Israel moves sharply to right as Netanyahu forms new coalition

Ben Lynfield

The Guardian  /  December 21, 2022 

Weeks of negotiations conclude with what will be the most rightwing and anti-Arab government in country’s history.

Benjamin Netanyahu has informed Israel’s president that he has succeeded in forming a coalition, paving the way for the swearing in of the most rightwing and anti-Arab government in the country’s history.

“I have managed [to form a government],” Netanyahu said on Twitter, minutes before a midnight deadline set by Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog.

The announcement came after Netanyahu reached a coalition pact with the Religious Zionism party, an ultra-nationalist grouping headed by a Messianic settler, Bezalel Smotrich, who has been given wide powers in the occupied West Bank.

The agreement includes a plan to carry out “judicial reform” – a euphemism for weakening the supreme court and other checks and balances, according to party sources quoted in the Israeli media.

It also reportedly calls for a restrictive definition of who is a Jew – and thus eligible for automatic citizenship under Israel’s law of return.

The radical government is due to be sworn in by 2 January. The coalition will also include other extremist figures on the far right whose stated goals are to weaken the judicial system and further entrench the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

In a sign of policies to come, parliament on Wednesday passed a bill that would greatly expand the authority over the police of the incoming national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the firebrand head of the Jewish Power party and a disciple of the late anti-Arab rabbi Meir Kahane.

In an attempt to assuage international criticism, Netanyahu has said in recent interviews that his Likud party, and not its coalition partners, would set policy. However, on some big issues there is little difference in ideology between some of the Likud lawmakers and Ben-Gvir.

Kahane advocated replacing the Israeli system with one based on Jewish law. Ben-Gvir, who was convicted of incitement to racism and support for terrorism, said during the campaign he had abandoned some of Kahane’s stances – but many believe that was a gambit to avoid disqualification and to appeal to more voters.

The veteran political analyst Yossi Alpher predicted the emerging government would constitute an “imminent disaster” for the country if Netanyahu were unable or unwilling to rein in the radical parties to whom he conceded unprecedented powers during negotiations.

Even if, as premier, he did attempt to curb those parties, the country could still be on course for a “long-term disaster”, Alpher said, adding: “We’ve never been in such a situation.” He forecast the possibility of the rule of law eroding in Israel and even more settler violence against Arabs.

According to Debbie Gild-Hayo, a lawyer at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the bill opens the door to further deaths of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank at the hands of militarized police units.

It also exposes liberal Jewish opponents of the government, Arab citizens, and the LGBTQ+ community to potential abuse in Israel, she said. “Because the bill’s designations are broad, it gives unlimited authority to the minister,” she added.

The bill passed by 63-53 and could still be somewhat modified before its second and third readings.

Ben-Gvir, who campaigned on a plan to expel “disloyal” Israeli citizens, has vowed to use his post to create “order” in the face of what the right has said is a grave internal security crisis in Arab communities inside Israel, some of them Bedouin.

Ben-Gvir said he needed wider powers for this and that he had a popular mandate from voters to carry it out.

He argued in the Knesset that Israel’s longstanding system of giving some key powers to the police commissioner, who is supposed to be apolitical, rather than the minister, was not democratic.

“Only in police states does the police commissioner work on his own,” he told Knesset members. He termed opposition politicians who criticized his plans “dark people” who had no concept of democracy.

In reality, the bill wresting powers from the commissioner and putting them in Ben-Gvir’s hands is one of the most “dangerous” manifestations of an Israel changing rapidly for the worse owing to Netanyahu’s return to power, according to opposition lawmakers from the centrist Yesh Atid party.

Netanyahu is being criticized for allegedly caving in to the radical right to ensure legislation is passed altering the judiciary. This could nullify corruption cases that could put him behind bars.

Among the changes touted by his Likud party and its partners would be a law giving the Knesset powers to override supreme court decisions. This could mean that victims of possible police abuses would have no protection.

“The minister could harm the principle of equality in a country where Arabs are perceived as an internal enemy, harm police investigations, influence who can protest, misuse means of enforcement against the Bedouin, and refuse protection to gay pride parades,” Gild-Hayo said.

“Minorities, liberals and opponents of the government will be threatened by this law.”

Ben Lynfield in Jerusalem