JERUSALEM—For weeks, headlines in the Israeli media have been full of demands by ultra-Orthodox leaders to fundamentally alter the character of Israeli society, threatening to upend the tenuous balance between the country’s highly-religious and less-religious and secular communities.
The nation’s most controversial rabbis and far-right political leaders are publicly competing for appointments over prestigious government ministries which will oversee everything from public security to immigration to the budget to Jewish immigration policy.
And non-Orthodox Israelis are growing increasingly nervous.
Leaders such as the head of the Jewish Power party, Itamar Ben Gvir, Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich and the rabbis who run Shas and United Torah Judaism are insisting that the price of their willingness to help presumptive Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu form a governing coalition will be a series of radical changes to Israel’s legal, political and religious culture.
This is creating fear among many traditional, Conservative, Reform, Messianic and secular Jews that their rights and values will be abandoned or even trampled.
Among the legislation the ultra-Orthodox and far-right leaders are pushing for:
Since the Nov. 1 election, though he has given numerous interviews to promote his new book, “Bibi: My Story,” Netanyahu has been rather tight-lipped about his coalition negotiations.
This has just added to the fears that Netanyahu perhaps agrees with – or will accede – to all of these demands.
But yesterday, Netanyahu began publicly pushing back, seeking to assure the broader Israeli society – and leaders in the U.S. and around the world – that while he will respect Israeli democracy he will not impose Jewish religious laws on his fellow citizens.
“I’ve often heard these doom projections, but none of them materialized,” Netanyahu said on an hour-long podcast. “I [always] maintained Israel's democratic nature. I maintained Israel's traditions.”
“Israel is not going to be governed by Talmudic law,” Netanyahu insisted.
“We're not going to ban LGBT forums,” he said specifically, though he added that, “as you know, my view on that is sharply different, to put it mildly.”
By this, Netanyahu was referring to the fact that he has been an outspoken supporter of LGBTQ+ “rights” and gay pride parades in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv despite the fact that such left-wing policies and values run sharply counter to the Bible and those Israelis who seek to follow the Bible.
“We're going to remain a country of laws,” Netanyahu promised. “I govern through the principles that I believe in.”
Netanyahu made the remarks during a one-hour-and-seven-minute podcast interview with Bari Weiss, a former editorial writer for The New York Times.
“Let's turn to the current government that you're trying to put together,” Weiss asked during the wide-ranging conversation. “Israeli politics is all about forming coalitions. We talked about how the last coalition government was hailed as this unity government, but you saw it as a disunity government that failed quickly because it embraced the United Arab List, a party that you describe as a Muslim Brotherhood party. I want to talk about why you think the government that you're currently forming won't be subjected to a similar fate from the opposite side.”
“Your new coalition will include two far-right, fringe parties that want Israel to annex the West Bank and to expel Israeli Arab citizens of Israel who ‘don't support Israel,’” she said.
“One of the politicians that you're forming a coalition with is a man called Itamar Ben Gvir. Ben Gvir was a member of a political party that the U.S. and Israel both deemed a terrorist organization and was eventually outlawed by Israel. The Israeli army, which has mandatory military service, would not let this man serve because he had earned such a name for himself for his far-right associations as a teenager. Most alarmingly, this is a man who for many years had hanging in his home a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, the infamous Jewish terrorist who murdered 29 Palestinian Muslim worshipers in 1994 as they were praying in a mosque.”
“I want to ask you about lines,” she continued. “Do the ends justify the means here? I understand from a political realist perspective that you probably can't form a coalition without some of these characters and parties. But…at what point do some of the ideas embraced by some of these people like Ben Gvir, who is going to have power in your coalition, get too close to that line or cross it?”
It was the first time since the elections that Netanyahu has responded to such a direct question.
“First of all, his [Ben Gvir’s] eligibility to be a coalition member and a minister was determined by none other than the Supreme Court, and they gave him complete clearance,” Netanyahu replied. “That has to be understood. If they didn't, he wouldn't be here. That's the first point.”
“The second point is the policy,” he continued. “The main policy or the overriding policy of the government is determined by the Likud and frankly, by me. I think I have more than a modest influence on it.”
“I've been prime minister for 15 years, the longest serving prime minister of Israel,” he noted. “I’ve often heard these doom projections, but none of them materialized. I maintained Israel's democratic nature. I maintained Israel's traditions. This Israel is not going to be governed by Talmudic law. We're not going to ban LGBT forums. As you know, my view on that is sharply different, to put it mildly. We're going to remain a country of laws. I govern through the principles that I believe in.”
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.