The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights upon the most significant developments within the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions upon the topic and reliable foresight on possible future scenarios.Today, we turn the spotlight on Israel, focusing on the upheaval that Netanyahu’s new government has caused both at the domestic and international levels.
Just three weeks after taking his oath of office, Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly formed government has managed to cause public uproar both at home and internationally. Widely considered as the most right-wing in the country’s history, the new administration has already been accused of undermining Israel’s democracy. The matter of dispute is a proposed reform of the justice system that would sensibly limit the powers of the Supreme Court, whilst expanding those of the Knesset, Israel’s national parliament. In a move perceived by many as a response to this reform proposal, the Supreme Court disqualified a key Netanyahu ally, Aryeh Deri, from serving as Minister of Interior. Convicted of breach of trust and tax offence, Deri had been nominated after the coalition passed an amendment to Israel’s Basic Law, which the Court declared unconstitutional. Amidst a series of protests and calls to arrest opposition leaders, the country seems to be headed down a path towards further public upheaval. Things are also moving on the Palestinian front. At the end of December, President Mahmoud Abbas bid a successful resolution at the UN General Assembly by asking the International Court of Justice to express an opinion on the legality of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. In response, Israel’s security cabinet announced a series of punitive measures, which risk further weakening the Palestinian Authority (PA) in a moment of high volatility within the West Bank. In the meanwhile, the visit the newly appointed National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, paid to the Al-Aqsa Compound at the beginning of January caused international indignation. Israel’s partners (including the US and UAE) have staunchly criticised the move, re-affirming their commitment to upholding the status quo in Jerusalem’s holy sites. The explosive composition of Israel’s newly formed government seems to suggest that a critical phase is upcoming in the country.
The experts of the ISPI MED network react to the formation of Israel’s new government.
The glue that is holding Israel’s unsteady coalition together
“I’ll keep my hands steady on the wheel. They have joined me, not the opposite”, said Benjamin Netanyahu when he assembled his new government. Evidently, he’s struggling to respond to the criticism raised by a great number of Israelis and almost all foreign governments, be they friends or foes. Indeed, the premise is not very promising. In this coalition, Bibi has two kinds of partners: the national-religious parties aiming to create a Jewish supremacist state; and the “ethnic” religious ones – Ashkenazi and Sephardic – which wish to build their own confessional state within the state. Traditionally, the Likud was a secular party, as also Bibi is. Neither the younger nor the elder Netanyahu believed the Land of Israel to be holy. So, what is holding them together? First, power: an evident addiction for Bibi. Second, the will to alter the laws to ensure his survival. The prime minister is indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. For the national and religious parties, it is clear that Netanyahu formed this alliance essentially to escape these legal troubles. Nevertheless, they will protect the government as long as possible to make sure that they have enough time to implement their own agendas. Only the Biden administration and the very influential American Jewish community, largely liberal, could accelerate a potential political crisis in Israel.
Ugo Tramballi, Senior Advisor, ISPI
Netanyahu’s new government poses several threats to Israel’s democracy
If implemented, Minister Levin’s proposed dramatic legal reform will undermine the Israeli judiciary and alter basic pillars of Israel’s democratic structure. The proposed reform will significantly limit the power of the Supreme Court and will give the political system an upper hand over the legal one. By doing so, it will shatter any existing checks-and-balances currently in place. But the new government also poses additional threats to Israel’s democracy. The newly formed government includes extremist coalition members in key positions, who announced a variety of intentions that go against basic liberal and democratic values. This political constellation, indeed, largely motivated by Netanyahu’s desire for an exit strategy from his personal legal issues, is not left unanswered. Nearly 50 percent of Israelis voted for anti-Netanyahu parties in the November 2022 elections. They oppose the erosion of democracy, and in recent weeks have begun pushing back against it. Pro-democracy demonstrations, petitions and open letters, public statements and institutional decisions are currently taking place in Israel on an almost daily basis. Israel is rapidly becoming a hot spot in the global fight for democracy. As the Israeli pushback movement against democratic erosion is gaining momentum, it certainly could benefit from increased international partnerships and support.
Nimrod Goren, President and Founder, The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies (Mitvim) and Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute (MEI)
Israel’s decision to withhold Palestinian money is nothing new
Soon after Netanyahu came to power, Israel’s Security Cabinet announced a series of punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority (PA). The decision was motivated as a response to the UN General Assembly resolution, which asked the International Court of Justice to express an opinion on the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Amongst several measures, the Security Cabinet decided to withhold $39 million (NIS 139 million) in tax revenues from the PA, taking advantage of the Oslo mechanism that allows Israel to collect taxes on the Palestinian behalf. The idea of withholding money threatens to exacerbate the financial dilemmas of the PA, which, according to many analysts, may indeed lead to its collapse. This is something that neither Israel nor the international community desire, especially in a moment in which the trust gap between the Palestinians and their leadership is widening. The Israeli leadership is prioritising settlements, neglecting the alarming consequences of settlers’ violence. Overall, the measures announced by the Security Cabinet are nothing new. For a long time, Israel has been coercing the PA with the threat of turning off the tap of tax revenues. When it comes to the Palestinian question, albeit extreme and openly racist, this government is not so different from its predecessors. Nothing will change as long as Israeli governments enjoy impunity; their actions deserve accountability, at the very least.
Dalal Iriqat, Assistant Professor, Arab American University
Ben-Gvir’s visit to Al-Aqsa: the government’s first foreign policy crisis
Itamar Ben-Gvir’s deliberately provocative visit to the Al-Aqsa compound precipitated Israel’s first major foreign relations crisis under Benyamin Netanyahu’s newly formed far right government. It is unlikely to be the last. Western countries and Arab states such as the UAE, which recently signed normalisation deals, have shown a high tolerance for Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians. But they continue to see any change to the status quo on the Haram al-Sharif and the formal annexation of Palestinian territory as major red-lines. The ascendency of the settler movement to power and its aspirations to consolidate Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem and the West Bank therefore portends future bilateral crises. In doing so, Netanyahu’s coalition allies could undo his success in removing the Palestinian conflict from international and regional foreign policy agendas. This could set-back the veteran prime minister’s twin priorities of rallying countries against Iran and deepening relations with the Arab world through the Abraham Accords.
Hugh Lovatt, Senior Policy Fellow, ECFR
This week’s MED This Week has been edited by Mattia Serra