Netanyahu’s New Government Roils Israel Before It’s Even Formed

JERUSALEM — First he agreed to hand control over Israel’s internal security to an ultranationalist. Then he pledged to give a party that opposes gay rights and liberal values wide powers over some programs taught in public schools. Finally, he promised a religious party that seeks to annex the West Bank authority over much of daily life in the occupied territories.

The backlash against efforts by Israel’s prime minister-designate, Benjamin Netanyahu, to form a new right-wing government has been swift, with liberal Israeli critics and even many conservatives saying that he is undermining the country’s democratic values.

While Mr. Netanyahu is returning to power in a position of strength after the Nov. 1 election — his right-wing and religious alliance won 64 seats, a majority in the 120-seat Parliament — his path back has been far from smooth as he maneuvers the political land mines that come with working with his new allies.

He has caused an uproar within the school system after last week promising Avi Maoz, the leader of the far-right Noam party who promotes policies that critics describe as homophobic, racist and misogynist, authority over extracurricular content and enrichment programs in the state school system. Within days, hundreds of teachers and hundreds of school principals, as well as dozens of city mayors and local councils publicly pledged to ignore any dictates from Mr. Maoz and to preserve the spirit of pluralism in their classrooms.

Israeli soldiers in October on guard at a bus stop south of the West Bank city of Nablus with far-right election posters. Experts say Mr. Netanyahu will have to consider how much to rein in far-right coalition partners.Credit…Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Initial agreements with other potential coalition partners have also been contentious, underlining what the emerging government’s opponents describe as a struggle ahead to preserve the country’s liberal democracy, its independent judiciary and the status quo in matters of state and religion.

Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is returning to office after more than a year in the opposition even as he is standing trial on corruption charges. Accusing the departing government of seeking to foster a rebellion against the incoming one, he has tried to reassure his domestic and international audiences that he alone will be responsible for his government’s policies.

But despite his strong position in the new Parliament, experts say Mr. Netanyahu has been weakened by his legal troubles, leaving open the question of how much he will want to rein in his ultranationalist or ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

“On one side is what is good for the country,” said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “and there is what is good for him on the other.”

“Netanyahu might now be willing to consider things that are not in the country’s interest if they help him survive politically,” Professor Hazan said. “His partners know that and realize they can squeeze more from him.”

What to Know About Israel’s Latest Election

The country held its fifth election in less than four years on Nov. 1.

  • Netanyahu’s Return: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s opposition leader, is set to return to power with a new, far-right coalition that will once again make him prime minister.
  • The Far Right’s Rise: To win the election, Mr. Netanyahu and his far-right allies harnessed perceived threats to Israel’s Jewish identity.
  • What’s Next for the Left?: After a near wipeout, the leaders of Israel’s left-leaning parties say they need to change — but disagree on how.
  • Worries Among Palestinians: To some Palestinians, the rise of Israel’s far right can scarcely make things worse. But many fear a surge of violence.

The first deal that Mr. Netanyahu reached, with Itamar Ben-Gvir of the ultranationalist Jewish Power party, would make Mr. Ben-Gvir minister of national security with oversight over the police and with the newly expanded authority to control additional forces, including the Border Police unit that operates in the occupied West Bank.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the ultranationalist Jewish Power party, would have oversight over the police under the deal to make him minister of national security.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

That led the departing defense minister, Benny Gantz, a centrist and a former army chief, to declare that the expanded powers “stemmed, in the best case, from a lack of understanding” of national security and “in the worst case, from a desire to establish a private militia for Ben-Gvir.”

Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionism party, which ultimately seeks to annex the West Bank, has been promised control over the Defense Ministry agencies dealing with the construction of Jewish settlements and Palestinian and Israeli civilian life in the occupied territories. That would mean a division of powers with the future defense minister, which a former military spokesman, Ronen Manelis, said would lead to “chaos.”

Professor Hazan said that the coalition promises should be treated for now as “conjecture,” and that it would not be unusual for there to be a gap between the written agreements and what happens in reality as the negotiations over the coalition makeup continue.

Mr. Netanyahu has dismissed his critics as fear-mongers who do not accept the outcome of the election.

Defending his actions, he wrote on Facebook on Friday: “I was elected to lead the state of Israel and I intend to do so on your behalf and in the spirit of the national and democratic principles on which I was raised in my father’s home and that have guided me my whole life.”

Bezalel Smotrich, center, the leader of the Religious Zionism party, has been promised control over the Defense Ministry agencies dealing with the construction of Jewish settlements and Palestinian and Israeli civilian life in the occupied territories.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

In another post on Monday, he wrote, “Over 20 years, I have responsibly led the state of Israel forward in all spheres, and I will also do so this time.”

But Professor Hazan said that Mr. Netanyahu would be constrained by the fact that it will be difficult to rein in his far-right and religious allies by threatening to seek alternative coalition partners because other Israeli parties have refused to be part of a government with a prime minister under indictment.

Mr. Netanyahu still has until Sunday to form a government, and he can request a 14-day extension. Laws must be changed to accommodate the shifting of responsibilities between ministries he has proposed. More thorny issues on the agenda include measures to curb the power of the Supreme Court and a new military draft law that will satisfy the ultra-Orthodox parties’ demands for broad exemption from service for Torah students.

But Mr. Netanyahu’s future coalition partners have already been stirring up problems for him. Mr. Ben-Gvir publicly sided with soldiers who had been disciplined for physically and verbally abusing left-wing activists who were visiting the volatile West Bank city of Hebron, leading to a high-decibel dispute between senior officers, the departing government and the incoming one over the politicization of the army.

Marching in the Pride parade in Jerusalem in June. Avi Maoz, the leader of the Noam party, has said he would cancel the event.Credit…Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

Mr. Maoz, who is expected to head an authority for national Jewish identity as a deputy minister in the prime minister’s office, and who opposes women serving in the army, told a small, religious publication last week that he intended to work to cancel the annual gay pride parade in Jerusalem, which he described as “an obscene abomination,” forcing Mr. Netanyahu to reiterate his commitment to protect gay rights.

The largest outcry, however, has been over the plan to give Mr. Maoz the authority to approve or expunge external content programs from the list currently offered to Israeli schools, even though his party, Noam, which ran on a joint slate with Religious Zionism and Mr. Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power, later broke with them, and only has one seat in Parliament.

Yair Lapid, the departing centrist prime minister, wrote a letter to the heads of local authorities telling them not to cooperate with Mr. Maoz’s unit and to exercise their right to decide what content enters their schools.

Dozens of City Council heads, including some from Mr. Netanyahu’s own party, Likud, said they would pay for any school programs promoting pluralism that Mr. Maoz canceled.

“No party has exclusivity over Judaism, just as no party has exclusivity over pluralism,” Tzvika Brot, the mayor of Bat Yam, a Likud stronghold, wrote on Twitter, adding that the city would continue to educate its children in the spirit of “pluralism and acceptance of the other.”

Children returning from school in Tiberias, Israel, last year. There has been widespread outcry over plans to give Mr. Maoz the authority to approve or expunge external content programs from the list offered to Israeli schools.Credit…Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

Mr. Maoz responded with a televised statement on Monday, saying: “This is a campaign by the minority that lost the election against the majority of the people who spoke clearly at the ballot boxes. This campaign is nothing short of sedition.”

Some of his opponents said the deal was a wake-up call for liberal Israelis.

“It made people understand that you can’t be indifferent,” said Orly Erez Likhovski, the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, a rights group of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, which runs school programs promoting pluralism.

“It even woke up mayors on the right who believe in liberal values,” she said. “It drew a line between the liberals and the zealots.”

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