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Avi Melamed Special for the USA TODAY Network | “Netanyahu and his government grind toward a new moment of truth”, as Originally published in USA-Today | September 2023.
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For more than 30 weeks, the international media has covered the widespread protests in Israel against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government coalition he assembled after the November 2022 elections. The protests began in response to the proposal of sweeping judicial reforms. However, in the next few weeks, things will come to a head when the Supreme Court — the judiciary body that Netanyahu seeks to handicap — presides over cases that could bring Netanyahu and his government to the moment of truth.
The Israel political system mandates elections for its 120-member parliament, the Knesset, every four years. Due to the multi-party system and the many parties that run in each election, no single party wins a majority. So, parties form coalitions to achieve at least a 61-member majority to govern. Here is the construct of the current governing coalition: Netanyahu’s Likud party has 32 seats. Ultra-Orthodox parties together have 18 seats. Religious Zionist parties together have 14 seats.
Netanyahu’s government faces intense pressure, both internally and externally.
At its core, Netanyahu’s biggest struggle has been his own indictment for corruption and breach of trust. Ironically, when his predecessor, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, was under indictment for similar charges, Netanyahu was one of the loudest voices calling for Olmert’s resignation. Indeed, Olmert did step down. However, Netanyahu has not applied the same standards to himself.
Instead, one of the first laws his current government passed was the Incapacitation Law, which mandates a vote of 81 Knesset members to oust a sitting prime minister. One of the core arguments of the protestors is that this law was designed specifically to shield Netanyahu and allow him to avoid conviction. Israel’s Supreme Court is now examining this contentious law and will hear petitions against it in September, as well as those filed against the law of reasonableness.
But regardless of what the court decides in September, Netanyahu’s current government is caught in its own house of cards — trapped in a repeating cycle of threats from coalition members who know the power they wield over Netanyahu. Coalition members frequently leverage their influence over the Prime Minister by threatening to withdraw from the coalition. If they do so, it could cause the government to collapse. These threats come whenever their own demands aren’t met or if Netanyahu bows to the wishes of the opposition or protestors.
Netanyahu’s current partners from both the ultra-Orthodox and Religious Zionist camps, hold an unprecedented and disproportionate amount of influence within the current government. Because they have never wielded this strong of a role, both groups have built mile-long lists of legislative priorities that they are rushing to legislate during the current government’s term.
While to many, it appears unlikely that they would choose to give up their current power by leaving or breaking apart the government, the never-ending threats have led to a perception that Netanyahu is a “hostage” to his own government. Maintaining his position as Prime Minister seems to be his only chance to avoid or at least postpone his conviction. This has led to Netanyahu being labeled as “subject to extortion” both within his Likud party, among his coalition partners, and among the opposition.
Protests against the Israeli government are intensifying, and clear fractures are appearing within the coalition. These cracks suggest potential discord and instability inside the government.
Tensions are rising and fractions are evident within the Religious Zionist camp due to increasing opposition to its hardliner faction, led by Homeland and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and Knesset legislative committee chairman Simcha Rotman. This hardliner group’s ideology, rhetoric, and its legitimization of the actions of extremist settlers who act violently against Palestinians, faces significant opposition from the majority of the Israeli public.
The Haredi community does not really care about “judicial reform.” Instead, they are alarmed that the escalating protests on this issue amplify criticism of their way of life. Representing approximately 15% of the Israeli population — a number that is on the rise — the Haredi community has contributed minimally to Israel’s national security and economy. This limited contribution is rooted in the community’s values: Haredi leaders emphasize religious studies and rituals, often sidelining secular and professional education. This approach not only perpetuates poverty within their ranks but also increases their dependency on the broader Israeli economy.
Finally, within Netanyahu’s own Likud party and support base there is a growing unrest. In an unprecedented move since the formation of the government, several Likud Knesset members have started to voice strong objections to the attempt of hardliners within the government to dictate unilateral “judicial reform.” While some view this call as a calculated attempt by Netanyahu to quell public protests, it likely also mirrors the genuine concerns of Likud parliamentarians about the coalition’s actions. These concerns stem from two main sources: ongoing polls show dwindling support from traditional Likud backers, and there’s increasing unease about the long-term fallout from Israel’s ongoing crisis. This sentiment is often summed up by the saying, “When the ship sinks, everyone drowns.”
The moment of truth for Netanyahu and his government is approaching. In September, Israel’s Supreme Court is set to rule on the contentious Incapacitation Law. There is credible speculation that the court might overturn it which will force Netanyahu to a daunting crossroads. If he refuses to accept the court’s decision, a tsunami of protests threatens to tear Israel apart. And it is likely that the heads of the security and law enforcement establishments, along with the country’s economic power centers and major social organizations, will side with the Supreme Court. If this happens, the government’s very legitimacy will crumble. On the other hand, bowing to the court’s decision would strip Netanyahu of the protective cloak of legal immunity, leaving him exposed and even more tethered to his fickle allies. Such a climate could embolden senior Likud politicians aspiring to replace Netanyahu, tempting them to dramatically defect from the coalition to collapse the government in order to hasten Netanyahu’s final exit from the political stage.
As of the summer of 2023, it seems unlikely that Israel’s 37th Knesset will be able to complete its entire term.
Avi Melamed is a former Israeli intelligence official who went on to serve as deputy and then as senior Arab affairs adviser to Jerusalem Mayors Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert, operating as a negotiator during the first and second intifadas. He is the author of “Inside The Middle East | Entering A New Era,” and his latest docuseries, “The Seam Line,” available on the Izzy streaming platform, focuses on Jerusalem’s flashpoints and his work during the intifadas.
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