The new Israeli government has been sworn in, just in time to mark the end of 2022 and the start of 2023. As widely reported and discussed, this is the furthest right wing government that Israeli has ever had. The government includes 32 members of the right wing Likud party along with 14 members of the far right Religionist Zionist party, 11 Ultra Orthodox Shas party members and 7 Ultra Orthodox United Torah Judaism representatives.
The proposed agenda of this coalition, as set out in the various coalition agreements between the Likud party and these coalition members, if enacted, will threaten the rule of law in Israel, the independence of the judiciary, the rights of minorities, gender equality, the religion-state status quo and it will also have a lasting and potentially exposive impact on the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Rule of Law and Judicial Independence
Perhaps it is no surprise that a religion-based governing coalition would take inspiration from Jewish prayer. One part of the Amidah prayer (recited three times daily by observant Jews) is the attribute of God as one who "straightens the crooked." ("zokef k'fufim"). So the first order of business for this government, even before it was officially installed, was to pass a Knesset law that would allow convicted criminals to serve as cabinet ministers. This law was passed in the Knesset last week so that Aryeh Deri, the leader of the Shas party, can serve as Minister of the Interior and Health Minister and then subsequently, Minister of Finance. He will also be the Deputy Prime Minister.
Deri was convicted of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in 1999 for offences committed while he was previously the Minister of the Interior. He served his prison sentence and then rejoined Israeli politics years later, to eventually take back his previous position as head of the Shas party. Under Netanyahu's previous government, Deri again became Minister of the Interior. In 2021, Deri pled guilty to tax fraud and was given a suspended sentence. At his sentencing hearing, he stated that he would be leaving political life. Nevertheless, he promptly reneged and ran, once again, as leader of the Shas party. Under current Israeli law, he would be barred from serving as a Minister. So as a term of the coalition agreement, the first order of business for this government was to pass a law overriding the current law and allowing convicted criminals to serve as ministers. That law passed three readings last week and became law. The crooked Deri has been legally "straightened," even though I would venture to say that is probably not the type of straightening envisioned in the prayer.
The law has been challenged in the Supreme Court of Israel as violating the "Basic Law" of the State of Israel - which is the closest thing Israel has to a constitution. The hearing is scheduled to be held on Thursday January 5, 2023. However, the Supreme Court will be making its decision under an ominous storm cloud. The current government has stated that if the Supreme Court invalidates the law, the government will enact a new law overriding the Supreme Court's power. In short, Netanyahu's government has vowed to ensure that the convicted Deri can serve as a Minister, no matter what kind of legislative gymnastics are required.
This fight is not inconsequential. Several other members of this government are either facing charges, being investigated or already have criminal records. Included among them, of course, is Netanyahu himself, who is eagerly awaiting a favourable disposition of his criminal hearing, presumably as an unpublicized term of the coalition agreements that he has signed. Netanyahu is currently fighting charges of breach of trust, corruption and bribery. A favourable outcome for Aryah Deri is likely to assist Netanyahu in several different ways including setting the groundwork for a plea bargain deal that will not have a deleterious effect on Netanyahu's continued political life.
The newly appointed Minister of Justice, Yariv Levin, a staunch Netanyahu loyalist, has vowed to completely overhaul the justice system, though he has not set out everything he intends to do. However, he has made it clear that he aims to weaken the power of the Israeli Supreme Court significantly and revamp the appointment process for Supreme Court justices to ensure that politically compatible judges are appointed. Levin is charged with passing the "override" bill that will allow the Knesset by a simple majority to override any decision of the Israeli Supreme Court. A weakened and less independent judiciary will unquestionably impact the rule of law in Israel - significantly and negatively.
Minority Rights and Religion-State Issues
The new government has proposed several wide-ranging legislative changes to assist the Ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox communities. Yeshivas that do not teach secular subjects will be guaranteed funding. Yeshiva students will receive a large increase in monthly stipends that they are paid by the state while studying. The exemption from military service for the ultra-Orthodox will be strengthened. The law will be changed to allow businesses in Israel to refuse to serve certain groups for religious reasons (something like what the U.S. Supreme Court has been doing with respect to the LGBTQ+ community).
The first order of business for this group here yesterday was to roll back certain tax changes that the previous government had implemented including taxes on sugary sweet beverages like Coca Cola (to try to fight growing rates of diabetes in Israel) and on disposable paper and plastic products (to try and help the environment). The ultra-Orthodox argued that both of these taxes affected their communities disproportionately and demanded that these taxes be rolled back. Yesterday, the new Minister of Finance, Betzalel Smotrich announced that both of these taxes were ending immediately.
I should mention that the Speaker of the House is Israel's first openly gay speaker, Amir O'Hana. This was no issue for most Likud Knesset members or members from the rest of the Knesset, other than the Likud's other coalition partners. Members of the Shas, UTJ and RZ parties covered their faces or looked away while O'Hana was giving his first speech as speaker of the house. He vowed to ensure that all Israelis are treated equally and fairly including those who are members of minority groups even in the face of this proposed discrimination law. Some of his Ultra-Orthodox and nationalist Orthodox coalition members this week attacked O'Hana as unfit for the job and called him "sick" and "in need of help" because of his sexual orientation. With friends like these, who needs enemies? These are after all his coalition partners who got him elected to the speaker position.
O'Hana was hand-picked by Netanyahu to serve as speaker of the house. Some Shas and UTJ members this week said that this was a poke in the eye by Netanyahu since these parties have called for several anti-LGBTQ+ steps to be taken by the government. For example, they want to ban Pride parades, limit accesss to same-sex adoption and fertility treatments and allow discrimination in housing and other services agains the LGBTQ+ community. It is unclear whether Netanyahu is serving notice that he will protect the LGBTQ+ community by appointing O'Hana and that his government will refuse to enact agreed upon coalition promises - or whether he intends to try and use O'Hana as a fig leave to cover up for other discriminatory steps that his government plans to take as agreed upon with the other parties. We will have to wait and see.
The Ultra-Orthodox and Religious Zionist parties have also called for increasing power in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, undoing the changes of the previous government that partially demonopolized Kashrut rules across Israel, making it harder to convert to Judaism, limiting immigration, giving the Chief Rabbi of the army much greater power over soldiers, barring non-Orthodox prayer services at the Kotel (Western Wall) or anywhere near it - including closing the "Israel area" where egalitarian prayer takes place and many, many other initiaves. It is unclear how much of this agenda will actually get enacted - but the coalition has a majority and has some very motivated Knesset members. It will be difficult for the opposition to stop them. The only realistic reign on some of this agenda will come from centrist and centre-right Likud party members themselves who may not be prepared to back some of the more extremist measures.
On the one hand, Netanyahu has vowed to make peace with Saudi Arabia and to continue to expand the Abraham Accords, which would be beneficial for the entire region if it were to occur. On the other hand, the coalition agreements that Netanyahu as entered into have led to the appointment of extremists such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich in positions that will now give them control over the police and parts of the military in the disputed territories and other parts of Israel. Ben-Gvir is someone who was deemed unfit for national military service due to his extreme views. He is now in a position to implement police and military policy.
Early today, Ben-Gvir visited the Temple Mount - the area above the Kotel - at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Ostensibly, he was visiting to mark the 10th of Tevet, a Jewish fast day. But Ben-Gvir and many of his supporters have stated that they intend to change the status quo, allow Jews to pray near the mosque regularly and, ultimately, rebuild the Temple on that site.
The Religious Zionist party also plans to expropriate more Arab land, ease the regulations for when soldiers can open fire on suspected threats, grant blanket immunity to Israeli soldiers for actions while on duty and take several other steps that are sure to inflame the Arab -Israeli conflict. These steps if taken would upend many of Israel's long standing policies that were implemented to ensure that Israeli soldiers always act within carefully measured rules. Once again, it remains to be seen whether Netanyahu will be prepared to reign in these extremists - especially while Netanyahu's trial is still proceeding.
Overall, the early signs are that this coalition will try to move quickly and implement as much of its agenda as it can, as hastily as possible. If the coalition retains support from all of its members, it can pass just about anything by a 64-56 margin. I expect that we will see very large demonstrations in Israel very shortly within Israel - as well as more violent confrontations between Arabs and Jews across Israel and the disputed territories.
One possible difficulty for the coalition may be internal. There is a sense that Netanyahu held a "fire sale" and gave up too much to the coalition partners while retaining less power than his party should have kept for itself. There are several disaffected, high ranking Likud members who did not receive plum cabinet posts and who have started to openly criticize Netanyahu for the first time in five years. These include David Biton, David "Dudu" Amselem, and others. Former Likud party member Dan Meridor appeared on TV on Saturday night and called this government that "greatest threat to democracy that Israel has ever seen."
If four or five of these Likud members decide not to pass some of this legislation, that could lead to a governmental crisis. Ben-Gvir seems to believe that he can increase his support and become the Prime Minister one day - by outflanking the Likud on the far right. He will want to head into the next election portraying the Likud as a bunch of "leftists" who refused to enact his agenda.
While that is a scary prospect that can't be ruled out, the Israeli public is not there, in my view. Ben-Gvir's plan could backfire. If this government collapses, the extremists could lose significant support.
That being said, I expect that they all realize this. As big as their egos are, I think the right wing parties recognize this as being a golden opportunity and intend to maximize the opportunity. Despite the anticipated demonstrations, increased levels of violence, internal and external threats and worldwide condemnation for some of the anticipated moves, I would expect that this government is not about to collapse any time soon, though it may not make it all the way through a full four-year term.
I have not gone through a comprehensive list of all of the proposed legislative changes, all of the ministers or each of the coalition agreements. Much of this information is readily available on various sites if you wish to delve deeper into this. But I have picked out some of the key proposals that have received widespread press coverage in Israel and other parts of the world and I have shared some of my concerns.
There are many people in Israel - and other parts of the world - who support much of this agenda. According to some recent polls in Israel, somewhere close to 42% of the Israeli public are happy with this government. There is also support from ouside of Israel from some sectors. Just two days ago, someone emailed me an article by Alex Traiman of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, arguing that this new government reflects the "will of the people," is not "anti-Democratic" and called this new government a "tremendous achievement." I won't say which friend or family member forwarded the article to me. But I guess we will have to wait and see what happens and which pieces of legislation the government actually implements. That being said, in my view, the partial list set out above includes quite a number of dangerous, anti-democratic, steps that are unlikely to be viewed by many as anything "tremendous."
As I mentioned at the outset, I think we will see significant challenges to the rule of law in Israel, initiatives that threaten minority rights, gender equality, Arab-Israeli relations and a host of other initiatives that will have a very negative impact on Israel. Hopefully many of these changes will be reversible.
Former Prime Minster Yair Lapid gave some closing remarks on his last day of his office. He reviewed the achievements of his government in what was essentially a "State of the Union" type address. He closed by saying, "we are leaving you with a State that it is in very good shape - please don't destroy it. We will be back soon."
New Year's Eve and New Year's Day came and went in Israel with little fanfare in most quarters. Like Christmas, New Year's Day is not a holiday in Israel. It was a normal workday with everything open and business as usual. There were certainly New Year's parties across the country though there was no special TV programming, national concerts or other official celebrations.
As we enter 2023, I am still hoping that some of the sports teams I cheer for will come up big in 2023.
Last night, as you might know, the Canadian junior ice hockey team won an incredible overtime game against Slovakia. The overtime goal by Connor Bedard (projected to be the next ice hockey superstar) was an stunning piece of art. Canada will play the United States on Wednesday night in what is sure to be another hard fought game - with the winner ending up in the finals on Thursday against Sweden or Czechia. The games start at 1:30 a.m. here in Israel but I am happy that I stayed up to watch last night's contest.
I was also planning to watch the Buffalo Bills play last night (after the hockey game, of course) but as you may have heard, this game was stopped early in the first quarter due to the massive injury suffered by Bills cornerback Damar Hamlin, who went into cardiac arrest. Hamlin was taken to the hospital and is said to be in critical condition. Hopefully, he will recover from this though the nature of his injuries at this point is unclear.
Not sure what the NFL will do after taking the rare step of postponing a game due to a serious injury. Perhaps the league is waiting and hoping for good news to be able to resume on some kind of positive note. At some point, I would assume that the league will resume play though I think any decision will be affected by Hamlin's condition.
As I have written in other blogs, Buffalo has one of the best football teams it has ever had and I have been super excited about watching them play. Hopefully Hamlin, the league and the Bills themselves will overcome this injury and the Bills will wind up winning the Superbowl. I am willing to give up some sleep when I am here to watch some of these games. These games tend to start at 3:30 a.m. Israel time (if they are the evening games) and end early in the morning. So I guess I am on a bit of a crazy schedule.
I think I will wrap things up for now here - and wish everyone all the best in 2023 - best of health, success, peace, stability and wise decision making for everyone.