New Israeli government sworn in after power grab by far-right parties

New Israeli government sworn in after power grab by far-right parties
President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat at the center of the traditional photograph of the incoming government on 29 December 2022. The new government consists of 30 ministers, incl. the Prime Minister. Only 5 of them (17 %) are women, credit: GPO/Avi Ohayon

Two months after parliamentary elections in Israel, a new government with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime-Minister was sworn in on Thursday and has already held its first cabinet meetings.

For Netanyahu and his ultra-orthodox and ultra-nationalist coalition partners it was a festive day but for the outgoing government and half of the electorate which voted against Netanyahu it was a sad moment. Addressing the new opposition in the Parliament (Knesset), Netanyahu tried to calm down the opposition: “Losing in elections is not the end of democracy – it is the essence of democracy.”

Government change is normal in a democracy but outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid probably remembered how Netanyahu did not accept losing in the previous elections in 2021. Then he tried to delegitimize the government which replaced him and lure defectors to switch side. Two of them were by the way awarded minister posts in the new government.

The essence of democracy

In fact, the essence of democracy in Israel might be at stake because of different concepts of the meaning of democracy. As previously reported, the new government claimed that it has been given a democratic mandate to impose its policies on the minority because it won the elections. Its attitude to the opposition is that it lost the elections and should shut up or go home.

But even those who voted for Netanyahu as Prime Minister did not vote for drastic changes in the rules of the game which will impact human rights and checks and balances.  The emerging agreements Netanyahu made with his coalition partners were worrying enough and raised serious concerns but the final agreements have been described as a veritable sell-out of democratic values.

Israel is a young and vulnerable democracy. Last week saw the passing of custom-made changes in basic laws – approved by a simple majority – to accommodate the excessive demands of politicians with a dubious background. Netanyahu’s own coalition partners did not trust him and insisted on detailed agreements and legislative changes before the government was sworn in.

The new minister of finance, Bezalel Smotrich, will now also serve as minister in the ministry of defense with responsibility for Israel’s policy in the occupied territories. The minister of national security, Itamar Ben Gvir, will take over the border guard or form a new police force under his direct command. Both are living in settlements in the occupied territories and are bend on annexing them to Israel.

Another minister, Aryeh Deri from the ultra-orthodox Shas party, was put in charge of two important ministries. He returned as minister to the ministry of interior and became also minister of health. In the past, he served a prison sentence for corruption and was recently given a suspended prison sentence for tax fraud in a plea bargain.

“Everything that has happened in Israel since the election is ostensibly legal and democratic,” wrote well-known Israeli author David Grossman in an op-ed last week. “But under its cover – as has happened more than once in history – the seeds of chaos, emptiness and disorder have been sown in Israel’s most vital institutions.”

In a speech on Friday, Ehud Barak, a former Prime Minister who also has served as defense minister in a previous government under Netanyahu, accused the new government of “carrying out a coup in Israel before our eyes, with its racism, corruption, neutering of the justice system, politicization of the police and undermining of the chain of command in the Israeli Defense Forces.”

That said, he was optimistic. “There is a way back from the darkness. It is not clear how long this will take and what damage will be caused, but Israel will emerge from the tunnel alive and kicking,” he predicted. Some hope that Netanyahu will lose in next elections but Barak seems to believe that the government will fall before that because of mass demonstrations or even civilian disobedience.

Ungovernable government?

It cannot be excluded that the government will turn out to be ungovernable and disintegrate because of disagreements between the coalition partners or opposition inside Netanyahu’s own party by members who felt cheated by him on the minister posts they had hoped to get. For the time being, it does not seem to worry Netanyahu too much.

“This is the sixth time that I have formed a Government of Israel,” he said at the first cabinet meeting. “I can tell you that I am starting my 16th year as Prime Minister of Israel.” He claimed that the new government, with a majority of 64 seats of 120, had restored stability and will work together for all citizens of Israel.

He outlined four goals: “First of all, to block Iran. This is an existential question. First of all, we will see to our existence and security. Second, to restore the security and governance within the State of Israel. Third, to deal with the cost of living and the housing problem. Fourth, and I believe that this is within reach, to dramatically expand the circle of peace.”

He did not mention the means to achieve these goals and the changes that his coalition partners have in mind. It is possible that the agreements he signed with them are to be seen as declarations of intent and that it will take time to implement them. Anyway, he is not likely to reign in the partners and risk the collapse of the new government until he has got his part of the deal with them.

International reactions

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen congratulated Netanyahu on Twitter and wrote that she is “looking forward to working on strengthening our partnership, promoting peace in the Middle East and addressing the shockwaves of Russia’s war against Ukraine”. The European External Action Service (EEAS) under EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has not yet reacted.

Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky were among the first to congratulate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both hoping for strengthening relations with Israel. Without mentioning Russia, Zelensky wrote about confronting common challenges and "victory over evil”. He expects that the new Israeli government will provide weapons to Ukraine to defend itself.

US President Joe Biden said in a statement that he looks forward working with Netanyahu to address the many challenges and opportunities facing Israel and the Middle East region. “From the start of my administration, we have worked with partners to promote this more hopeful vision of a region at peace, including between Israelis and Palestinians.”

He did not hide that the US disagrees with the new Israeli government’s agenda as regards the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The United States will continue to support the two-state solution and to oppose policies that endanger its viability or contradict our mutual interests and values.”

The Palestinian Authority said in a statement that the Israeli government poses “an existential threat to the Palestinian people”. It threatens to cancel it security cooperation with Israel and called on the international community to reject any dealings with the new government if it will carry out its far-right agenda in the occupied territories.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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