Science

A Rush of Far-Right Initiatives by Israel’s New Government Raises Concerns

JERUSALEM — As Israel’s prime minister designate, Benjamin Netanyahu, prepares to swear in his new hard-line government and return to office, his deals to cement the support of far-right coalition partners are raising widespread concerns about the country’s future as a liberal democracy.

The emerging coalition will be the most hard-right and religious administration in Israel’s history, made up of Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party and another five far-right and ultra-Orthodox factions. Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, who was ousted 18 months ago, is on trial for corruption and has grown ever more dependent on these hard-line allies because the more liberal parties refuse to sit in a government led by a premier under criminal indictment.

That dependency, critics say, has weakened him in the coalition negotiations, forcing him to go along with at least some of the demands for far-reaching changes that would limit the powers of the judiciary and curb the independence of the police.

Mr. Netanyahu’s hard-line allies need him just as much as he needs them; they, too, have no alternative path to power. But their fundamental lack of trust in Mr. Netanyahu, who has a record of breaking promises to coalition partners, led them to insist on a rush of legislation to anchor their new roles and authorities in law, with potentially damaging consequences for the democratic system.

Israelis demonstrating against the new government of Benjamin Netanyahu last week in Jerusalem.Credit…Atef Safadi/EPA, via Shutterstock

“What we see in the legislation preceding the formation of the government is a change in the rules of the game of Israeli democracy,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The outgoing prime minister, Yair Lapid, a centrist, described the incoming government on Thursday as “dangerous, extremist, irresponsible.”

“It will end badly,” he said, calling it “a clearance sale of Israel’s future.”

The legislative rush and drafts of coalition agreements include proposals that would allow Parliament to override Supreme Court decisions and would give more weight to politicians in the selection of judges.

Legal amendments would greatly expand the powers of the incoming minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who oversees the police. Mr. Ben-Gvir is the leader of the ultranationalist Jewish Power party and the main advocate of the bill, which would give him the authority to set policy for the police, something critics say will allow him to politicize the force’s operations.

He was convicted in the past on charges of inciting racism and of support for a terrorist group, and ran in the election on a bullish ticket of fighting organized crime and increasing governance, particularly in areas heavily populated by members of Israel’s Arab minority.

What to Know About Israel’s New Government

  • Netanyahu’s Return: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is set to return to power at the helm of the most right-wing administration in Israeli history.
  • The Far Right’s Rise: To win election, Mr. Netanyahu and his far-right allies harnessed perceived threats to Israel’s Jewish identity after ethnic unrest and the subsequent inclusion of Arab lawmakers in the government.
  • Arab Allies: Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right allies have a history of making anti-Arab statements. Three Arab countries that normalized relations with Israel in 2020 appear unconcerned.
  • Worries Among Palestinians: To some Palestinians, the rise of Israel’s far right can scarcely make things worse. But many fear a surge of violence.

Another amendment will allow Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionism party, to serve as a second minister in the hallowed Ministry of Defense. Mr. Smotrich, whose party ultimately seeks to annex the occupied West Bank, has been promised authority over the agencies dealing with Jewish settlements and Palestinian and Israeli civilian life in the occupied West Bank, in consultation with the prime minister.

A third change will allow Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, to serve as a minister despite a recent conviction and a suspended prison sentence for tax fraud. That amendment, analysts say, could end up applying to Mr. Netanyahu should he ultimately be convicted or reach a plea deal including a suspended sentence.

Mr. Netanyahu denies all wrongdoing and says the cases against him will collapse in court.

The incoming minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who oversees the police. Mr. Ben-Gvir is the leader of the ultranationalist Jewish Power party and the main advocate behind a bill greatly expanding his powers.Credit…Gil Cohen-Magen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Still, experts say, the proposed changes outlined in the coalition agreements are still in flux.

“Constitutional political changes are being carried out in record speed, even before the government has been established,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research center. “This demonstrates the fragility of our democracy.”

But Mr. Plesner emphasized that such practices were not unprecedented in Israel and that there were still many possible outcomes.

“There is a discrepancy,” he said, “between the ideas and initiatives and declarations of politicians before elections, and what is actually happening in the negotiating room and being manifested in coalition agreements and government policy.”

Mr. Netanyahu, who has already pushed Israel further to the right during his 15 years in power, will now be the main force of moderation in his government compared with his more hard-line partners. Though he is known for his aggressive campaign tactics, Mr. Netanyahu has generally protected the democratic system during his long tenure.

He has rejected the warnings about damage to Israeli democracy as fear-mongering by those who lost the election and has pledged to act in the interest of all Israel’s citizens.

“We were elected to lead in our way, the way of the national right and the way of the liberal right,” he said in a recent speech to Parliament, “and that’s what we will do.”

The most immediate concerns revolve around the law expanding the powers of Mr. Ben-Gvir, the national security minister. It has passed its first reading in Parliament but is still pending final approval.

In the past, the minister overseeing the police would set policy priorities in consultation with the commissioner of police, but would not interfere in operational matters or have any influence over investigations.

The proposed legislation subordinates the police to the minister’s authority, leading legal officials and experts to fear a politicization of the force. And it grants the minister the right to set priorities and time frames for investigations in a departure from past practices.

“The Israel Police will be run under a threatening and belligerent man who lacks responsibility and experience, who wishes to turn it into a political agency,” and to turn the police commissioner into a “puppet,” the outgoing minister of public security, Omer Bar-Lev, told Parliament this week.

Mr. Ben-Gvir argues that the police should be subordinate to a minister’s policy in the same way that the military carries out the government’s policy. But critics say that unlike the military, which fights Israel’s enemies, the mission of the police is to deal with Israeli citizens — including corrupt politicians.

Aida Touma-Sliman, a Palestinian-Israeli lawmaker, told the committee discussing the bill that the incoming minister’s goals were “ideological” and “racist” and would end up creating a “political police.”

Human rights activists say they are worried that the legislation giving Mr. Ben-Gvir broader control over the police could be used to suppress protests.

Noa Sattath, the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said her organization petitioned the parliamentary committee discussing the bill to exclude protests from Mr. Ben-Gvir’s areas of authority, as did the committee’s own legal adviser. But Mr. Ben-Gvir rejected that recommendation.

“Clearly the minister wants to have authority over the way the police deal with protests,” said Ms. Sattath, who described the bill as endangering one of the foundations of the Israeli democratic system.

Clash between Palestinians and the Israeli army in Nablus, in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday.Credit…Zain Jaafar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the face of mounting criticism, Mr. Ben-Gvir told the parliamentary committee on Thursday that he would postpone the discussions and voting on the most contentious parts of the bill until after the inauguration of the government.

Also of concern are the proposals to change the way the judiciary operates.

If implemented, they will dramatically curb the powers of the Supreme Court, which has long been seen by liberal Israelis and analysts as one of the country’s most important institutions safeguarding against the erosion of liberal democratic values. Because Israel has only one house of Parliament and no formal constitution, the judiciary plays a critical role in protecting minority rights and offsetting rule by the parliamentary majority.

The coalition partners are keen to see these judicial changes, not least to ensure that the Supreme Court cannot overturn the hasty legislation now making its way through Parliament.

“In the coming weeks we will have to face the most significant threats Israeli democracy has seen in recent decades,” Mr. Plesner said at a recent conference at his institute on the implications of the judicial changes proposed by members of the incoming coalition.

“The issues on the agenda concern the nature of the state and the basic rights of each and every one of us.”

Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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