Netanyahu’s New Government: End of Mamlachtiut? (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- January 3, 2023)


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. Hold on. What is mamlachtiut?

A. Mamlachtiut is a term coined by David Ben Gurion to express the foundations of Israeli nationhood and the necessary respect for its national and democratic institutions and traditions. The term derives from the word kingdom, as in ancient Israel. Initially Ben Gurion used the term for state-building and for the transition from the institutions of the pre-state Yishuv. Over time, the spirit of mamlachtiut came to be embodied in Israel’s Basic Laws and national institutions.

Q. You have been writing for months on the anti-democratic, racist, Jewish messianic and ultra-nationalist values and persons being incorporated into this new coalition. It was sworn into office last Thursday. Is ‘end of mamlachtiut’ a kind of summing up of what has gone so badly amiss with governance in Israel?

A. The new Netanyahu government has just taken office. Netanyahu has been reassuring the world that the extremists in the cabinet will not be given free rein. He even sent a message to that effect by arranging for an LGBTQ politician to serve as chair of the Knesset. He has intimated that his drive to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia will serve as a brake on extremist tendencies regarding the West Bank and East Jerusalem. So on the one hand, it is only fair to wait and see how this government performs.

On the other hand, however, it is also fair to point out that, prior to briefly ceding power to Mssrs. Bennett and Lapid in the spring of 2021, Netanyahu had already been busy for a decade trying to dismantle the rule of law and thwart any hope of a reasonable settlement with the Palestinians. One can hardly expect him to be less destructive of mamlachtiut this time around, when the Likud’s coalition partners are exclusively anti-democratic religious extremists.

We know what Netanyahu has agreed to in coalition deals with his extremist partners. The press has published the agreements. Just a partial list of the promises made to one of them, Jewish Power, the party of the Kahanist Itamar Ben Gvir, is enough to ruin your day. It ranges from ways to make it easier to kill and oppress Palestinians--holding the power to determine rules for opening fire by the Israel Police, granting blanket immunity to soldiers and police, and creating a Shin Bet unit dedicated solely to crime by Arab citizens of Israel--to ways to keep some (mainly secular) Jews from immigrating to Israel by changing the Law of Return to eliminate those who claim a Jewish grandparent only. (Recall, under the Nazis’ Nuremburg laws, having a Jewish grandparent was enough to be considered a Jew destined for extermination.)

These are all threats to Israeli mamlachtiut. They are a mere fraction of Ben Gvir’s ultra-nationalist and messianic coalition aspirations. Coalition partners Bezalel Smotrich and Avi Maoz have more, reminiscent of the Dark Ages. So do the ultra-Orthodox. So does Netanyahu himself, who has appointed a minister of justice, Yariv Levin, bent on subordinating the courts to the Knesset, thereby dismantling Israel’s constitutional rule of law and balance of powers.

Of course, Ben Gvir and the others may ultimately not succeed in passing the laws and issuing the regulations necessary to make these and similar acts actually happen. Conceivably, a variety of appointed gatekeepers of Israeli values may stop him. Then again, maybe they will not try to stop him, or will try and fail, or be deposed by the very politicians they are supposed to keep an eye on. Maybe Ben Gvir, Smotrich and company will succeed.

Time will tell. For now, with Netanyahu’s sixth government barely a day or two old, we can begin by citing a few decisions and appointments already made: concrete deeds that express the undermining of mamlachtiut and feed our fears. Three events of recent days sum up these apprehensions regarding the days and possibly years ahead.

One is the case coming before the High Court of Justice this Thursday, concerning newly-appointed Minister of Interior and Health Aryeh Deri. A second involves an extremely unusual meeting last week between outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The third event is Netanyahu’s announcement that he is appointing former minister and veteran Likudnik Tzachi HaNegbi to head the National Security Council in the incoming government.

Q. Start with Deri. How does his court case threaten mamlachtiut?

A. Deri, head of the Shas Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party, has twice been convicted on corruption charges. Years ago he served a jail term and endured a years-long suspension from politics. That was mamlachtiut at work. Deri’s second, recent conviction, for tax evasion, produced a suspended sentence that was conditioned, by agreement with the judge, on Deri’s resigning from the Knesset and from public life.

He resigned, but then returned. He led Shas in the recent election and got himself appointed to head two key ministries and to serve as vice prime minister, all in direct violation of his solemn commitments to the Israel legal system. He was sworn in last Thursday. The appointment was appealed to the High Court of Justice immediately. Eleven of the High Court’s 15 judges will hear the case this week.

Will Deri accept the judges’ decision if they disallow him? The new government is threatening to immediately legislate an override law that will enable it to cancel High Court decisions, beginning with this one. When the legislative branch can cancel High Court decisions, mamlachtiut is eviscerated.

Q. The Kochavi-Netanyahu meeting last week?

A. It is unusual for an IDF chief of staff to meet with an incoming prime minister before he has taken office. Kochavi had to ask permission from then-Defense Minister Benny Gantz and then-Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Kochavi, who turns the IDF over to his successor Herzi Halevi later this month, reportedly sought reassurances from Netanyahu that Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s coalition powers will not enable them to undermine the IDF chain of command in the West Bank. If this happens, this will empower settler militias and enable rabbis and politicians to veto officers’ decisions in the field.

Reportedly, Kochavi was assured that Halevi will be ‘consulted’. That is decidedly not reassuring. Kochavi is clearly concerned that the IDF will be politicized by the new coalition, with horrific results for the rule of law in the occupied territories: another blow to mamlachtiut.

Q. Is the HaNegbi appointment related?

A. It looks that way. The National Security Council and its head, the national security adviser, did not exist in Ben Gurion’s time. The creation of these institutions derives from lessons learned from security debacles like the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the First Lebanon War (Operation Peace for Galilee), 1982-2000. The Council and its head have, for decades, been apolitical officials with security backgrounds. Their job is to give the prime minister counsel and services that are devoid of politics so as to avoid future security debacles.

Tzachi HaNegbi knows security issues; as a member of Knesset he once headed the Knesset Foreign and Security Affairs Committee. He has served in (non-security related) ministries in a variety of Likud governments. He was left out of the current Knesset in the November 1, 2022 elections because he placed too low in Likud primaries. In other words, he is no longer particularly popular with Likud voters. But he remains a fervent supporter of Netanyahu, who has now compensated him with the National Security Council post.

The issue here is not HaNegbi’s security knowledge. The issue is that he is a politician, with a clear Likud political agenda and an obvious need to please his boss. If the Kochavi-Netanyahu meeting reflects concern over politicization of the military, the HaNegbi appointment should raise the alarm over politicization of national security issues in general.

In a previous government, Netanyahu seemed to be dangerously close to overstepping the line by appointing Yossi Cohen, a man with clear rightist leanings and political ambitions (but no open political background), first as head of Mossad and then as national security adviser. Now Netanyahu has gone much further in his apparent drive to politicize Israeli security, to the detriment of mamlachtiut.

Q. But surely, once the damage becomes obvious even to right-wingers, these changes can be reversed?

A. First, it is not clear the damage will be obvious to the very people, backed electorally by a majority of Israelis, who inflicted it on the country. Second, it is not clear just how easy it will be to reverse damage to the very fiber of Israel’s being, its mamlachtiut.

As renowned Israeli author David Grossman wrote last week,

Perhaps Netanyahu is telling himself that once the chaos he has sown achieves its objectives--shattering the legal system, the police, the education system and everything reeking of ‘left’--he can go back in time and erase or moderate . . . what he himself created. . . .

But then he is liable to discover that from the place he has brought us to there is no way back. The chaos he has created cannot be cancelled or tamed. . . . It is here.

The domestic hatred is here. . . . The fierce violence on our streets, in our schools and hospitals. . . . Even the occupation will not end anytime soon. It is stronger than all the forces at work in the political arena.