By Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund
Finally, 484 days and three elections after the Israel’s last elected government was dissolved, a deal was struck earlier this week between Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Blue and White party Chairman Benny Gantz.
Both parties cited the need for national unity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic as the rationale for the agreement. Sixteen months of political turmoil appear to have come to an end.
Many of those who hoped for a new government firmly opposed to corruption, dedicated to seeking an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through negotiations, and premised on equal citizenship for all Israelis, feel disappointed – even betrayed.
It is, of course, too soon to tell what this new government will actually look like, and what it might mean for Israel. But here are a few initial takeaways.
The agreement means that Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to hold on to power, despite three indictments against him. By the terms of the coalition agreement, he will remain prime minister for the next eighteen months, after which time Benny Gantz is due to take his place. (Tellingly, a recent poll found that only 31% of Israelis actually think Netanyahu will vacate his position.)
But the agreement also hands critically important ministries – including Defense, Foreign Affairs and the Justice Ministry – to Blue and White MKs who are likely to be far more moderate than the current right-wing hardliners in those positions.
The unmistakable backdrop to this new government is, of course, the pandemic – an emergency which has brought Israel and the world to a standstill. Yet, it is precisely in times of emergency when democracy is at its most fragile. In the wake of Israel’s March election, we saw the transitional government try to roll back democratic norms and infringe upon civil liberties.
In the fog of the early days of the coronavirus crisis – and in the dead of night, two days before Prime Minister Netanyahu’s corruption trial was set to commence in Jerusalem – the interim Justice Minister Amir Ohana declared a “state of emergency” for Israel’s justice system, freezing the work of the courts and delaying the prime minister’s trial by two months. NIF’s flagship project partner, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), challenged this profound expansion of executive power over the judiciary.
This new government is forming on the heels of a full-blown constitutional crisis. The height of that crisis came as the Likud Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, citing the threat of the virus and urged on by ministers from Netanyahu’s transition government, suspended the Knesset and prevented Gantz from using his 61-seat Knesset majority from assuming parliamentary control.
Chief Justice of Israel’s Supreme Court Esther Hayut said that Edelstein’s abuse of power “undermin[ed] the foundations of the democratic process.” The crisis only ended when Edelstein resigned rather than yield to the Supreme Court’s order that he allow the Knesset to convene.
Now, as Gantz joins forces with Netanyahu in a broad “emergency” government, this constitutional crisis appears to be receding into the rearview mirror. But the challenges to democratic norms and institutions are in no way behind us.
According to the coalition agreement, Gantz’s Blue and White party will control Israel’s Justice Ministry. But Netanyahu will retain the right to veto key appointments, including the next attorney general and the head of the Israel Police, even as he stands trial.
This is the same Netanyahu who, only days ago, made Trump-like threats of civil insurrection, warning that if the Supreme Court rules that he is unfit to serve as prime minister due to the charges against him, “masses will take to the streets.”
But even at the height of the public health crisis, Israelis have not let the coronavirus – or their politicians – stifle their demand for democracy.
In the face of efforts to shutter parliament, citizens took to the streets to register their dissent, flying black flags – in Israel, the symbol that democracy is in danger, that the public trust has been broken – from their cars. When the police tried to curtail their right to protest, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) sprang into action, successfully appealing to the High Court of Justice to affirm that right as essential in a democracy.
Just this week, on the eve of the announcement of the new government, thousands of activists and citizens took to Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, and while taking pains to maintain appropriate social distancing, stood together for democracy and civil liberties in a time of emergency. These brave Israelis showed the world, as Time Magazine put it, what democratic protest looks like during a pandemic.
During the coronavirus emergency, the global NIF network and our project partners have been on the frontlines of crisis response, working not only to ensure that the most marginalized communities have access to care and basic needs, but also to ensure that Israel’s democratic institutions are protected.
When the interim government ordered Israel’s internal security service to track the cell phones of civilians infected or suspected of being infected with the virus, ACRI challenged the measure in the Supreme Court as undermining civil liberties – and the Court ruled that any such surveillance required Knesset oversight.
The threats to democracy will not end with the swearing in of a new government. Indeed, the parties to the new coalition have already agreed upon a path that risks Israel’s democratic character and future.
The coalition agreement clears the way for unilateral Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, in line with the reckless Trump “peace plan.” Such a move would spell the end of the hope of Palestinian self-determination and the two-state solution. It would be an existential threat to – and perhaps even a death knell for – Israeli democracy.
The coalition agreement’s terms provide for the cabinet to begin the approval process for annexation as early as July 1 – and there are few hurdles to stand in the way; Gantz has signed away his power to veto it. By the terms of their agreement, Gantz has relinquished his demand to exercise veto power over any decision by the prime minister to move forward with annexation.
This type of threat to democracy is made possible by this emergency. It is also the type of threat that civil society was built to fight.
When the government is sworn in, there will be ministers, heads of committees, and other official leaders who can be held to account. Israel’s civil society, dedicated to democracy and human rights, will make sure that every member of Knesset is aware of how steep the cost will be if they exploit this crisis to sell out the futures of both Israelis and Palestinians.
The New Israel Fund is prepared to face these threats to equality and democracy. In partnership with our project partners, we are ready to meet the challenge of this crisis. It is what we were built for. It is why we are here.