As Israel’s Netanyahu returns to office, troubles lie ahead
JERUSALEM (AP) — After five elections that have paralyzed Israeli politics for nearly four years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has finally returned to power with the government he has long coveted: a parliamentary majority of religious and far-right lawmakers who share his hard-line views toward the Palestinians and hostility toward Israel’s legal system.
Yet Netanyahu’s joy may be short-lived. Putting together his coalition proved to be surprisingly complicated, requiring nearly two months of painstaking negotiations and a series of legal maneuvers just to allow his partners to take office. Among them: newly created Cabinet positions with widespread authority over security and a law allowing a politician on probation for a criminal conviction to be a government minister.
Along the way, he was forced to make generous concessions to allies that include commitments to expanding West Bank settlements, proposals to allow discrimination against against LGBTQ people and boosting subsidies for ultra-Orthodox men to study instead of work.
If these plans are carried out, they will alienate large portions of the Israeli public, raise the chances of conflict with the Palestinians, upset Israel’s powerful security establishment and put Israel on a collision course with some of its closest allies, including the U.S. government and the American Jewish community. Even members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party are grumbling.
Netanyahu has sought to play down concerns, saying that he will set policy — little comfort for his many critics who have bristled at his hard-line policies toward the Palestinians. His ultranationalist partners will also have great leverage over him because they have promised to promote legislation that could dismiss criminal charges against him. They are sure to test his limits.
Here is a closer look at some of the challenges awaiting the new government:
THE UNITED STATES
The Biden administration has expressed unease over the more extreme politicians in the new government, but said it will judge it by policies, not personalities. Early indications do not bode well. A day before taking office, Netanyahu’s government said West Bank settlement expansion would be a top priority. It wants to legalize dozens of wildcat outposts and says that it plans to annex the occupied territory at an unspecified time. The U.S. opposes settlements as obstacles to peace. It also considers steps that marginalize the Palestinians, LGBTQ people and other minority groups as detrimental. Netanyahu has vowed to protect minority rights. But if his coalition moves forward, there could be a crisis in relations with Israel’s closest ally. Leaders of the American Jewish community have also expressed concern over the incoming government and members’ hostility toward the liberal streams of Judaism popular in the U.S. Given American Jews’ predominantly liberal political views, these misgivings could have a ripple effect in Washington and further widen a partisan divide over support for Israel.
Many Palestinians have greeted the election of the new government with a shrug. With peace talks already on hold for over a decade, some don’t see how any government can make things worse. But that sense of resignation could turn to anger if the new government steps up settlement activities or annexes the West Bank, the heartland of their hoped-for state. Fighting in the West Bank, already at its highest levels in years, could escalate. And if Netanyahu’s allies test the tense status quo in east Jerusalem — home to the city’s most important and sensitive holy site — violence could spread across Israel and into the Gaza Strip, as it did in 2021. Gaza’s Hamas rulers have already warned of an “open confrontation” next year.
JITTERY SECURITY CHIEFS
The military, along with Israel’s police and myriad security agencies, command influence and respect in Israeli society. Netanyahu has historically worked well with his security chiefs. But a pair of appointments have raised questions about that relationship. Netanyahu has placed a far-right provocateur who was once convicted of incitement and supporting a Jewish terrorist group in charge of the nation’s police force. He also passed legislation putting a firebrand West Bank settler in charge of settlement policy, including the power to appoint a top general responsible for policies toward the Palestinians. The impending changes prompted Israel’s outgoing army chief to contact Netanyahu and express concerns. The army said the men agreed there would be no policy changes until the military presents its viewpoints. “The army must be kept out of the political discourse,” it said.
Netanyahu and his allies have announced an ambitious agenda of social changes that are deeply unpopular with the secular middle class, according to a recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, an influential think tank. They include plans to weaken the Supreme Court and increase already unpopular stipends for ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students who do not serve in the military or work. A proposal endorsed by his allies would allow hospitals and businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
The judicial changes, headlined by a plan to give parliament the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions, could lead to the dismissal of corruption charges against Netanyahu. These proposals have drawn conflict-of-interest allegations and raised concerns they will destroy country’s system of checks and balances.
Protesters are already demonstrating in the streets against the incoming government. Hundreds of members of Israel’s powerful high-tech sector, scores of retired fighter pilots and retired diplomats have all published letters against the new government. These trends could all gain steam in the coming months.
Netanyahu wields a firm grip on Likud — by far the largest party in parliament. But several members are unhappy over his generous concessions to smaller parties that have left them without the high-powered Cabinet posts they coveted. Some have even complained publicly. There are no signs of a rebellion. But if they remain unhappy, they could hinder his ability to pass his agenda in parliament.