To opponents of Israel and its existence, it does not matter who is in government, or what Israel does, or how it behaves. It’s all the same to them.
However, to supporters of the Jewish state, people who understand that the Jewish future depends on its policies and how it conducts itself, and who also care deeply about how that future looks – the direction Israel chooses, matters.
As it always has. For all parties to the debate.
There’s nothing new about this and the discussion is often full of passion with multi-layered thinking and is ongoing.
After 2000 years of not having the ability, the privilege and the responsibility of determining the fate of the Jewish people ourselves, we are still learning how to manage the change in our national condition.
However, the heat generated by many Israeli politicians, on both sides, needs to be turned down – and quickly. Words matter.
For example, when Menachem Begin was elected prime minister in 1977, some may recall how the general press and others, described his win as Israel having elected a ‘terrorist’.
Begin went on to make peace with Egypt and be the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The large and peaceful demonstrations that took place in Israel after Shabbat focused on the proposed changes to the balance between the powers of the Knesset and that of the High Court.
Both are respected institutions and both have an important and positive role to play in Israel’s democratic system.
In this case, the pendulum is swinging back from the years of judicial activism driven by previous High Court head, Aharon Barak.
Perhaps the rejection of Ruth Gavison’s nomination to the High Court by Barak best demonstrated his politicisation of judicial roles. Although Gavison was eminently qualified and a strong leftist to boot, she was opposed to the extremes of Barak’s attempts to overrule the Knesset.
The questions around the proposed ‘Override Law’ are less about the principle itself, but more about what sort of Knesset majority might be needed for it to be implemented.
Observers, Israel’s allies and indeed world Jewry are looking to see just who is ultimately in control of this government. Essentially, is it Prime Minister Netanyahu or his coalition partners?
Or, in other words, will the changes be more moderate or more extreme?
Netanyahu is being tested on many fronts and seems to have come out ahead in this first round regarding three contentious emblematic matters.
It is still very early days and it could well be a case of him winning the battle, but ultimately losing the war.
Let’s go with what we’ve got so far.
1 – Aryeh Deri. The Shas head leads the second biggest party in the coalition government, is a very experienced politician and is probably Netanyahu’s ‘easiest’ and most reliable partner.
Once Deri and Shas (the more Zionistic of the Haredi parties) have their sectoral interests satisfied, they rarely have demands on the broader aspects of government, giving Netanyahu almost free reign, especially in the field of settlements, foreign affairs and the Palestinians.
Last week, Israel’s High Court determined by a vote of 10 to 1 that Deri cannot serve as a minister in the government. One of the reasons given for this decision was that in a recent plea bargain on tax fraud charges, Deri received a lesser penalty on the basis of his undertaking, as one judge noted, that he “is retiring from politics and turning to public work outside the Knesset and government”.
Despite allegations that somehow the rule of law was in jeopardy, on Sunday Deri was fired by Netanyahu. Deri is likely to resurface in another guise, which may also be tested in court, but the point here is that there was a judgement by the court and the government, as per the norm, followed it.
2 – Settlements. A real flashpoint issue generally, but also internally within the governing coalition.
While the Defence ministry previously had authority over matters such as settlements in Judea/Samaria/West Bank, Smotrich in particular believed that he had negotiated control over the settlements for his party and a sub ministry for himself, within Defence.
Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist party, is a strong ideologue. Even when it meant, for example, sending himself and Netanyahu into opposition, he would not tolerate an Israeli Arab party in a coalition.
Smotrich is deeply committed to settlement building and growth.
On Friday morning, a small number of families established a new settlement in Samaria called Or Chaim, named in honour of Rabbi Chaim Druckman z”l, one month after he passed away.
Smotrich strongly supported the establishment of this new settlement but just a few hours later, under the orders of Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, a right-winger himself, the army took the settlement down and the settlers were evacuated.
A similar scenario was repeated on Sunday.
Smotrich called it a breach of the coalition agreement and he and his party boycotted Sunday’s cabinet meeting.
The interpretation used by Netanyahu and Gallant was that the coalition agreement only conferred powers to Smotrich over existing settlements, but responsibility for new settlements, remained with the defence minister.
Moreover, on Friday, Netanyahu’s office released the following statement, according to the Times of Israel: “The state would only support Jewish settlement in the West Bank if it is done according to the law and coordinated with the premier and the relevant security officials, ‘which did not happen in this case’.”
Smotrich will not give in on this issue easily, if at all.
Ben Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party took a different and very interesting tack. He, unlike Smotrich, did attend the cabinet meeting, but urged that equal action be taken against illegal Palestinian building in Area C, evidence of which he presented to the cabinet.
Ben Gvir seems to be displaying a greater degree of flexibility or creativity than Smotrich in his approaches on a number of issues and appears to be quite an effective strategist, as a result of which Netanyahu opposed Smotrich’s position but supported Ben Gvir’s in this case.
They will be much more to come on this matter.
3 – The Law of Return. Changes suggested to this law particularly caused angst in the diaspora.
Amichai Chikli is the new Minister for Diaspora Affairs.
Chikli himself, whilst not identifying directly with any one stream, comes from a Conservative Jewish background and lives on a kibbutz founded by the Conservative Movement. He is now a member of the Likud, having previously been in Yamina.
On Thursday last week, he addressed the Israeli American Council conference in Texas and the Israeli press.
Chikli said, “No one, no one is going to cancel the Law of Return, which is fundamental for the State of Israel. We’re not saying we’re about to cancel Chapter Four (the grandchild clause) tomorrow morning. That’s not what’s going to happen. What’s going to happen is there’s going to be a committee to determine how can we deal with this serious challenge. And, as you see when you go into the details, that’s a challenge. We need Israel to be a strong Jewish state, and we need to tackle this challenge, and we’re going to do it slow. We’re going to do it by listening to all.”
Whether he is successful in a considered, unrushed process as described remains to be seen but, here again, Netanyahu seems to have won at least the initial internal coalition battle.
At the very least, Netanyahu has demonstrated that he is more aware of the import and repercussions of changes being mooted by his government than some of his coalition partners.
It’s no guarantee of things to come, but it has been a very eventful first few weeks where Netanyahu and the Likud have come out on top within the coalition – for now.
More twists and turns are sure to appear.