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Case Analysis 27 March, 2013

Netanyhau's New Government: More Extremist than the Last

The Unit for Policy Studies

The Unit for Policy Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


After extensive, crisis-laden efforts, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to form a new coalition government. The newly formed government has the backing from 68 of the 120 members of the Knesset. Of its 22 ministers and deputy ministers, 12 are drawn from the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu electoral alliance; five ministers are from Yair Lapid's Yish Atid party; three ministers come from Neftali Bennett's HaBayit HaYahedi ("the Jewish Home"); and Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah has contributed two ministers. While Netanyahu had been enthusiastic about the prospects of Shas and Yahadut Hatorah joining the government-two Haredi parties and his natural allies, his efforts were thwarted by Yish Atid, supported by the Jewish Home party. Given the Labor Party's refusal to join the Netanyahu-led coalition, the prime minister was forced to give in to Lapid's demand.

This report examines the new Israeli government's priorities, which are directed mainly toward Israel's domestic problems, particularly economic and social issues. This report also explores the impact of the composition of Netanyahu's new government on the expansion of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, government policies towards the peace process with the Palestinians, the question of Iran's nuclear program, and Syrian chemical weapons.

The preponderance of right-wing political parties within the government has resulted in a government more extreme on social and economic, and to a large extent political, issues than the previous government; the center ground, as far as this coalition is concerned, is very much to the right. In addition, the entry of the more extremist and fanatical members of the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu and the Jewish Home parties-the cornerstones of that coalition-into the Knesset has increased extremism and fanaticism within the government. 

All of the coalition's constituent members adhere to free market policies and support a rollback of state intervention in the economy. They espouse policies that increase the gap between the rich and the poor and lead to a monopolization of Israeli society by the upper echelons when considering the benefits of economic growth, leaving the lower socioeconomic strata with only the most marginal benefits of that growth. In terms of other policies, most notably regarding relations with the Palestinians, all of the parties within the new ruling coalition adopt a uniform position-any differences are minor, the treatment of settlements being one example. They unanimously support the construction and expansion of settlements in Occupied East Jerusalem and in areas defined as "Settlement Blocs," which constantly eat away at large swathes of the West Bank.

The Likud, Yisrael Beitenu, and the Jewish Home parties support the construction and expansion of settlements throughout the occupied West Bank, without qualification. Although Yish Atid and Hatnuah limit their support for settlement expansion to those settlements in the Blocs and in Occupied East Jerusalem, their participation in the government was not contingent on a freeze on settlement construction elsewhere. This leads to the fact that this issue is not one of great significance for them. In fact, like all of the other parties within the new coalition, the Yish Atid and Hatnuah parties demand that the Palestinians return to the negotiating table unconditionally, while settlement construction continues.

 

This government differs from the previous government on several issues, most importantly:

1)    The unprecedented, extensive influence of the settler movement.

2)    The success of the Yish Atid and Jewish Home party leaders in keeping Shas and Yahadut Hatorah out of the ruling coalition was part of a wider effort to reshape the relationship between the state and the Haredim. Lapid (Yish Atid) and Bennett (the Jewish Home) are stringently and methodically working to strip the Haredi parties of their power base and the gains that they have secured over decades of participation in Israeli governments. This was made clear in the coalition agreements both leaders signed with the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance.

3)    The Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance has managed to maintain a majority of the political and security portfolios in the government. Even so, they were compelled to hand over the portfolios covering economic and social affairs to Yish Atid and the Jewish Home.

4)    Only four of the 22 ministers are Oriental Jews, compared to the eight Oriental Jewish ministers in the previous government. While Netanyahu's party receives a high percentage of votes from Oriental Jews, who in turn make up about half of the Likud's total vote, the prime minister appointed only a single Oriental Jewish minister out of the seven ministers he appointed.

5)    Netanyahu's influence within and dominance over the government, in addition to his ability to direct the course of events in matters other than strategic and security affairs, are susceptible to weakening. This point relates to the level of coordination, mutual understanding, and cooperation between Lapid and Bennett. Should the coordination, or "alliance," based on strong mutual interests continue unabated as it has since the elections, the result would be their increased influence, particularly regarding economic and social affairs. This would be at Netanyahu's expense.

6)    Netanyahu has reduced the number of ministers who sit on the Ministerial Committee on National Security Affairs (the Political-Security Cabinet), from 14 to 7, giving him a majority within the ministerial committee, which discusses political-security affairs. These include issues such as the Iranian nuclear program, Palestinian relations, the Syrian-Lebanese issue, and the relationship with the United States.

An examination of the broad outline of the government program, and the terms of government coalition agreements between the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance with Yish Atid and the Jewish Home parties, suggests that the government's priorities will be focused on internal Israeli affairs. Bennett and Lapid have secured most of their demands, and have grabbed those important ministries that deal with social and economic issues. They are also members of, and in some cases chairs of, several ministerial and Knesset committees, further enabling them to achieve their policies.    

The text of the agreement that laid the groundwork for the new coalition government also has the stated aim of drafting an Israeli "Basic Law" in which the state's "Jewish character" supersedes democracy in the event of a conflict between the two concepts. The coalition members have also undertaken to conscript the Haredi Jews into the Israeli military, and to reduce the duration of military service from three to two years. They further undertook to implement changes to the Israeli political system by way of legislative bills to be introduced in the coming months, including:

1)    A reduction in the number of government ministers to 18, with the number of deputy ministers being limited to four. This law will be protected in such a way that any amendments will require the approval of more than 70 Knesset members.

2)    A vote of "no confidence" in the Cabinet will require 65 Knesset votes to pass, instead of the simple majority of 61 presently required. 

3)    An increasing in the electoral threshold that political parties are required to obtain in order to enter the Knesset, from two percent to four percent of the votes. This is equivalent to the votes needed for five Knesset seats. Such a law would adversely affect smaller political parties, particularly Arab political parties, none of which would be able to pass this threshold if they competed individually. Taking this into consideration, it is likely that this new law will force all of the Arab parties to form a joint electoral list to overcome the hurdle of the new electoral threshold.

 

Bolstering the Settlement Project

The composition of the new government, and the coalition agreement that forms its basis, suggests that the settlers and their supporters will enjoy great influence. This indicates that the acceleration of settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the near future is likely, unless such actions are countered by resistance from the Palestinians, the Arab states, and the international community.

Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home, was the former chairman of the council of settlements on the Occupied West Bank from 2010 to 2012, a period which saw the expansion of settlements.  During the election campaign, Bennett called for an Israeli annexation of Area C, which comprises roughly 60% of the occupied West Bank's territory. Bennett's pivotal role in the coalition, and the ministerial posts he controls, will provide for intensified construction of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. His party has secured substantive gains during the formation of the new coalition government, and is itself a settlers' group formed by merging the National-Religious Mifdal and the settler-fascist Tekumah. Uri Ariel, another member of the Jewish Home and the new Minister of Housing, is also a settler on the occupied West Bank. As part of his ministerial duties, Ariel will be responsible for the Israel Land Authority, which controls state lands, and is expected to use his diverse powers to draft plans that would expand settlement activity and set aside lands and funds for that purpose. A third member of the Jewish Home, also a settler, is Nissan Slomiansky, who serves as the head of the Knesset Finance Committee. Slomiansky's role on the finance committee will give him the opportunity to bargain for increased funds for the settlements. 

The minister of defense also has wide influence over the settlement project, holding the power to appropriate Palestinian property, approve new roads, and issue construction permits for settlements and units within them. Moshe Yaalon, recently elected to this post, is already well known for his support of the settlement project. Yaalon has even criticized former Defense Minister Ehud Barak for not satisfying settlers' demands for accelerated settlement construction. It is likely that Yaalon, who wants to replace Netanyahu as leader of the Likud, will try to improve his standing with members of the Likud, and, therefore, the chances of his succession of Netanyahu, by showering the settlers with favor. Yaalon's deputy in the government is Danny Danon, a known extremist and racist, who, immediately after his installment, announced that his top priority was to strengthen and accelerate the settlement project.

Netanyahu is himself one of the most avid backers of settlement activity, and will seek the means to allow settlement activity to continue, at some pace, throughout the entire West Bank and East Jerusalem, in particular. Netanyahu is also expected to continue the process of "legitimizing" settlement outposts by granting them legal recognition. In doing so, however, Netanyahu needs to ensure that he does not cut himself off entirely from the US administration.

Since no anti-settlement force likely to join the government, Livni and Lapid will be the only critics of settlement policy within the ruling coalition, though their opposition is not expected to go beyond lip-service, and even then only in specific cases. Being a minority within the Political-Security Cabinet and the wider government, they will probably not risk a government crisis over the settlements. So long as the Israelis do not pay a price for ongoing settlement activity and the occupation, Livni and Lapid will limit themselves to rhetorical gestures.


Regional Issues

Netanyahu wants to ensure that the Iranian nuclear issue remains a top priority for the international community, specifically for the US. During Obama's recent visit to the region, the Israeli prime minister wanted a clearly enunciated American undertaking on the "red lines" the Iranian nuclear program would not be able to cross. Additionally, Netanyahu would have wanted to arrive at an understanding with President Obama on the question of Syrian chemical weapons, and the chances of the Assad regime losing control over their stockpile. As long as the Syrian regime remains in control of any such chemical weapons, the Israelis can rest assured that they have enough of a deterrent that protects them from the use of those weapons. The Israelis fear that these stockpiles of chemical weapons, along with conventional weapons, will fall into the hands of irregular armed groups or those of Lebanon's Hezbollah. Netanyahu needed to agree with Obama on the scenarios in which the Israelis would be allowed to take action in relation to those stockpiles. In terms of the Palestinians, the prime minister wanted the US president to approve a method of managing the conflict with them. This is different than Netanyahu offering a solution that meets the bare minimum of Palestinian demands.


Conclusion

Leaving aside the numerous differences between the groups within the Israeli governing coalition, common ground on economic, social, security, and political concerns binds them together. The collapse or reshaping of the new governing coalition remains unlikely as long as Bennett and Lapid remain committed to these common concerns. Their shared aims-in terms of reforming the state's relationship with the Haredim, settlements, and economic and social policy-remain strong motivating factors for both, despite their awareness that Netanyahu wanted Shas and Yahadut HaTorah to join the coalition, and that he may, in fact, be waiting for the opportunity to bring them in. 

There are, however, two situations that could lead to a possible crisis within this governing coalition. The first of these would see the Likud party reexamining an alliance with the religious parties, or making any efforts made towards such an alliance. A second such possible situation would require the Arab states and the international community to put real pressure on the settlement issue, but this remains distinctly unlikely. The Palestinian people may have to take the initiative for themselves in the midst of the continued Judaization of their country and heightened settlement activity. 


*This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on December 4th, 2013 can be found here.