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NEWS ANALYSIS

Will new ministers succeed in pushing extremist policy changes?

Just because something is written in a coalition agreement does not mean that it will happen, explains analyst Gidi Rahat

Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich with head of Jewish Power party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a vote in the Knesset assembly hall in Jerusalem, Dec. 28, 2022. (Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The 37th Israeli government was sworn in Thursday with alarming headlines: “Most right-wing, religious government in history” and “Israel’s hardline government takes office.” 

But will the members of the new government be able to push their extreme agendas through to the Israeli people? 

If history repeats, despite the fanfare, it is more likely that the government will not carry through with much of what is written on paper or in the newspapers. The media does not decide the government’s policies. Legislation has to be passed up to seven times in the Knesset to become law.

The new government, headed by Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, includes 30 ministers and six deputy ministers from six factions: Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Religious Zionism, Jewish Power and Noam. 

To form the government, Netanyahu signed coalition agreements with every party – agreements that were subsequently published online and some say include clauses with a high potential for damage to Israel’s democracy, according to Prof. Gidi Rahat, a faculty member of the Political Science Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. 

However, Rahat cautioned, just because something is written in a coalition agreement does not mean that it will happen.

“I would think issues that have to do with foreign policy in any sense of the word will have to wait until the elections in the United States,” Rahat said, as an example. “Some of the internal issues might happen more quickly – but what is really internal versus external is hard to say.”

Israel has been governed by a coalition system since its establishment in 1948 and its roots may be traced back as far as 1933 or even earlier. But it was only in 1990 that the Supreme Court ruled that the parties had to publish their agreements for the public. 

Since then, parties know that their voters will read their agreements and are careful to infuse these documents with important party lines to justify their joining the ruling coalition. 

Rahat said that generally speaking, if one has a “veto on change” within a coalition agreement, this is something that is likely to be fulfilled. In other words, if a party has required that the status quo on any matter be maintained, it is expected to be so.

For many years, various politicians have argued for electoral reform. There has not been electoral reform because in each of the last governments, one or more members of the coalition were against it, for example.

On the other hand, when it comes to significant changes in policies, such as the adoption of new laws, there are more examples of where these commitments were not fulfilled, either because of disagreements or because “the time is not right,” Rahat said. 

“The time is not right” usually means that there are pressures from outside Israel that give justification for waiting for better times. Many items raised in the coalition agreements that the United States might deem problematic, therefore, are likely to be frozen at least until after the U.S. elections in 2024. 

With the comeback of former U.S. President Donald Trump or maybe even another Republican president who gives Israel more of a free hand, some of the ideas might resurface, Rahat said. But Israel will only know that in two years – and by then, the country could be heading to the polls again.

Israel had five elections in three years and has had more elections in a shorter period of time than any OECD country in the world. 

Let’s take “annexation” or applying sovereignty over the West Bank.

What does that really mean from a practical standpoint? 

Most likely, coalition partners simply want to see an equalization of rights for Jews living over the pre-1967 lines with those who live within the borders – having Israeli law govern their civil rights as opposed to the army. 

These kinds of small steps are unlikely to cause much controversy and maybe could even go largely unnoticed. 

But Rahat said such moves are part of an effort to create a reality in which the settlements are part of Israel and the two-state solution is even more impossible than before. 

More controversial initiatives, such as building in E1 – an area of the West Bank that falls within the municipal boundary of the large Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim – are also in the agreements. 

Netanyahu has promised in every election to build in E1 but apart from one isolated police station, he never has. While right-wing coalition partners may push the prime minister in this direction, it is expected that Netanyahu will not make the move and instead focus on keeping Washington calm and the Abraham Accords moving forward. 

Both Washington and Israel’s Gulf partners would likely be against any new, major construction in the West Bank. Netanyahu has his eye on a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia.

Legalizing about 100 unauthorized outposts, on the other hand, is more likely to occur. And, according to the agreement signed with Religious Zionism, this needs to happen within 30 days.

But here too, what is the definition of “legalizing.” Does it mean making sure folks who don’t have electricity are hooked up to generators? If so, “the state has and will take care of people on these outposts in one way or another,” Rahat admitted. 

“It all has to do with how you interpret what the agreement means,” he said. 

Internal shifts in policy are more likely to move forward, especially judicial reform under the auspices of Justice Minister Yariv Levin, No. 2 on the Likud list and a close colleague of Netanyahu. 

Some of these reforms will not have a negative impact on how the State of Israel is run, though passing them could look bad for the country in the public sphere. For example, changing the way that Israel selects judges. 

Israel has the least political involvement of any country in the world when it comes to choosing judges. The U.S. has the most. Other countries are more in the middle. The reforms being recommended would actually put Israel more in-line with its European neighbors.

In the case of selecting the chief justice, that role is currently based on seniority. The new government wants to get rid of the seniority system and instead pick the chief justice. The result would be that judges have to play politics to get the job, which could lead to some Supreme Court judges quitting.

The various override bills: There are lots of versions circulating about how to prevent the court from overriding Basic Laws or how to enable the Knesset to override the court. While this is something that the government is expected to work toward, a special majority in the Knesset would be required to pass it. Therefore, any change should be moderate and take a long time. 

On matters of religion and state, the status quo is not at risk. However, there are plans that could de-incentivize the integration of the ultra-Orthodox into the economy, Rahat said. 

He said that he is less concerned about new legislation than he is about how having anti-gay and other rhetoric being circulated by the upper echelon.

“The problem is that you give legitimacy to these ideas,” Rahat said. “The legitimacy of a person to be gay could once again be called into question or they could end up being harassed.”

With regards to eradicating the “Grandchild Clause” in the Law of Return that enables the grandchild of a Jewish grandparent on either side to make aliyah – regardless of whether the person is Jewish or follows the Jewish religion – don’t expect any shifts anytime soon. 

The government has decided to form a committee to evaluate the matter, which means that making such a decision will either be pushed off months or years – if it happens at all.

And remember: The 36th government of Israel under Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid had one agreed upon aim – to prevent a comeback by Netanyahu. On Thursday, he was sworn in as Israel’s prime minister.

If the members of the previous government could not achieve even that one core goal, people should be cautious in assuming Israel’s current leaders will successfully push many – or any – extreme agenda items through.

Maayan Hoffman is a veteran American-Israeli journalist and strategic communications consultant. She is Deputy CEO - Strategy & Innovation for the Jerusalem Post, where she also served as news editor, head of strategy and senior health analyst.

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