Israel’s first ‘national emergency’ government has the power to veto all legislation, not only those directly related to the Coronavirus pandemic. Unlike previous governments, this one has an artificial lifespan of 36 months, rather than the usual five years. It establishes a new office of an ‘alternate’ prime minister—filled by Benny Gantz—who will take over as prime minister after 18 months. The coalition agreement also alters the so-called Norwegian Law, which allows Members of the Knesset (MKs) who join the government to fill their Knesset positions with members from the same party. Dropping this law means members will not be replaced in an effort to prevent Benny Gantz’s previous electoral partners, Yesh Atid and Telem, from increasing their caucuses.
Such dramatic changes forced the Israeli High Court to intervene, and on May 6, it cleared the way for the coalition government to move forward. Following the court’s vote, the Knesset voted on May 7 to amend the Basic Laws, Israel’s quasi-constitution, allowing the coalition government to take office. The new government, with 36 Cabinet ministers, was sworn in on Sunday, May 17.
Shortly after reaching an agreement with Benjamin Netanyahu, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz tweeted, “We prevented fourth elections. We’ll safeguard democracy.” However, the changes the coalition introduced are fundamentally altering the Basic Laws and the Israeli body politic. The reforms establish a dangerous precedent and push Israel further along the worrisome trajectory of democratic backsliding. Signs of such regression began to appear before the coalition agreement, but have exacerbated since. Furthermore, the rise of illiberal populist parties, and Netanyahu’s history of cultivating ties with strongman governments in Hungary, Poland, and Russia, all raise the question of whether the new Netanyahu-Gantz government has the capacity or the will to protect Israel against democratic deterioration.
Netanyahu has campaigned as a populist strongman, keeping with the trend of growing populist appeal in Israel and elsewhere. He attacked pillars of Israel’s democratic institutions, such as the independence of the judiciary, while also fanning the flames of internal division. During the 2015 General Election, Netanyahu warned about the dangers of Arabs voting, and Likud and its supporting parties on the right have employed nativist rhetoric and policies. More recently, in 2018, the Netanyahu government championed the passage of the Nation-State Law. This legislation had three components: making Hebrew the official language and downgrading the status of Arabic, making the right to self-determination unique to the Jewish people, and endorsing “Jewish settlement as a national value.”
Populism has infected more than one party or one part of the political spectrum, and the populist trend is not unique to the larger parties. Parties such as Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Shas have competed for the support of less observant Mizrachi voters by pitching the idea that they can advance their interests against entrenched elites and overcome their marginalization in society. Other figures, such as Avigdor Lieberman, have called for Arab-Israelis to take loyalty oaths.
The domestic implications of the recent constitutional amendment and the subsequent backsliding are the erosion of checks and balances, increased exclusionary politics, and weakening pluralism. Meanwhile, the international consequences affect Israel’s future relationship with Jordan. Likud—along with rightwing parties that have been left out of the coalition, namely Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s Yamina—have resurrected the idea of a “Greater Israel” that must be governed under Israeli sovereignty. This has dovetailed with enthusiasm for the annexation of the Jordan Valley and, eventually, all of the West Bank. The coalition agreement paves the way for such annexations, with growing speculation that this will be Netanyahu’s first order of business. Even more, the new coalition has endorsed the annexation of the Jordan Valley and has voiced support for incorporating many of the settlements into Israel. Such support can severely weaken, if not destroy, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and increase the likelihood of a one-state solution.
Today, estimates put Palestinians at between 23 percent to as much as half of Jordan‘s population. Annexation could set off mass protests in Amman that may destabilize the kingdom. Similarly, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has proclaimed an end to all of the agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. Pursuing annexation, whether it is of the Jordan Valley or of the entire West Bank, likely spells the end of any two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians (absent unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip). This raises the likelihood of a One-State Solution, meaning Israel will have to contend with a choice between having to fully integrate the Palestinians or isolate and rule over them. Annexation would also further isolate Israel. Netanyahu’s governments have pursued closer ties with African nations. However, some of these states may end relations with Israel in response to the extension of sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the rest of the West Bank. Finally, the European Union has made clear it would not recognize any extension of Israeli law to the occupied territories, further damaging relations between Israel and its largest trading partner.
Albert B. Wolf is the Dean of the College of International Studies at the American University of Kurdistan, and an Adjunct Fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Follow him on Twitter @albertwolf82.