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.
Q. Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government looks set to be approved by the Knesset by the middle of next week. When the NYTimes warns against it in a lead editorial and a former IDF chief of staff threatens a million-person protest march, you know there is a lot of concern about this most extreme ever of Israel’s coalitions. How bad is it going to be?
A. Netanyahu has been reassuring the world media (e.g., National Public Radio in the United States) that he will be in full control of the most right-wing ministers in his government and will prevent extreme measures like cutting electricity production on the sabbath and extreme actions on the Temple Mount that could ignite a war. But he has not been reassuring the Israeli media, perhaps because he knows that in Israel few people believe him, even among his political allies (“liar son of a liar”, incoming racist minister of finance Bezalel Smotrich called him).
“There will be no halachic state,” Netanyahu told the Knesset last week with reference to the Jewish law demands of his incoming ultra-Orthodox partners. “We’ll follow the path of the liberal right”. How to explain Fascist-Kahanists like Itamar Ben Gvir in key ministries like ‘national security’? Ben Gvir has "modified a lot of his views” since being convicted as a follower of racist Meir Kahane in 2007," Netanyahu told NPR. "With power comes responsibility."
As for the destructive effect on Israel-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian relations caused by awarding Ben Gvir and Smotrich control over major areas of governance in the West Bank, Netanyahu told the Saudi Al Arabiya that the peace with Saudi Arabia that is now on his agenda “will change our region in ways that are unimaginable. And I think it will facilitate, ultimately, a Palestinian-Israeli peace.”
What’s more, Netanyahu got an American endorsement. On Sunday, US Ambassador Tom Nides told Haaretz, “We believe he’s very smart . . . . He says he wants to be prime minister of all of Israel.”
Q. But is Netanyahu credible in his reassurances? Or has he really taken the extremists on board and agreed to their most extreme schemes, and hang the consequences, in the hope that they will help extract him from prosecution for corruption?
A. Netanyahu possibly hopes to square the circle: allow the extremists enough extreme measures to keep them on board but not enough to make Israel look and feel fascist, racist and fundamentalist. And possibly he has some other agenda in mind. Beginning in January 2023, we will be able to identify one or more of several bad governance scenarios. Which is most likely? Take your pick.
Q. Start with least bad . . .
A. Netanyahu will allow extreme Haredi measures, but will shield secular, liberal Israel from their worst effects. He will buy off the ultra-Orthodox with heavy budgetary allotments for their yeshivas and by ending vestiges of secular education for their youth. He will end the never-impressive program for conscripting their sons. He will find a few unused coastal spaces to install their gender-segregated beaches. But he will not change sabbath laws, and secular Israel simply will not feel what is happening in the ultra-Orthodox strongholds of Bnei Brak and Mea Shearim.
The ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox demand to restrict the law of return by eliminating the grandparent clause that allows immigration to Israel of non-halakhic Jews (i.e., immigrants with one Jewish grandparent and no Jewish parents) will be relegated to study by a committee. Perhaps minor amendments will eventually be introduced. Here, under the least bad scenario, Netanyahu will prefer Diaspora interests so as not to antagonize global Jewish support for Israel.
The demand of the entire political right wing, including the Likud, to reduce the High Court’s independence by passing a measure whereby the Knesset can override some Court decisions, and by watering down the ‘leftist’ majority they perceive to be dominating the Court, will be mitigated by pressure from the Court itself, the attorney general and the public. But some sort of measure will pass, and its effect on checks and balances and the rule of law in Israel will be negative.
Itamar Ben Gvir will concentrate on restoring law and order in lawless areas of the Negev and Galilee and may even earn some praise for his tough measures. He will avoid interfering in Israel Police investigations and will, according to one supportive retired Israel Police general, “make the changes the police have been waiting for since the 1970s.” He and Bezalel Smotrich, known as an accomplished administrator, will avoid antagonizing the IDF by giving extreme orders to Border Patrol units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The price for this display of ‘moderation’ will be large budgetary allotments for favorite extreme-right causes, creeping West Bank annexation, and settlement outpost legalization and expansion. It will all be carried out quietly, far from the Tel Aviv public’s eye.
Avi Maoz, the racist homophobe from the Noam party being parachuted into the Education Ministry as deputy minister, will be awarded only limited authority to mess with the education system. Netanyahu understands that, unlike steps in the West Bank and the yeshivas, here he cannot shield the broader public from the damage, hence will be deterred from letting it happen. Maoz, a man of his extremist principles, will resign in frustration at an early stage but without disrupting the coalition.
This ‘moderate’ version of the coming coalition begins in January. The immediate consequences will as noted be mitigated. But the long-term consequences will be disastrous: unbridled expansion of Haredi population growth and education for backwardness; unbridled expansion of the national orthodox project to annex the West Bank and reduce or force out its Palestinian population; gradual encroachment of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount.
Nearly all of this will be financed by the secular-liberal half of Israel that pays around 80 percent of the taxes and for the most part did not vote for this coalition. But for a while, most people will not be aware of the damage, some of which has in any case been accruing for many decades under left-leaning governments as well, and will now be accelerated.
Think, live frog in a slowly boiling pot of water.
Q. Bad enough. Skip from here to the worst case . . .
A. Ben Gvir, Smotrich and Maoz will not be bought off with extra budgets. They will go all out to Judaize the West Bank and the Temple Mount. They will try to take over authority in key sectors of the IDF, the Israel Police and the Shin Bet, and change the face of Israel’s 55 years of occupation to the extent that the international community no longer recognizes it. They will hold Netanyahu hostage to his need to legislate his way out of his corruption trial, while Netanyahu holds his Likud members of Knesset, fully half the 64 MK coalition and many of whom profess secular liberal views, hostage to their hunger for power, bribing them with unnecessary ministries and appointments to keep them from revolting.
The once-secular education system of half the population will be ‘reformed’: pupils will learn Avi Maoz’s Jewish values.
Within months, perhaps a year, barely concealed settler militias will be running rampant against West Bank Palestinians. The IDF and Border Patrol will prove ineffectual under restrictions by Ben Gvir and Smotrich. A new intifada will break out in the West Bank, with Palestinian terrorists penetrating Israeli cities. Gangs of Arab citizens of Israel will join in: the country’s Arab sector is already flooded with weapons smuggled from Jordan.
A taxpayer revolt will break out in Israel. Key gatekeepers like outspoken Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miari, who warned last week that the next government’s “reforms” of the judicial system will strike “a fatal blow to democracy”, will resign. So will some senior security personnel. By the end of 2023, a few leading cyber companies will announce plans to move with their employees to Cyprus.
Q. Hold on. Couldn’t Netanyahu be planning a scenario whereby, once his government has legislated his way out of his corruption trial, and in view of the damage done by his coalition partners, he fires some or all of them and invites centrists like Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid to join him in a liberal centrist government?
A. That is the wishful thinking of many, including a few moderate Likudniks. Netanyahu could perhaps be tempted to proceed this way if the international, regional and domestic reaction to his imminent coalition is angry and effective enough. Whether Gantz (National Union) and Lapid (Yesh Atid) will abandon their current refusal to serve under a prime minister facing criminal charges who is totally bereft of credibility, all in order to save the country from the grip of fascists and fundamentalists, is another question.
Lest we forget: in this election Netanyahu consistently promised the voters a “full-fledged right-wing government” (yamin al maleh). He, and they, got what they voted for.
Q. General damage under any scenario?
A. Netanyahu’s Haredi and Kahanist partners have figured out that he needs them so badly he will pay inflated prices. Accordingly, this is already emerging as the biggest and most wasteful government in Israeli history. Extra ministers are being added to existing ministries. New ministries are being invented. New deputy minister tasks are being invented. Vital missions are being removed from the ministries of defense and education and transferred to far-right ministers. This, after previous Netanyahu coalitions tore off key functions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs like links with the Diaspora in order to feed the appetite of bloated coalitions.
Further, we will now witness the acceleration of Israel’s descent down the slippery slope toward a violent bi-national entity of Palestinians and Jews that is increasingly more Jewish than democratic. Fundamentalism and racism at the Israeli domestic level will merge with the evils of an ultra-nationalistic land grab in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Q. Bottom line?
A. Ehud Barak was a failed prime minister and a lackluster defense minister. He lacks people skills and negotiating skills. But he has always been a sharp analyst of Israeli strategic and political interests. Last week in Yediot Aharonot he summed up the impending disaster succinctly:
The elections ended in a clear decision. The government is legal. But it is founded on a political deal that may be constitutional but is repulsive and illegitimate. We’ll give you [Netanyahu] relief from your trial even if to that end we have to shatter the legal system and [the principal of] equality before the law. In return, you will give us: first, relief from equality before the law for our criminals [ministers Deri, Smotrich and Ben Gvir]. Second, tools to end openness in Education Ministry enrichment programs. Third, suppression of IDF authority and sovereignty in the West Bank and a new reality of rule by political militias in order to ready the ground for full annexation, meaning either apartheid or transfer or bi-nationality with a Muslim majority. All three together are a mark of disgrace on Israel and the beginning of the end of the Zionist dream and vision.