Netanyahu’s New Coalition Government is Jeopardizing Israeli Democracy

Foreign Policy Brief #163 | By: Ian Milden | January 4, 2023

Header photo taken from: The Associated Press

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem.

Photo taken from: GPO / Kobi Gideon

Policy Summary

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After nearly two months of negotiating with the far-right religious parties, Benjamin Netanyahu reached an agreement with them to become Prime Minister again. Netanyahu made major concessions to become the new Prime Minister. While Netanyahu appears to have successfully shielded himself from the criminal justice system, the policy decisions that his coalition of his supporters are making may imperil the future of democracy in Israel.

Policy Analysis

After an early November election, Benjamin Netanyahu spent nearly two months negotiating with far-right parties and religious conservative parties to form a government. Conservative voters turned out at higher-than-expected rates, which allowed Netanyahu’s Likud Party and his allies to win a slim majority of seats in the Knesset (Israeli parliament). The far-right parties and religious conservative parties decided to use their leverage to extract significant concessions from Netanyahu. These concessions were both on policy and positions within Netanyahu’s government.

There are several aspects of Netanyahu’s deal with his conservative allies that prompted significant concern for members of the Israeli public as well as the international community. There are proposals to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which will likely increase conflict with the Palestinians. The United States is concerned enough to send National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to Israel to discuss the issue with the new Israeli Government.

Netanyahu appointed Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has advocated for Israeli soldiers to be immunized in cases related to shooting Palestinians, to be the Security Minister. This appointment has caused great concern within the Israeli military. The retiring leaders of the Israeli military expressed concern to Netanyahu that Ben-Gvir could drag the Israeli military into domestic political disputes.

Many of Netanyahu’s allies outside of his party are pushing for proposals that would weaken legal protections for members of the LGBTQ community, Palestinians, and other minority groups. These proposals have received pushback from the Israeli tech sector and members of the secular middle class. The religious conservative allies of Netanyahu are pushing for increased funding for Orthodox Jewish students, who do not serve in the military or work. Existing funding for these students is unpopular with the Israeli public.

While all of these are concerning developments, the proposals by Netanyahu’s allies to weaken the Israeli judicial system have implications for the future of democracy in Israel. The proposal would prevent sitting Prime Ministers from facing prosecution for a range of offenses, including the types of corruption charges that Netanyahu is currently facing. 

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Yariv Levin, center, speaks to lawmakers in Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s justice minister Levin has unveiled the new government’s long-promised overhaul of the judicial system that aims to weaken the Supreme Court.

Photo taken from: Maya Alleruzzo / Associated Press

The proposal would also change the structure of the Attorney General’s office to make most of the top officials in that office political appointees, rather than having officials selected based on merit. The Attorney General’s office is currently the office in charge of prosecuting Netanyahu on the corruption charges.

Netanyahu’s judicial proposals would also severely restrict the Supreme Court’s ability to engage in judicial review. Judicial review is the power of the courts to review laws passed by the legislature and strike them down if they violate Israel’s Basic Laws (the document in Israeli politics that protects many civil rights and freedoms). 

Judicial review is an important power for the judicial system in republic systems of government because it gives the judicial system the ability to check the potential misuse of power by the legislature. Members of the Israeli far-right parties want to curtail this because the Supreme Court has used judicial review to strike down several laws that the far-right parties supported.

If the Israeli government moves forward on the proposals to significantly alter the judicial system, the Biden Administration and other Israeli allies may take steps to alter Israeli behavior. Preventing and reversing countries’ attacks on democratic norms and systems has been a priority for the Biden administration. Changes to the judicial branch’s power in Israeli would not go unnoticed by the Biden Administration.

It is still possible that some of these proposals will not become law. Some members of the Likud Party were unhappy with the concessions that Netanyahu made to his coalition partners, particularly with some of the cabinet positions he conceded to them. Some of the policy proposals that Netanyahu’s coalition partners want to pass are deeply unpopular with the Israeli public. 

It would only take a few disgruntled members of Netanyahu’s party to block any proposal from becoming law. If a significant and lasting divide opens within the Likud Party, that could cause the coalition to collapse and force the country into another election. While there are currently no public signs of a significant rebellion within the Likud Party, it is something that could occur in the future as Netanyahu will need to put some of the controversial policy decisions up for a vote to keep his coalition partners happy.

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