By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
On the face of it, by now Benjamin Netanyahu should be presiding over a relatively stable new government in Israel, considering the handsome majority secured by the parties who announced before the election in November that he was their only candidate for the prime minister’s job.
Yet, last week he had to ask President Isaac Herzog for a 10-day extension to the 28-day period he already had to put together a government. It is not uncommon in Israeli politics for a coalition to take weeks, if not months to assemble; the prime minister designate, in this case Netanyahu, and his party often find themselves negotiating simultaneously with representatives of a number of parties who are vying for control of highly prized ministries, budgets and jobs with which to reward their supporters.
This time round, however, there is an added complication: Blunt demands by far-right would-be members of the coalition for legislation that would dilute the country’s democratic character, and whatever is left of its liberal ideals, and compromise good governance and accountability.
The tragic irony for Netanyahu is that he did everything he possibly could to legitimize the extreme right in his efforts to prevent his rivals from being in a position to form a government. Now he finds himself dreading the idea of actually sharing power with those extremists in circumstances where, together with two other ultra-orthodox parties, they would wield great power.
Before anyone is tempted to feel any degree of sympathy for Netanyahu, it is worth remembering that this situation in which he finds himself is entirely of his own making. In his relentless and unscrupulous attempts to escape justice in his corruption trial, he has legitimized the most extreme forms of far-right religious elements in Israeli politics, and in the process has spread toxic claims and incitements against the previous government and, especially, its Arab-Palestinian members. Now, in his attempts to form a government of his own, he finds he is dependent on the monster that he created.
The leaders of the Religious Zionist party, some of whom have spent years in the political wilderness, are now kingmakers. They do not intend to squander this opportunity to extract maximum concessions in terms of the ministries they will control, and thus the government policy they will influence and, in doing so, reconstruct the character and future of Israel in their own unpleasant image.
They know full well how vulnerable Netanyahu is as the defendant in a corruption trial — and they do not trust him. One of their leaders, Bezalel Smotrich, was recorded some time ago passing judgment on Netanyahu, accusing him of habitually “lying through his teeth.” Therefore, they want to do everything they can to ensure that their agenda will reign supreme before they join his government.
Netanyahu’s problems are not confined to these extremist parties, however. He also needs to appease his own Likud loyalists who are queuing up to be rewarded with jobs to suit their egos. He stuffed Likud with his sycophants after he pushed out of the party all those who belonged to the more liberal-right tradition or dared to express an independent opinion.
Had it not been for Netanyahu’s insistence on remaining in politics, a more center-right government might have been formed rather quickly. There are opposition parties and politicians who are ideologically close to the Likud of yesteryear and most likely would have participated in government had Likud elected a different leader. They refuse, however, to be part of a Netanyahu administration while he is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Moreover, the country’s center-right parties will not share power with a Religious Zionist party that is unashamedly racist, misogynistic, homophobic, determined to destroy the democratic foundations of Israel, and hell-bent on igniting conflict with the Palestinians.
The Netanyahu of old would never have legitimized these elements, and most definitely would not have shared power with them. But he has always had a strong opportunistic streak that recognizes few boundaries in his pursuit of power and this has intensified following the police investigation into his financial affairs and other allegedly corrupt behavior.
His indictment, and his complicated and suspicious domestic and family affairs, proved to be a watershed moment in which he abandoned any attempt to operate within the boundaries of democratic fair play, in his quest to sabotage his trial and remain in power indefinitely.
What he did not realize was that his new political partners had been learning from him about how to play fast and loose with the rules and where the ends justify the means, and their appetite for power steadily grew as he conceded to almost all of their demands.
What eludes Netanyahu, or perhaps it is something about which he no longer cares, is that as part of this paradigm shift his political partners are not only after power within the rules of the game, they want to change the game altogether.
The first signs of the constitutional upheaval that the new members of the coalition intend to inflict emerged this week, with the government not yet even formed. Hours after electing a new Knesset speaker from the ranks of Likud, the prospective members of the incoming coalition embarked on a blitz of preliminary bills, most of them controversial and aimed at enabling the formation of the coalition and appeasing its future members.
One of these controversial bills, which should concern all who care for the survival of Israeli democracy and the safety and well-being of Palestinians, seeks to expand the authority of the National Security Ministry, which will be headed by Otzma Yehudit’s leader, Itamar Ben Gvir. He has already been convicted of incitement to racism and terrorism, and in the past has called for the expulsion of Palestinians.
If this were not enough, another bill aims to change a Basic Law, which in Israel holds constitutional status. This change would allow Aryeh Deri, leader of the Sephardic Shas party, to be appointed as a minister, and a very senior one, even though he was sentenced to a suspended prison term for tax offenses as recently as the beginning of this year.
This is just the beginning of an attempt to gradually subject the justice and judicial systems to the will of the politicians, in this case those with checkered pasts and, probably, even more tainted futures.
The coalition negotiations are edging toward an agreement but the way in which these talks have been conducted, the track records of the prospective coalition members, the underlying distrust between them, and the presence of inflated egos suggest that if and when such a government is formed, cracks will begin to appear sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, the opposition parties, civil society and ordinary citizens should be ready and willing to defend the democratic system, stand up for good governance, and hold the government accountable.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg