ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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Analysis

Why Netanyahu has put a halt to a handful of radical coalition measures – for now

A slew of contentious bills and a draft government resolution were all shelved, at least temporarily, on Sunday. Is Netanyahu’s desire for a White House invite the driving force?

Jeremy Sharon

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, May 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, May 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Immediately following the approval of the two-year state budget last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the inauguration of a new era of political stability which, he vowed, would last the full four years of his government’s term in office.

Netanyahu is certainly no stranger to bombast, and his rush to announce political tranquility during what is among the most polarized periods in the country’s history exuded both an air of wishful thinking and a whiff of desperate naiveté.

Although the passage of the budget does mean that the government cannot be brought down without the rebellion of a coalition party, it also means that Netanyahu’s radical coalition partners now have time and energy to spend advancing their radical agendas.

Sure enough, the agendas of various government forums began to fill up with a slew of controversial measures, which quickly brought about censure not only from domestic critics, but from Israel’s most important international allies as well.

On Sunday, several of those contentious agenda items were shelved or postponed, to the indignation of the prime minister’s coalition partners — but likely to his own satisfaction.

Most controversial was a bill scheduled for a vote in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation drafted by a hard-right member of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, MK Ariel Kallner, which would have severely limited the ability of Israeli civil society groups to gain foreign funding.

MK Ariel Kallner, a hard-right member of the Likud party, attends a Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting, March 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The measure would likely disproportionately affect organizations critical of the government and the country’s human rights record.

The US, Germany, France, and numerous European governments all expressed strong reservations to the bill, and on Sunday, it was pulled from the committee’s agenda, with Likud sources indicating that Netanyahu was responsible for the decision.

Another piece of controversial legislation pulled on Sunday was a bill to ban the waving of a Palestinian flag at Israeli universities, and to institute severe sanctions against students committing the offense.

A decision by the ministerial committee as to whether the government would support that bill, proposed by an ultranationalist MK and drafted in coordination with the nationalist Im Tirtzu organization, was pushed off for at least a month.

And a decision on a proposed government resolution advanced by the far-right Otzma Yehudit party to assert “Zionist values” in government policy — which, if approved, could give the Jewish population preferential treatment for housing planning and construction — was also pushed off, although for how long remains to be seen.

Furthermore, Netanyahu has said on several occasions, including immediately after the passage of the budget and in Sunday’s cabinet meeting, that his top priority is tackling the cost of living crisis, not the judicial overhaul plan that spawned intense opposition both at home and in Washington.

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu with head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a vote in the Knesset plenum, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Tempered fervor

There could be several explanations for the tempering of this nationalistic fervor, including Netanyahu’s ongoing yearning to receive a coveted invitation to meet with US President Joe Biden in the White House.

But Biden has made clear he has no plans to meet with Netanyahu at present, largely due to his opposition to the far-reaching judicial overhaul, which the US administration is concerned would compromise Israel’s democracy.

The prime minister has always viewed such meetings as a hugely important part of his job, both substantively and in terms of his image as an international statesman advancing Israel’s interests in a manner that, Netanyahu believes, only he can.

To be denied that opportunity, especially after his rival, opposition leader Yair Lapid, got to host Biden in Israel last year during his brief term as interim prime minister, is a galling situation for Netanyahu, and one he is anxious to rectify.

Netanyahu has even stopped his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, and his foreign minister, Eli Cohen, from accepting invitations to meet with their counterparts in the Biden administration, in order to avoid being upstaged and embarrassed by his inability to secure an invitation himself.

With the US foremost among the opponents to the bill limiting NGO funding and reportedly opposed to the “Zionist values” resolution as well, it is possible that Netanyahu is trying to keep the unwieldy, radical members of his coalition in check in order not to further antagonize the Biden administration.

US President Joe Biden, right, is greeted by then-prime minister Yair Lapid, as they fist-bump during a welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv, July 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit/File)

Limiting the ability of civil society groups critical of the government to receive funds is part of the classic playbook of illiberal democracies such as Hungary and Poland, and indicating that the coalition was going down the same path would surely set off more red lights in Washington.

Campaign promises

But there are several other possible explanations why these contentious measures have been shelved for the moment.

The first is that Netanyahu really does want to focus on the cost of living crisis and understands that further distractions, which could lead to the intensification once again of protests against his government and a new dive in the opinion polls, will simply make governing that much harder.

Blocking NGO funding and banning Palestinian flags would have zero positive impact on the lives of Israeli citizens suffering under high interest rates and inflation that has yet to be brought under control. It would simply use up more political capital with no payoff other than for his far-right partners.

Better to start delivering on those campaign promises to reduce the financial burden on Israeli households, rather than further antagonize an already truculent population.

Hands on the wheel?

But it is equally possible that Netanyahu is not enamored with the policies of his ultranationalist colleagues, and understands that pursuing their goals only further damages Israel’s international standing, in the eyes of not only the US, but Europe and the rest of the Western world as well.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, May 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Following the November Knesset election, but before the new government was formed, Netanyahu said on several occasions that it would be his hands “on the steering wheel” when seeking to allay the concerns of those worried about the direction of what would turn out to be the most right-wing, religious government in Israel’s history.

In a previous election cycle, Netanyahu said that he did not believe Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir was fit to hold ministerial office, and for years studiously avoided having his photo taken with him, including during the election campaign, when he famously refused to appear alongside the far-right leader at a holiday event they both had attended.

Safe in the knowledge that the budget has been passed and that Otzma Yehudit, the equally ultranationalist Religious Zionism party, and to a lesser extent the ultra-Orthodox parties, have nowhere to go politically, Netanyahu quite possibly feels more secure blocking their extremist inclinations.

At least for the time being.

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