The gatekeepers of the “democratic old Israel” are engaged in a fierce battle against the Israeli Prime minister’s vision for the future of the Jewish state. Although he is challenged by the corruption scandals putting his government at stake, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is successfully building the “new Israel” by heading the right-wing government since 2015. The priorities of the current ruling religious-nationalistic alliance are very clear and can be summarized as follows: Strengthening Israel’s hold on the West Bank with the ultimate goal of annexation without granting equal rights to Palestinians; furthering the settlement initiatives; and increasingly making Israel more Jewish in both number and nature. This article will try to understand how Netanyahu and his allies succeeded till now in their transforming policies and what are their challenges in the coming months?
Changing the Educational System
One of the things that Netanyahu’s right-wing government has done is to consolidate Israel’s Jewish character by rewriting the school curricula. The presence of Naftali Benett from the Habayit Hayehudi party as the minister of education has facilitated the government’s plan. The party’s platform states, “Our most urgent task is to create a Jewish-Zionist educational unit to operate in the State of Israel’s public school system”. HaBayit HaYehudi will spearhead a nationalist plan to promote Jewish and Zionist identity among all students from grade 1 through grade 12.” A new high school civics textbook that depicts Israel’s military history through a religious Zionist lens and sidelines the role of its Arab minority appeared in the new curricula. Moreover, in December 2015, Bennett even banned Borderlife, a novel describing a romance between a young Jewish Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, from high school reading lists. Bennett used the Orthodox organizations to implement his plan in Israeli schools. These organizations, run by associates of his party, received 95% of the budget allocated to support Jewish culture, while other pluralistic and secular organizations like Zehut and Panim are isolated and begging schools to let them in. Furthermore, Bennett also established “the Jewish Identity Administration” that receives a generous flow of government funds. He appointed his confidant Brig. Gen. (Res.) Avichai Rontzki, formerly the head of the rabbinical college in Itamar, a settlement considered to be a bastion of the most extreme right-wing settlers as a head for this group. Influenced by Rontzki’s saying: “To defeat our enemies, and that is the goal of the army, we need less pluralism and more Jewish awareness” Bennett actively suppresses the messages advocated by human rights organizations and the peace movements that conflict with his party’s worldview. For this reason, the education minister canceled a joint conference by the Ministry of Education and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) intended to prepare teachers to engage their students in activities in honor of International Human Rights Day. Bennett accused the organization of “acting consistently to defend terrorists who killed Israelis” and ordered schools to sever all contact with it.
Democracy under attack?
One of the remaining questions is whether Israel will be a democratic state or a Jewish-Apartheid in the future. The actions of the right-wing coalition in the government is indicting that the “key defender” of the Israeli democracy power will be reduced. On Sept. 14, HaBayit HaYehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett and his colleague the Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, dropped a political bombshell with their initiative to limit the power of the Supreme Court. The main target of their move is to limit the Supreme Court’s authority to overturn laws approved by the Knesset through defining the conditions under which the court could overturn a law, limiting its power to those circumstances only. Many of the mainstream right-wing politicians consider the Supreme Court as a judicial body used by the left-wing to obstruct their policies. As an example, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, have already marked the Supreme Court as an arm of the left. “The attacks, the incitement is very worrying,” said Dalia Dorner, a former Supreme Court judge. “Without an independent court there is no democracy.” Many Israeli commentators as Maariv daily’s Ben Caspit considered that Netanyahu’s government goal is to dismantle, crush and destroy the foundations of the liberal Israeli democracy. Israel’s Supreme Court has stood as an arbiter to balance between religion and state or controversial military tactics like targeted assassinations of wanted militants.
Shaked is also using her presence in the Israeli government to strengthen the role of Judges protecting the settlements building. For this reason, Shaked seeks to appoint an attorney- Haya Sandberg- who worked to legalize settlement outposts as a district court judge. Furthermore, she released a draft legislation that would transfer responsibility for hearing Palestinian petitions against settlements from the High Court of Justice to the Jerusalem District Court – the same court to which she wants to appoint Sandberg. The Israeli government with the Justice Minister’s efforts are successfully targeting their electoral base: the Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Few months after she assumed her post, Shaked issued an order stipulating that the court’s response to settlements blocs should go through attorney Amir Fisher, who is not a member of the state attorney’s office, but a member of the extremist right-wing Regavim Movement. Shaked succeeded to turn the right-wing coalition ideology into real policies on the ground. She is taking steps to reach her vision of a Jewish state that the opponents view as a racist, xenophobic and anti-democratic.
Most Haredi-friendly government in Israel’s history
The ultra-conservative religious groups in Israel have never reached the stage of strength, as its current situation under the shadow of Netanyahu’s government. Their alliance with Netanyahu has forced many of their views on the Israeli society, which even upset some right-wing secular parties in the coalition government. Despite the secular-religious contradiction in the Israeli government, Haredim’s parties managed to reach many of their demands due to Netanyahu’s need for their support.
One of the main successes of the Haredi parties was in passing the Supermarket bill in the Knesset turning it into a law. The legislation will give the interior minister authority to strike down the municipal bylaws permitting businesses to open on Shabbat. The ultra-conservative parties succeeded in their aim although right-wing secular parties in the coalition government such as Yisrael Beyteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman opposed it considering the law as a ‘religious coercion”.
Despite their accomplishments in Netanyahu’s government, the Haredim’s are facing a main challenge by the leftist parties supported by the Supreme Court. On 12 September 2017, Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the law allowing for mass exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from the military draft calling it discriminatory and unconstitutional. The policy of open-ended postponement dates back to 1949 when Israel’s founding Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, exempted 400 religious students from military service in an effort to restore the tradition of Yeshiva scholarship, which had been nearly destroyed during the Holocaust. The number of those who have been exempted from military service is increasing to tens of thousands. Critics of the Haredim’s military exemption state complain that the fast-growing ultra-Orthodox minority are not contributing enough to the country’s economy or security, leaving the burden to the secular Israelis. Under the new coalition agreements, the government amended the legislation, canceling the provisions for sanctions, delaying putting it into effect for years and watering it down in other ways that essentially neutralized it.
Netanyahu’s coalition rule in the past decade have driven the country in an unprecedented direction at a groundbreaking speed imposing his long planned agenda on allies and opponents. Through his governmental right-wing alliance, the Likud leader levied a political pattern on the majority of Israeli parties from the different sides of the political spectrum. The speech of the right-wing groups has become the required ceiling to attract votes and raise the popularity of any political figure. As an example, the leader of the left-wing Labor party Avi Gabbay made some controversial statements in recent days against settlement evacuation and against composing a coalition with the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties, a discourse which was not the mainstream labor party speech so far. Netanyahu has also succeeded in portraying the speech of the leftist groups as a threat to the “Jewishness of Israel”, apart from accusing them along with most of the civil society as Palestinian-friendly groups. Despite the obstacles that are still slowing down their plans, the right-wing coalition have benefited from the US presidential change and the reduced Arab attention to the Palestinian cause, enabling their government to implement their exclusionary policy on the Palestinians. One of the serious proposals by the Justice Minister is to use the Israeli laws on the 400,000-plus Israeli settlers living beyond the Green Line (Israel’s pre-1967 borders) since currently, Israeli law does not apply in the West Bank. Legal construction there is based on Ottoman law, Jordanian law and Israeli military orders. Moreover, the Israeli policy of encouraging Palestinian employment in Israel, as well as the security cooperation between the Israeli security forces and the Palestinian Authority, adding to the internal Palestinian disputes, are facilitating Israel’s long term policies and preventing a third intifada in the West Bank.
On the other hand, Netanyahu is facing many challenges that are badly affecting his political plans. The possible indictment of the Likud leader, his wife and his close associates for cases of corruption could lead to the break-up of the government and an early parliamentarian elections. Fear of the possible government break-up and an early parliamentarian elections had led various parties in the government to take extreme positions to attract the votes of their political base. The supermarket bill and the capital punishment bill are two recent examples of the government disparities between different groups. The coming days will show Netanyahu’s ability to maintain government stability to complete his political project especially in light of a delicate regional and international situation.
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