Opinion

Netanyahu clinging to power has left Israel in crisis

The Israeli prime minister's ability to read the public mood and react accordingly has failed him, to dramatic effect

Benjamin Netanyahu at an Israeli cabinet meeting in Jerusalem - 30 Jul 2023

Benjamin Netanyahu first became Israeli PM in 1996, the first of three spells in power. Image: ABIR SULTAN/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

To understand the crisis now facing Israel, you first have to understand the dominance of Benjamin Netanyahu over its politics.  

Few politicians in democracies have survived as a party leader for as long as Netanyahu, let alone as prime minister. So far, he has been PM – on and off – for over 15 years.  

Israeli politics used to be a competition between visions, with the once dominant Labour establishment making way for the upstart Likud in the 1970s. In recent years it has effectively been a contest between those who want Netanyahu as PM and those who don’t. Even out of power he has always been the prism through which governments refracted. 

Israel has always been led by unwieldy coalitions, thanks to its proportional representation system. Netanyahu has been the master at assembling them – the key political skill, especially of late
when there have been five elections in four years because the coalitions have kept collapsing. 

Although attacked as divisive, Netanyahu has always managed to lure in centrists and keep out the extremists. But this time it’s different. After last year’s government of anti-Netanyahu forces fell apart, the November election threw up the political equivalent of three-dimensional chess. None of the normal coalition combinations would be enough for a parliamentary majority. So Netanyahu turned, for the first time, to the fringe religious and nationalist extremists. 

These include the likes of Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security – a man who reveres Israeli American terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians in the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in Hebron. Ben-Gvir has a criminal record for supporting a group founded by the racist terrorist Meir Kahane. He has called for a loyalty test for Arab Israelis, with those who refuse to be expelled. Or there is Bezalel Smotrich, the minister of finance, who said in October 2021 that “it’s a mistake that Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you [Israeli Arabs] out in 1948”. He has also stated that gay pride parades are “worse than bestiality”. 

It’s the entry into power of these politicians that lies behind the crisis. Unusually for a relatively new country, Israel has no written constitution. It relies on common law, legislation and the Supreme Court – regarded as a global leader in jurisprudence. But the Supreme Court has long been a bugbear to extremist parties because it has the power to strike down legislation. Israel may be the Jewish state, but it is not a theocracy; it is proudly secular.

That is anathema to the extremists, with the Supreme Court (rightly) seen as a block on the introduction of racist or extremist laws. If the Supreme Court can be neutered, a parliamentary majority is all that is required to change 75 years of Israeli law.  

With the knowledge that Netanyahu needed them in order to cobble a coalition together, the extremist parties made judicial reform the sine qua non of any deal. So the government has pushed ahead with two key reforms: first, removing the power of the Supreme Court to overrule a law viewed as “unreasonable”, and second to in effect hand the appointment of judges to the government.  

One extra factor has been at work: Netanyahu was more desperate than ever to become PM because he has been on trial for corruption since May 2020. He has been on a quest to change the law so that whatever happens, he avoids prison.  

Netanyahu has always prided himself on his ability to read the public mood and react accordingly. But that has failed him, to dramatic effect.

He tried to dismiss the reforms as a technical issue, but they handed the anti-Netanyahu forces a mobilising issue, since opposition to what they herald stretches widely and deeply across Israel. Since January vast crowds – up to a million – have been protesting, way beyond the usual suspects. 

As the political heat has intensified, former heads of the Mossad, the Shin Bet (the domestic intelligence agency) and the Israel Defense Forces have all made clear their fears that the reforms hand the possibility of elected dictatorship to the extremists. And – astonishingly for a nation built on army service – reservists have said they will not turn up for duty (unless Israel is under attack). 

The Israeli president has spent months attempting to find a compromise, to no avail. 

Israel is now in a full-on democratic crisis as a government that exists only because of the extremist fringe pushes through reforms which will change the very nature of the country. It is a fearful prospect.

Stephen Pollard is editor at large of The Jewish Chronicle

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop. The Big Issue app is available now from the App Store or Google Play

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