victory in Israel’s national elections in March, he took until the last possible Bennettminute to complete the process of forming the government for his fourth term as Israel’s prime minister. For all the time he invested, despite making it just under the wire, Netanyahu ended up with a fragile, ultra-right-wing coalition and more work ahead of him to bring in at least one more party.

The government Netanyahu presented to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was a bare majority of 61 seats out of the 120-seat Knesset. There are no fig leafs in this coalition, no Tzipi Livni or Ehud Barak for Netanyahu to send to talk fruitlessly with the Palestinians. One might think this would make the coalition more stable, since it consists entirely of the right wing. In this, one would be wrong.

Netanyahu is, in fact, desperate to add another party to the coalition because there is so much tension in the current majority, most visibly between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi. Likud leaders, including Netanyahu, feel that Bennett essentially held the coalition hostage to his demands. They are quite right about that, but the gambit paid off handsomely for Bennett.

HaBayit HaYehudi holds a mere eight seats in the Knesset. Yet Bennett and his party will get four ministries, the deputy defense minister post, as well as the chairs of two key Knesset committees dealing with Israel’s legal system. That is what you get when you play hardball with Netanyahu, a man who likes to talk tough but who is a political creature first and foremost and quickly backs off from a high-stakes fight he is not sure he can win.

As things stand, this coalition might not last the year. That is why, after Avigdor Lieberman quit his post as foreign minister and took his greatly diminished party into the opposition, Netanyahu left the post open by keeping that portfolio for himself. In reality, Netanyahu has been the foreign minister all along, so it is not an added burden for him.

Leaving the position open gives him a tempting carrot with which to try to lure Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog into a unity government (see my piece here for why that would be a terrible idea for all concerned) or to tempt Lieberman back in. Without one of those parties, the government is too fragile to last very long. Even if Lieberman does rejoin, the mere six seats he would bring offer only token stability. Herzog is the man Netanyahu needs.

Bennett’s Gamble

On the day that Netanyahu was supposed to present his government, he was still eight seats short of a majority. Luckily for Bennett, that was the exact number of seats he controlled and he let Netanyahu know just how lucky he was.

Bennett played a game of chicken with Netanyahu, pushing for more and more power within the government and knowing that Bibi was going to have a hard time saying no to anything. Bennett won, and the spoils were vast. The far-right HaBayit HaYehudi party now controls the ministries of education, agriculture, justice, and diaspora affairs. The position of deputy defense minister will also be theirs.

It is even worse than it sounds. With the ministry of agriculture comes control over the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, which funds the expansion of settlements. Uri Ariel, perhaps the most extreme pro-settler member of the Knesset, will have that portfolio.

It gets worse yet. Bennett gave the justice ministry to Ayelet Shaked. Shaked is a notorious racist who once proudly posted an article by a speechwriter named Uri Elitzur that named the entire Palestinian nation as enemies. Elitzur further agued that Palestinian mothers “must go” if their sons commit acts of violence because they raised a “snake” and would raise more “snakes.” In the context of calling every single Palestinian “the enemy,” this is clearly hate speech. Shaked tried to deny the contents of the post, saying it was mistranslated. Hebrew readers can judge for themselves here, where the post is archived. Although it is not quite a call for genocide, as some have suggested, it is clearly incitement and hate speech. This is the new minister of justice in Israel.

Lest there be any doubt about how much Shaked agrees with Elitzur, she said the following just before the full-scale war on Gaza last summer: “This is not a war against terror, and not a war against extremists, and not even a war against the Palestinian Authority. The reality is that this is a war between two people. Who is the enemy? The Palestinian people. Why? Ask them, they started it.”

Shaked is certain to work hard to undermine Israel’s fragile legal system. She will also be heading the powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation and the Judicial Appointments Committee, giving her even more leverage to eliminate a legal system that she sees as a bastion of the left. Moreover, she is very likely to be minister of justice when the next attorney general is appointed.

Uri Ariel can be equally certain to press hard for as much settlement expansion—all over the West Bank and, especially, in East Jerusalem—as the available shekels and the defense minister, who will still be Moshe Ya’alon, will allow. I would rather not even think about what Bennett, the new minister of education, is going to do to the minds of Israeli students. Academia is also thought of as a bastion of the left in Israel, and the climate for free thought in Israeli institutions is certainly threatened now.

A Question of Longevity

The real question about all of this is how long it will last. An ultra-right government like this one is not going to get along well with the Obama administration or most of Europe, although the Republican-led Congress is likely to fall in love with it. Some may hope that this will be a case of things getting so bad that political pressure for improvement must come. Sadly, such is not the history of Israel or of this conflict.

Netanyahu will be spending the next few months trying to woo Isaac Herzog into the government, and this is what the whole game comes down to. If Herzog joins and creates a national unity government of 85 seats, this government will survive. The Labor Party, which makes up most of the Zionist Union, is unlikely to provide much of a counter to the right-wing majority. Much more likely is that, as has happened in the past, many of Labor’s Knesset members and other leaders will bolt the party rather than serve as a fig leaf for such a far-right government.

If Herzog does not join the government, this fourth Netanyahu government will not outlast Barack Obama’s presidency, and might not even come close. The right wing does not play well together, and it will take nothing more than a few well-timed votes of no-confidence to take down this government even if none of the parties bolts. Even that scenario, however, offers little hope. The last elections were hailed as a comeback for Labor, but the center and left still cannot form a coalition without the Joint List (a coalition of mostly Arab parties), and that remains anathema in Israeli politics. In fact, little changed in the left-right balance in the last elections, and that is showing no signs of turning around.

It has never been clearer that positive change in Israel is going to require some sort of meaningful action by the United States and/or Europe. If that does not come, and it does not seem to be on the horizon, disaster looms.

New Knesset Bill Magnifies the Attack on Democracy in Israel

Here in the United States, we have become only too familiar with the paranoid rantings of those who warn of “creeping sharia.” Sharia, of course, is the body of religious Muslim law. Neo-conservatives and their fellow travelers have had a good deal of impact scaring Americans about this non-existent threat.

Thankfully, numerous analysts and reporters, such as Matt Duss at Think Progress, have done outstanding work exposing this fear-mongering propaganda for what it is.

From Meretz USA's web site

Maybe, though, it’s time we American Jews, and our Israeli counterparts, woke up to the real threat in Israel of “creeping halakha.”

The Knesset is considering a bill now that would change Israel’s Basic Law defining Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state,” to promote Israel’s “Jewish character” as superior to its democratic nature.

In other words, as Likud MK Ze’ev Elkin, a leading figure in the anti-democracy movement in Israel, explains, the new law would frame “the state as the Jewish nation state in (court) ruling(s) in situations in which the Jewish character of the state clashes with its democratic character.”

Can we be any more blatantly anti-democratic than that? Actually, yes.

Because the bill contains another provision, one which would provide that “If the court sees a legal question requiring a ruling, and finds no solution in legislation, custom or clear analogy, it will rule in light of the principles of freedom, justice, integrity and peace in Jewish heritage.” In other words, as Ha’aretz puts it, the “…clause states that Jewish law will be a source of inspiration to the legislature and the courts.”

It may well be that this clause will not be part of the law that will be passed. It does have the whiff of a clause that was put in to stir up controversy so it can be removed and the rest of the legislation will be less targeted.

But even if that is the case, and one hopes that it is, the inclusion of this clause is a warning to us all of the increasing religious influence in the Knesset. This is a cause for grave concern for a number of reasons.

As Jews, we must all be concerned that the world’s only Jewish state would represent not a national state, but a religious one. We, better than any other people, know the dangers of religious states. Contrary to the dissembling on the right, most progressive Jews are very concerned about human rights abuses in theocratic countries, including, though not limited to, Muslim countries (we just don’t like it when those concerns are cynically used to shield Israel, or other countries, from legitimate criticism of their own human rights violations). Continue reading

With Eyes On Egypt, Anti-Democratic Bills Progress in the Knesset

This article was originally published at the Meretz USA blog

Given the momentous events taking place now in Egypt, it’s important for those of us who care about Israel to remember that the assault on Israeli democracy from within is continuing to move forward.

Luckily, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) is maintaining its vigilance. They sent a chilling update regarding three bills that are moving forward in the Knesset. I include their brief reports on each bill (in italics below) followed by own comments on each.

Continue reading

Is Lieberman the New Israeli Mainstream?

(Note: This was cross-posted at Meretz USA’s blog.)

In an interview given to Newsweek, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman made the following, quite chilling statement: “I am the mainstream. When I started with my vision, I was really a small minority. Today we’re the third [largest] party in Israel.”

Lieberman is certainly no stranger to bluster, so it’s easy to dismiss this as more of Yvet’s (as he is called) hubris. But is that really the case? There’s a good deal of evidence to suggest that Lieberman is absolutely right.

Avigdor Lieberman

Each piece of that evidence is another massive blow to the teetering ship that is Israeli democracy. The latest was a proposal introduced this past week by Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, to set up a Knesset committee to investigate the funding sources of progressive, and only left-wing, NGOs.

Israeli journalist and blogger Yossi Gurvitz likened the event to the burning of the Reichstag, implying that this was the point where Israel slipped from democracy to fascism. Gurvitz may be overstating the case (I’d certainly say he is), but he is not exaggerating how anti-democratic this action and this Knesset are. Nor can it be reasonably denied that, whether Gurvitz is right or not today, if Israel continues on its present course, there is no doubt he will be someday and probably not in all that distant a future. Continue reading

Knesset Attempt To Cripple Israeli Civil Society

In the wake of the public row over the attack on the New Israel Fund, many supporters of Israeli civil society are stopping to catch their breath. The support NIF received was quite impressive and speaks very well about the deep and abiding care that Jews and our friends the world over have for the best ideals among Israelis as expressed by a stunning array of groups that seek to improve conditions both in Israel and over the Green line.

But while people recover from that episode, a far more dangerous threat has emerged, this time not coming from an ultra-nationalist private group like Im Tirtzu but from the Knesset itself.

Thousands marched last December in Tel Aviv in Israel's first human rights march

A bill that has passed its preliminary first reading in the Knesset, with the Orwellian name “Bill for the Duty of Disclosure for Someone Supported by a Foreign Political Entity,”purports to close “loopholes” regarding transparency of funding for Israeli non-profit entities.

In practice, the bill selectively targets a wide array of progressive groups and would seriously impact their ability to fund their activities or even to engage in them. Any state programs funded by “foreign political entities” would not be included in the bill’s restrictions; nor would right-wing groups which are universally funded by private money.

Before I explain how this would come about, we should first understand some background about non-profit organizations in Israel. The field there is very different than what most of us are used to.

In the United States, there exists a broad network of foundations and philanthropies, encouraged through tax examptions by the government, to fund various social causes of all sorts. In Europe, government funds are dispersed through various agencies that act much like foundations in the States.

But Israel has none of this; not surprising as Israel was born with the help of support from outside funding sources from the earliest days of the Yishuv through the creation of the state and up to the present day. Thus, Israeli organizations that pursue advocacy, social services and other forms of activism depend on funding from overseas. The government itself gets help from other countries to pursue various projects, as does Israel’s education sector, Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and a wide variety of Jewish religious and cultural projects throughout the country. Continue reading