Hard Questions, Tough Answers- Netanyahu's Obscene Balancing Act (November 14, 2022)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Netanyahu’s obscene balancing act is not just his personal dilemma. It’s Israel’s and the world’s.

Q. Israel’s newly-elected Knesset is being sworn in this Tuesday. As of Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu is prime-minister designate. He is bent on finalizing his coalition quickly. With 64 mandates at his disposal, what is stopping him?

A. Forming Israel’s most right-religious coalition in history is proving a challenge. Netanyahu and most of his 32-MK (member of Knesset) Likud contingent find themselves at the ‘moderate’ extreme of the coalition, facing off with the other 32 MKs--Kahanists, messianics and ultra-Orthodox Haredim--all of whom are hungry for ministerial portfolios and legislative commitments that even many Likudniks, probably including Netanyahu himself, are not comfortable with.

The annals of past Netanyahu coalitions tell us that Bibi prefers to position himself at the political center, with left and centrist partners to one side and right-religious partners on the other. That arrangement traditionally augmented his options for playing one side off against the other.

Judging by opinion polls, a majority of Israelis objects to initiatives like paying yeshiva students more money than soldiers’ salaries (an ultra-Orthodox demand), giving Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism) control over the Finance or Defense Ministry, and giving Itamar Ben Gvir (Jewish Power) control over the Internal Security ministry. Lest we forget, both Smotrich and Ben Gvir have police records and Shin Bet files.

But most of the current slate of Likud MKs are not even relative moderates (compared to Smotrich and Ben Gvir). Yariv Levin, a close Netanyahu associate who aspires to be minister of justice, also aspires to radically reduce the authority of the High Court of Justice, especially with regard to the Court’s constitutional power to nullify Knesset legislation deemed by the justices to be at odds with Israel’s Basic Laws. Levin represents a school of thought popular in the Likud that demands awarding ‘override’ primacy to the ‘people’s representatives’ (the Knesset) over the judges, who are deemed effete elites--and to hell with the balance of powers.

Emasculating the High Court has now also become a condition of the Torah Judaism ultra-Orthodox party for joining the coalition. The Haredim believe they finally have the opportunity to reverse High Court rulings mandating conscription (equality under the law), permitting import of pork, and prohibiting pork barrel legislation apportioning tax funds to yeshiva students who do not serve in the army. As Haredi leader Moshe Gafni stated last week about the Israel High Court justices, “Their values are the opposite of our values.”

Q. Following the mid-term elections, Netanyahu now confronts a revitalized Democratic administration. Biden can afford to get tough with him. The US State Department just criticized Ben Gvir. Will this affect Netanyahu’s coalition appointments?

A. Not only must Netanyahu look over his shoulder at the Biden administration’s response and then remind his coalition partners that Israel cannot afford to ‘lose’ Washington. US Ambassador in Israel Tom Nides has already indicated that he will not meet with the likes of Itamar Ben Gvir, who just attended a memorial to his original patron, terrorist Meir Kahane, and who has set his sights on changing the Temple Mount status quo.

Netanyahu does have the freedom of maneuver to hint that if the far-right and Haredi extremists go too far in their demands, he has a reserve of potential coalition partners in the centrist opposition: Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Benny Gantz’s National Unity, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, and even Meirav Michaeli’s Labor. To be sure, none pretends at present to rescue Netanyahu from his extremist partners.

But one or more could at some point be tempted by the opportunity to claim having ‘saved’ Israel from extremist measures or actions that have the potential to plunge the country into deep trouble regionally and internationally--not to mention trouble with the half of the electorate that voted for none of the coalition parties.

Netanyahu’s main problem with this option, wherein he would again be positioned at the center of a coalition rather than on one extreme, is that only the Haredim and the Kahanists, together with the Likud, are prepared to legislate Netanyahu’s way out of his corruption trial. And that, apparently, is his main, indeed his obsessive, concern.

Q. So should we be concerned about extremist measures or actions by the emerging coalition?

A. Here are six extreme possibilities, all advocated by one or more coalition members, and their consequences:

  1. Minister of Internal Security Ben Gvir announces he will lead public prayers on the Temple Mount and orders the Israel Police to secure the site, thereby ending the post-1967 ‘status quo’. The entire Muslim world threatens to react.
  2. Netanyahu and a willing minister of defense put the Biden administration on notice that they are planning an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. This has been a Netanyahu project since 2012, blocked by level-headed ministers of defense, by the Israeli security and intelligence establishment, and by US pressure. How does the US react this time?
  3. A West Bank settler group, feeling empowered and encouraged by support from the likes of Ben Gvir, initiates provocative and violent actions--even more extreme than those we have become accustomed to--aimed at expanding outposts and taking over Palestinian lands. Hard-line supporters among the military protect the settlers. The result is a new Intifada (a development we were in any case not far from even prior to the elections).
  4. Haredi and Kahanist-messianic elements in the coalition initiate action to ban Reform and Conservative conversions, synagogues and rabbinic education. That means the Reform synagogue down the street from me is handed over to a Haredi sect. This pushes the American Jewish mainstream to demand that the Biden administration act against the Netanyahu government.
  5. Minister of Justice Yariv Levin, with the backing of his patron Netanyahu as well as the religious elements in the coalition and the Likud Knesset contingent, introduces legislation to radically reduce the power of the High Court of Justice to review Knesset legislation that cancels legal proceedings against Netanyahu, reduces Palestinian rights, politicizes the position of attorney general, etc. In response, two-thirds of the 15 High Court justices tender their resignation, along with hundreds of lower court judges. Israel, where populist legislators replace learned jurists, can no longer claim before international judicial institutions in The Hague that it has its own respectable rule-of-law institutions.
  6. At the other end of the spectrum of potential initiatives, Bezalel Smotrich makes good on his campaign threat to introduce legislation to prohibit the staging of soccer games on Shabbat. Netanyahu’s own constituency and even part of Deri’s go to war against Smotrich.

None of these actions and measures will necessarily happen. Wiser heads may prevail. But any or all of them have now clearly become conceivable.

Q. Wow! Is there a responsible adult in this emerging coalition?

A. As fate would have it, Arieh Deri of the Shas Sephardic Haredi party is increasingly seen as the so-called responsible adult who can be appointed minister of finance or even minister of defense in order to blunt Smotrich’s demand for at least one of these jobs. Indeed, Deri is a level-headed moderate.

But lest we forget, Deri has twice been convicted of tax evasion. He cannot even be given a ministerial portfolio without a High Court ruling--the same High Court whose constitutional authority most of the coalition wants to radically reduce. Further, as minister of finance Deri will favor handing out freebees to the working and praying classes--his constituency--thereby potentially compromising Israel’s relatively balanced and booming free enterprise economy.

This is hard to say, but I would trust Deri more as minister of defense.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Netanyahu may be in the uncomfortable position of ruling from the ‘left’ extreme of his new coalition with its Haredi, messianic and Kahanist elements. Yet it was Netanyahu who created this coalition--in particular it was he who cooked up the messianic-Kahanist vote-getting marriage between Jewish Zionism (Smotrich) and Jewish Power (Ben Gvir). If even Netanyahu is uncomfortable with his own coalition’s initiatives, it behooves us to recall that it was he, leading five previous coalitions, who emasculated the institutions of the State Comptroller, the Civil Service Commissioner, the Registrar of Nonprofit Organizations and the Israel Police Investigations Branch. Anything to give corrupt officials a freer hand.

Netanyahu’s new ‘right-right’ coalition could get Israel into a lot of trouble: with Washington, with the United Nations, with our neighbors, and with fully half of our own population. The latter, not incidentally, are the Israelis who tend to be secular or traditional Jews, who by and large run the country’s financial, high-tech and security establishments, and many of whom have the option of picking up and leaving.

At the broadest strategic level: is this Israel’s new demographic-political-religious reality?