Netanyahu’s COLD start into his 6th term as Israeli Prime Minister

  • Benjamin Netanyahu formed a coalition with far-right political parties and returned to power as Israeli Prime Minister despite facing a corruption trial.
  • He wants to secure his political survival, pass the judicial system reform to avoid prosecution and continue building on his legacy. 
  • His coalition’s plans to expand Jewish presence in the West Bank are leading to violent confrontation.
Benjamin Netanyahu
Hudson Institute

Why is Netanyahu’s heat level COLD?

Answer: Netanyahu came back to power with a hardline coalition and controversial plans for judicial reform, provoking a negative public response.

On December 29 Benjamin Netanyahu — Israel’s longest-serving leader — returned to power as the Prime Minister for the 6th time. Despite being on trial for corruption, Netanyahu’s coalition managed to surpass the Lapid block in the November elections and received 64 out of 120 seats. Netanyahu formed a coalition dependent on far-right extremism parties to secure his win in the Knesset

The most notable members of his new cabinet are Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and Avi Maoz, who took the positions of National Security Minister, Finance Minister within the Ministry of Defense and Deputy Minister respectively. Smotrich has received authority over the settlements’ development policy, whereas Ben-Gvir is now ruling Israeli interior police and border police which operate in the West Bank territory. All these politicians hold strong anti-Arab positions and encourage the West Bank annexation plans. 

On January 11th Netanyahu’s new Justice Minister, Yariv Levin shared the cabinet’s plan for upcoming judicial reform. It proposes major changes in existing orders of judge appointment. The new government will be able to control judicial selection procedures, limit the Supreme Court’s authority and give the Knesset the power to re-legislate rejected laws. 

Who is changing Netanyahu’s temperature?

Answer: His new coalition partners, public opinion and the Constitutional Court.   

Taking into account the prevailing far-right spectrum of his cabinet, Netanyahu will be under greater pressure from his coalition partners to pursue their political agenda. They will use received authority to pressure Netanyahu into  “strengthening the status of Jerusalem” by expanding the West Bank settlement enterprise, albeit constrained by the Abraham Accords previously signed by Netanyahu. Due to the fact that Netanyahu’s legal and political survival depends on his new allies keeping him in office, he might have to go against his own pledge of avoiding “unnecessary adventures” and expanding “the circle of peace”

At the same time, within eight days of the proposal of the judicial reform, Netanyahu received unprecedented opposition – an official statement signed by almost every attorney general and state attorney in the country. They call on the government to withdraw from the published plan and stress that the changes would turn the Supreme Court into a biased, government-controlled institution which would undermine democracy. 

Additionally, on January 19th the Supreme Court ruled to disqualify a key Netanyahu ally Rabbi Aryeh Deri, leader of the Orthodox Party, from his position of Interior and Health Minister. For Netanyahu, this will serve as an additional driving factor to pass new judicial legislation, as it will allow him to bring the former Interior Minister back. Moreover, on February 2nd Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara informed Netanyahu that he cannot be involved in the ongoing judicial reform, as it is forbidden under the conflict of interests agreement of 2020. 

Recent public opinion polls depict growing support for keeping the Supreme Court’s authority to reject the laws passed by the Knesset. Furthermore, the reform proposal has been met with widespread anti government protests.

What is driving Netanyahu?

Answer: Netanyahu wants to change the Israeli judicial system and remain in power to avoid prosecution on his corruption trial, all while building on his legacy. 

Since 2018 Netanyahu has been under trial for corruption, and since then his main motivation has been to return to power to use the Prime Minister’s immunity to put the trial on hold and meanwhile change the Israeli legal system to avoid prosecution. For that reason, he had to form a coalition with the only parties willing to govern with him, the right-wing and extremes, and grant them extended powers in exchange for their support of the judicial reform. Now he is bound by his hardline coalition and will have to do anything to push the new legislation despite strong civil opposition.

At the same time, Netanyahu wants to preserve and build on his legacy. For example, the Abraham Accords, which were negotiated by him, in which Israel agreed that it will not continue annexations within the Palestinian territory, which will constrain Netanyahu from taking immediate action in the West Bank. He will try to block Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s most radical ideas such as Arab expulsion and breaking the status quo of the Temple Mount. However, given the recent backlash on his participation in the judicial reform, Netanyahu will have to lessen his grip on his allies so as not to lose their support. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: High risk of the West Bank annexation, threat to Israeli democracy and worsening of Jewish-Arab relations. 

From the near-term Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution perspective, it is unlikely that both parties will move any closer to the two-state solution. Furthermore, the predominantly right-wing agenda inside the new Cabinet and already-started provocative actions from the Israeli side indicate a high possibility of further escalation in the West Bank. Should the new judicial reform be enacted, it would serve as a precedent for those in the governing majority to quickly push settlements in the West Bank. 

Given growing tensions inside Israel and the perspective of conflict escalation, Jewish-Arab relations might worsen significantly within Israel and Palestine. Most recent public opinion polls indicate that 49% of Jewish Israelis support the statement that “Jewish citizens of Israel should have more rights than non-Jewish citizens”, which is 22% more than in 2018. With Ben-Gvir controlling the police department and making a controversial visit to Al-Aqsa, there is a possibility that the intercommunal violence of May 2021 will find its comeback in the upcoming months.

Violence of the kind Israel experienced on January 27th, when seven Israelis were killed by a Palestinian gunman in a deadly attack in Jerusalem. The attack was a reaction to the deadly raid by the Israeli Defense Forces in the West Bank a day earlier, in which at least nine Palestinians were killed.

Ksenia Kumanina