A difficult road ahead for Israel’s far-right government despite its victory
On Monday, July 24, the Israeli Knesset voted to limit the powers of the Supreme Court to strike down legislation as the first step in a comprehensive “judicial overhaul” orchestrated by its far-right government. This is by no means the “end” of Israeli democracy, as some of the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Israel’s streets are proclaiming, though history will perhaps see it as the beginning of the end if those other steps are eventually enacted. I suggest, to the contrary, we should keep in mind that the coalition that forced it through is itself the product of some unlikely circumstances and may not survive much longer, especially given the economic, security, and diplomatic challenges it will very shortly face.
Although Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu is the public face of the “overhaul,” he has by no means been its main champion, though he is usually portrayed as such in the American media. While he has been essential to its success to date, he has often been dragged along by events rather than precipitating them. His main role has been in keeping the disparate pro-overhaul coalition united. Had he ever tried to stop the juggernaut, he could have, but only at the price of losing his coveted prime ministerial office — and with it, running the risk of a jail sentence in an ongoing corruption trial. It seemed to at least some observers that he was not leading the charge but, rather, letting it happen as his ministers discussed strategy among themselves. Importantly, unlike Donald Trump, with whom he is often compared, Netanyahu was not himself the main radicalizing force in his Likud party. Rather, he tried to use the radicals to hold on to power, but found that their ideology was dragging him to places he didn’t necessarily want to go.
A fragile coalition
This in no way diminishes Bibi’s responsibility for the bill and its consequences, but it is important that we understand where it came from. Essentially, there are three very distinct parts of the coalition: extremist religious settlers seeking annexation; ultra-Orthodox; and traditional Likud conservatives, some of whom have undergone American-style radicalization. What they share, besides a collectively nurtured sense of victimhood, is a disdain for (most) Supreme Court justices and the judiciary as a whole, intertwined with a ferocious anger at the “elites” (Ashkenazi, Labor, and/or secular), whom they believe are corrupting their Jewish state, however they define “Jewish.”
Though the coalition won the July 24 vote (64 to 0, since the opposition walked out), it is sometimes forgotten that in January, the government announced a raft of disparate measures that it intended (and fully expected) to pass within a few weeks. Now, six months later, only one bill has been passed, by no means the most important. While some of the true believers in the government — notably Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Knesset Law and Constitution Chair Simcha Rotman, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — are unbothered by the scale and vehemence of the protests and genuinely seem to revel in the fight, Netanyahu and a significant number of the remaining old-line Likud Knesset members are not at all happy with Israel’s political chaos. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is the most publicly distressed, but he is not alone. Many of the Likud’s 32 Knesset members are traditional conservatives, and their political and social views are not that different from some in the opposition, which, it is sometimes forgotten, is led by centrists like Benny Gantz, whose party now leads in the polls, and Yair Lapid. The remaining Israeli left was crushed in the most recent elections and is represented solely by the bitterly divided Labor Party, with four seats, and a predominantly Arab alignment, Hadash-Ta’al, with five.
The government has thrown all its PR resources into portraying the protesters — and by extension the Knesset opposition — as disappointed leftist elitists who cannot stomach losing power. This view is perhaps partly abetted in the U.S. by the American tendency to see politics in binary terms and by a wish that the anti-occupation left is playing a leading role. In fact, the demands of both the parliamentary opposition and the large majority of the street protesters are fundamentally moderate: to return to a status quo of a sort fairly typical of moderate liberal democracies — with the significant exception that Israel’s status quo clearly implies no change in the 56-year-long occupation.
The goals of the ringleaders
Not that the occupation is irrelevant to this crisis. It is clear that Ministers Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are determined to “Judaize,” or annex if they can, as much of the West Bank as possible. They and their followers (comprising 14 Knesset seats) see the Supreme Court, which has only occasionally taken the side of West Bank Palestinians in land disputes, as their most significant institutional obstacle. Organizers of the protest movement as a whole — except for a so-called “Anti-Occupation Bloc” — made a calculated decision to exclude the Israeli-Palestinian issue from the protests to make it as broad as possible among Jewish Israelis.
Friends of mine who are lifelong anti-occupation activists strongly defend this decision as essential to win the campaign. The predictable consequence, however, has been that the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian have largely abstained from participating in the protests, even though most assume that they will be the first victims of the illiberalized government.
The role of Judaism in the Jewish state
The other major issue in the crisis is religion — Jewish religion that is. Eighteen of the coalition’s members are ultra-Orthodox (Haredi), who now comprise about 13% of the Israeli population. Their leaders, for the most part, are not concerned with settlements, though some see them as essential to build homes for their growing population. Rather, they (realistically) see the Court as liable to interfere with their prerogatives in the name of equality for other societal elements (notably, but not exclusively, LGBTQ+ Israelis). They also want to continue to educate their sons solely for a lifetime of Torah study, free from any legal requirements to include essential subjects like English and math, which might enable their sons, when grown, to leave Haredi society and succeed in the larger economy. In addition, Haredi religious party Shas wants its leader, Aryeh Deri, to be allowed to hold a cabinet position. The Supreme Court, acting under the “reasonableness” standard, barred him from such a position after two convictions for fraud and his previous consent not to seek public office as part of a plea deal. They also want their exemption from military service to be codified in a Basic Law.
These may represent the most immediate consequences of the new law: the abolition of the court’s ability to reject appointments or dismissals of government officials whose appointment or dismissal breaks generally accepted norms, such as that of Deri. There is no other guardrail, unlike in the U.S., for example, where Senate confirmation is required for top officials. It should be noted that two days after the bill’s passage, the Supreme Court indicated it would hear challenges to the law in September, but not issue an injunction against it before that. Thus, the bill’s provision is already in force.
How it may play out
Reconciliation with the annexationist right is probably impossible, but, with a workable political configuration, the far right could be exiled to the political wilderness, where they have largely resided since the days of Rabbi Meir Kahane in the 1980s. The role of the Haredim, by contrast, is a larger societal problem that will have to be solved; in fact, some of their leaders had agreed to revise their curricula last year — until Netanyahu offered them money and curricular freedom in return for their support. Ultimately, the Haredim will probably learn to come to terms with living in a modern society. One need look no further than to their cousins in the U.S.: Their relations with outsiders in New York, in places like Borough Park and Monsey, are hardly trouble free, but they are not a major societal burden as they have become in Israel.
Deri’s and Bibi’s personal legal problems are more idiosyncratic. Health and age (he had a pacemaker installed last week) will eventually preclude Bibi remaining in office as an obstacle to national reconciliation; or an internal revolt against him may finally succeed. He has been offered a plea bargain of no jail time in return for leaving politics; that may finally appeal to him. Deri’s current stranglehold over Shas may loosen — or another solution may be found; if he does take office, he would not be the first crook to hold a ministerial portfolio in Israel.
In other words, as bad as the July 24 vote was, if we look at it more closely, its consequences were by no means set in stone. What is most impressive to me is that Israel’s civil society organizations seem to be rising to the challenge in a way that is unprecedented in any other country facing a right-wing populist challenge.
Paul Scham is a professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, a former director of its Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, and a non-resident scholar at MEI. He is a former member of the Israeli Bar.
Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.