Israel’s new rightist government takes a startlingly centrist turn

Israel’s new rightist government takes a startlingly centrist turn

After scarcely a week of active parliamentary work, the ruling coalition has already all but shelved two defining right-wing proposals

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

The Knesset plenum, May 13, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
The Knesset plenum, May 13, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The dust of seven long months of electioneering and coalition building finally settled this week. The 20th Knesset’s committees are now staffed with lawmakers after the last outstanding disagreements between coalition and opposition parties were hammered out in the Knesset last week.

On Sunday, the 34th Government’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation held its first meeting to set the government’s legislative agenda for the coming term, and on Monday, the “housing cabinet,” the committee of ministers charged with finding a solution to Israel’s runaway housing prices, will hold its first meeting.

Slowly, haltingly, the Israeli state is getting back to work after long months of virtual paralysis on many issues.

And as the system returns to a measure of normalcy, some startling characteristics of the new political configuration created by the March election are becoming clear.

For one thing, the new government’s razor-thin 61-59 majority in parliament has all but killed many controversial right-wing measures advanced by lawmakers in the last two Knessets.

On Thursday, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked mentioned in a morning radio interview, almost off-handedly, that “in the current coalition situation, it won’t be possible to change the supersession clause. I prefer to concentrate my efforts where I can make a difference, and to pass laws that I can build a consensus on.”

The “supersession clause” Shaked referred to is the single most controversial right-wing proposal she brought with her to the Justice Ministry. Article 8(a) of the quasi-constitutional “Basic Law: Freedom of Vocation,” the basic guarantor of individual economic rights in Israeli law, allows for the temporary suspension of these rights under three conditions — that any law violating them pass in the Knesset with a majority of 61 MKs; that it explicitly state in the new law that it is in violation of the basic law; and that the offending law expire after four years. Since it effectively allows for a simple Knesset majority to temporarily violate the basic law, it is called a “supersession clause” — giving the Knesset the power to “supersede” any court rulings based on those rights that the Knesset disagrees with.

Shaked is an outspoken supporter of expanding this “supersession” power by adding a similar clause to another foundational law, the “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty,” which guarantees such basic rights as life, privacy, bodily safety and Israelis’ freedom to enter and leave the country — effectively giving the Knesset the power to temporarily suspend these basic rights, and to ignore any High Court of Justice decision based on those rights.

This proposal is the most drastic of Shaked’s initiatives to limit the power of the High Court, so it is telling that the justice minister would announce, in the very week in which the Knesset finally got back to work, that she simply lacked the necessary political support for passing the reform.

But the supersession reform is not the only right-wing initiative frozen in the current coalition: the so-called “nation-state bill,” which seeks to define Israel’s Jewish character in a new basic law, is effectively a dead letter.

The bill was moving forward quickly in the last Knesset, despite vociferous opposition from the left and from centrists in the ruling coalition, including Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni. It generated intense push-back from Arab and Druze lawmakers and leaders, and was excoriated overseas. But it enjoyed widespread support on the right as a counter to what the right saw as an Arab campaign, both within Israel and among Palestinians, to deny the legitimacy of a Jewish nation-state.

The bill is still formally on the agenda, and is a key demand of the Jewish Home party in its coalition agreement with Likud.

Yet in those coalition agreements where it appears, there is also another clause, inserted into the founding documents of the 34th Government by Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party and agreed to by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to which the bill will only win the government’s support — a critical vote of confidence if the bill is to obtain a majority in the Knesset plenum — if it enjoys consensus support among coalition parties.

In other words, without the support of Kulanu, which has staked out a decisively centrist position on such issues and openly says it will oppose any right-wing effort to weaken the High Court or diminish the rights or privileges of minorities, the bill is essentially dead.

MKs have been back at work scarcely a week, and already two signature proposals of the right are either dead or in deep hibernation for the foreseeable future.

The reason is clear, and startling. While much was made of Netanyahu’s stunning election surge from 18 seats in the outgoing Knesset to 30 in the new one, that victory for Likud did not constitute a rally for the right as a whole. The explicitly right-wing parties of Likud, Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu won 43 seats in the 2013 elections, and rose by just one, to 44, in the 2015 ballot.

Netanyahu rules a much larger slice of the right, but that expansion came at the expense of the rest of the right wing. While Likud jumped by 12 seats, Jewish Home fell by four and Yisrael Beytenu by seven. Netanyahu’s closest ideological allies, then, are not significantly more powerful in parliament as a whole.

And with Yisrael Beytenu’s split to the opposition, the right’s footprint in the ruling coalition is actually significantly smaller this time around.

In the last Knesset, too, the centrists in the coalition — Yesh Atid and Hatnua — were eager to push forward their own agenda: economic and religion-and-state reforms in Yesh Atid’s case and peace talks in Hatnua’s. Those ambitions, and the need to secure cabinet and Knesset majorities to advance them, meant that right-wing elements in the last government had a stronger hand in pushing their own agenda. Thus a government with over one-third of its lawmakers hailing from explicitly centrist or even center-left parties actually saw the right-wing able to advance even the most controversial versions of its most controversial legislation.

The new government has been labeled by countless pundits the most right-wing coalition in memory, perhaps in Israel’s history. Yet after barely a week of parliamentary activity, it has already proven itself more centrist and more consensual than the last two governments, despite those precursors boasting Labor leftists and dovish centrists among its most powerful decision makers.

To be sure, these first signs of moderate centrism in the new government are rooted in the weakness of a 61-seat coalition. Netanyahu continues to search for new coalition partners, from Labor’s Isaac Herzog to Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman, who might give him the breathing room of a larger parliamentary majority.

If the rightist Liberman returns to the fold, the agenda of the new government could change dramatically. On the other hand, if Netanyahu manages to entice either Herzog or Lapid to join his coalition, the current centrism born of weakness would likely be cemented as the new government’s explicit political identity.

None of this suggests that the government’s centrism will be reflected in its Palestinian policy, where consistent majorities in the Israeli body politic remain deeply skeptical of peace overtures or territorial withdrawals. But at least on domestic concerns, in the culture wars surrounding the judiciary and the character of the state, a delicate but clear consensus has emerged among the coalition’s key leaders, a consensus that suggests this government may last longer than many expect — and do less than its detractors fear.

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