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Israeli liberals fear new government will undo progress on social, climate issues

Members of emerging coalition under Netanyahu are vowing to roll back many achievements of predecessors covering environment, LGBTQ community and funding for Arab minority

People walk past an election campaign billboard showing Benjamin Netanyahu, former Israeli prime minister and the head of Likud party, in Bnei Brak, Israel, October 25, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)
People walk past an election campaign billboard showing Benjamin Netanyahu, former Israeli prime minister and the head of Likud party, in Bnei Brak, Israel, October 25, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)

Israel’s outgoing coalition has been the most diverse in the country’s history, bringing a slew of progressive policies on the environment, LGBTQ issues and funding for the country’s Arab minority.

But now, even before it takes office, Israel’s expected new coalition government — overwhelmingly male, religious and right-wing — is promising to roll back many of the achievements of its predecessor, prompting concern from activists and liberals over where their country is headed.

If its promises materialize, a tax on environmentally destructive single-use plastics could be abolished. New protections for gay Israelis could be reversed, and generous budgets for the long underserved Arab community could be slashed.

The outgoing coalition lasted for just over a year and collapsed over disagreements on the Palestinian issue — although on that subject, its policies were largely unchanged from previous, hardline governments.

But after Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year reign, activists say it brought a positive energy to the Knesset, or parliament, and pressed ahead on issues they say were largely ignored during his lengthy rule. Now, with Netanyahu set to take office again as head of what’s expected to be the country’s most right-wing government, fears are rising that all that will be undone.

“In the last government … the public discourse was one of rights and equality and ending discrimination,” said Hila Peer, chairwoman at Aguda — The Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel.

What they are hearing now, Peer said, “is a discourse of fear.”

Arab citizens of Israel overlook the Mediterranean sea, in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, Israel, September 23, 2019. (Oded Balilty/AP)

The November 1 elections opened the way for Netanyahu’s return, bolstered by a stable majority with ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies, among them extremist lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir. Netanyahu is expected to complete negotiations on forming a new coalition in the coming weeks.

To mollify his partners, Netanyahu is expected to accede to many of their priorities, vastly different from those advanced by the outgoing government. Liberals’ fears are compounded by the coalition’s intention to weaken the Supreme Court — often the last recourse for minority groups.

Netanyahu has batted away the fears, saying they arise whenever he is elected and are disproved quickly. His supporters claim the concerns are a result of a scare campaign by his opponents.

“We will not permit anyone to be harmed, not their fundamental rights or personal freedoms,” Miki Zohar, a senior Likud lawmaker and Netanyahu confidant, told The Associated Press.

Israeli far-right lawmaker and the head of Otzma Yehudit party, Itamar Ben-Gvir visits Hatikva Market in Tel Aviv during his campaign ahead of the country’s election, October 21, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)

The coalition that ousted Netanyahu last year was made up of eight ideologically diverse parties, from dovish parties that support Palestinian statehood to nationalist ones that don’t, as well as centrist factions and for the first time a small Arab Islamist party.

The coalition agreed to sidestep divisive topics such as Palestinian independence, focusing instead on social issues, including the environment and public transportation. Policies toward the Palestinians, however, showed little change. The military carried out daily raids in the West Bank and a brief operation against terrorists in the Gaza Strip. Settlement construction in the West Bank raced ahead.

While the outgoing coalition’s razor-thin majority prevented major policy changes, activists say the government moved forward in small but meaningful ways.

On the environment, it imposed taxes on single-use plastics and advanced a climate law. On LGBTQ rights, it rescinded a ban on blood donations by gay men, moved to streamline access to gender reassignment surgery and took a clear stand against “conversion therapy,” the scientifically discredited practice of using therapy to “convert” LGBTQ people to heterosexuality or traditional gender expectations.

The government imposed a tax on sugary drinks and approved billions of dollars in funding to the country’s Arab minority, promising more cash than a previous budget passed several years ago under Netanyahu. It took steps to encourage religious pluralism, passing a reform in the country’s kosher certification process.

Beyond the inclusion of an Arab party, the coalition’s Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz is openly gay and about half of the coalition’s members and a third of ministers were women.

That image of inclusivity is about to change dramatically.

Only nine out of 64 members of Netanyahu’s expected coalition are women. Ultra-Orthodox parties, which make up two out of the coalition’s four parties, deny inclusion to women members entirely. The expected coalition includes no Arab members. It is set to have one openly gay member of parliament, but his record shows he doesn’t focus on LGBTQ issues.

Participants march in the annual Pride Parade in Jerusalem, June 2, 2022. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

“Large parts of the nation will feel that they have no connection to or influence in the incoming government,” said Assaf Shapira, of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, noting that a lack of representation has a direct effect on the legislative agenda.

Incoming coalition members have already pinpointed policies they plan to undo.

Members of the far-right Religious Zionism party, some of whom are openly anti-LGBTQ, are expected to challenge certain rights. Incoming lawmaker Avi Maoz has said he wants the legality of Israel’s raucous pride parades to be “examined.”

The threat — though the parades are likely to continue — has spooked many Israelis.

The ultra-Orthodox parties oppose the single-use plastic tax. They see it as targeting their constituents whose large families tend to use disposable plastic plates and cutlery to avoid washing large piles of dishes. A tax on sugary drinks is also on the chopping block, worrying doctors’ associations that say the tax promotes public health.

An empty plastic bottle is seen between the cracked mud of the Shlomo River, near Eilat, Israel, November 3, 2021. (Oded Balilty/AP)

Netanyahu, who is secular and hails from a socially liberal background, is likely to stand as a bulwark against some of the more extremist elements of his coalition, according to Shapira.

But he is still expected to give in on many of their demands in exchange for legal reforms that could permanently freeze his corruption trial or make it disappear altogether.

Critics warn the next government’s policy priorities — coupled with the very real chance that the Supreme Court will no longer be a beacon for challenging discriminatory laws — is a ticking bomb for Israel’s democracy.

“Endemic corruption, human rights violations, curbs on minority rights, erosion of the LGBTQ community’s hard-won achievements and a takeover of the state coffers by the ultra-Orthodox minority are all tangible threats,” wrote commentator Ben Caspit in Al-Monitor, a regional news site.

“They are no longer gloomy scenarios but projects in the making,” he added.

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