Israel’s reality is so entrenched that conservative right-wing politics simply cannot be implemented even by a majority right-wing government.
Four months after the current government was formed, a crisis has erupted within the right-wing coalition. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has vowed his party will not vote with the government in the Knesset unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pursues more right-wing policies, as the coalition promised voters it would do. Ben-Gvir made the comments after his party criticized the government’s “weak response” to recent rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu’s Likud party said that if Ben-Gvir was dissatisfied, he was welcome to leave the government. Ben-Gvir also insists that, as Minister of National Security, he should be involved in discussions on security policy, such as how to respond to rocket fire from Gaza. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant did not invite Ben-Gvir to the most recent emergency session of the Security Cabinet. In protest, Ben-Gvir and his Otzma Yehudit party are no longer taking part in votes in the Israeli parliament. “If Netanyahu doesn’t want us in the government, then he should fire us and send us home,” Ben-Gvir stated. “If we are partners, then we must have influence.”
Ben-Gvir’s exclusion was to be expected, because nobody in defense establishment takes the Minister of National Security very seriously. Everyone knows that he insists on bombing the Gaza Strip into oblivion. This is what he vowed to do during the election campaign. Politicians from the Likud party, including Benjamin Netanyahu, made similar threats in milder terms. But what is threatened in theory during an election campaign, especially by an opposition party, does not happen in practice once that party is in government. Even after an escalation like the one we experienced this week. And for this reason you don’t want rabble-rousers in sensitive security meetings.
Even if Itamar Ben-Gvir is theoretically right that Israel needs to respond with a painful blow in Gaza, which the majority of the people agree on, the same majority is also partly aware that we are no longer capable of doing this. Right-wing politics in the sense of hardliners and hawks is taboo in Israel. The right-wing coalitions react no more harshly to terrorist attacks and rocket attacks than Israel’s left-wing governments. Left-wing coalitions, like the last of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, often react even more harshly than right-wing governments for fear of criticism from the right. Israel’s leadership simply has to pay too much attention to political considerations, both domestic and international. This ties Israel’s hands. It doesn’t matter whether the hands belong to a left-wing government or a right-wing one. Israel’s hands are not free.
This also explains why the right-wing national government does not demolish the illegal Palestinian Bedouin camp of Khan al-Ahmar between Maale Adumim and the Dead Sea. Ben-Gvir and fellow national religious cabinet minister Bezalel Smotrich last week criticized their own government’s decision to ask the Supreme Court to dismiss a lawsuit aimed at forcing the state to evict Khan al-Ahmar. The right-wing nationalist government has repeatedly avoided clearing the Bedouin camp on the side of the road, even though it repeatedly promised to do so before the elections. A court order to evict the Bedouin camp has been delayed for four years, largely due to pressure from human rights activists, pro-Palestinian groups, the US and the European Union. In February, the court severely rebuked the right-wing Netanyahu government after it requested for the ninth time a postponement of the evacuation order. The government had requested a four-month stay of a 2018 court order to allow it to develop a plan to implement the ruling. Everyone understands that these are just excuses to buy time and postpone everything again.
The right-wing government is not even capable of implementing something it promised to do, and that the Supreme Court is ordering it to do. But the government is not really to blame. This is the reality in the country. Right-wing governments are being forced to pursue policies they themselves disagree with. The fact of the matter is that right-wing slogans before the elections are gone in the wind once they have won over the people. The same is happening with judicial reform. Right-wing and religious Jews insist on reforms in the Israeli legal system and in part they are perfectly right to do so, because the legal system needs reform. But even in this matter the right-wing government does not seem to be powerful enough to implement it. It doesn’t matter if you’re for or against. The thing is, the right-wing majority is incapable of reforming the left-wing system. The leftist elite–which includes the judicial system, mainstream media, the business community and also Israel’s security establishment–are like a wall. Anti-reformists see it as a boon and a safeguard for democracy, but right-wing voters and advocates of judicial reform see it as a tragedy. Although the right-wing won the election, right-wing politics are not expressed and this frustrates the country’s right-wing constituency.
The same is repeated with the new draft law targeting the ultra-Orthodox Jews. “The Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will fall apart if the bill for conscription of the ultra-Orthodox community is passed,” warned Housing and Construction Minister Yitzchak Goldknopf. Members of the Orthodox parties in Knesset used the upcoming vote on the 2023-2024 state budget at the end of May to press for progress on exempting Orthodox yeshiva students from compulsory military service. The budget must be passed by May 29 to prevent the Knesset from being automatically dissolved, leading to new elections. The call for a basic law (ie. constitutional law) on Torah study is intended to prevent the Supreme Court from invalidating it, as it has done three times in the past, on the grounds that such an exemption violates the principle of equality for all citizens, since all other Jewish men are required to do military service.
This has already been stipulated in the coalition agreement between the Likud and the Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. Netanyahu promised this to the Orthodox parties when the government was formed. But now, in the Orthodox media, they are criticizing the behavior of Netanyahu, who is once again breaking promises to his allies. Netanyahu’s right-wing government coalition has a solid majority of 64 seats in the Israeli parliament and yet it is unable to implement this law in favor of the allies. No matter how you want to interpret everything in the end, the right-wing government is simply impotent. For this reason, people in the country are wondering whether right-wing politics is still possible at all.
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