Is Israel’s new government already failing domestically and geopolitically?
Netanyahu domestic struggles
Netanyahu is already facing a significant challenge to the legitimacy of his newly formed government in Israel.
Israel’s government on Monday pressed ahead with a contentious plan to overhaul the country’s legal system, despite an unprecedented uproar that has included mass protests, warnings from military and business leaders and calls for restraint by the United States.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the parliament, or Knesset, for a second straight week to rally against the plan as lawmakers prepared to hold an initial vote.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies, a collection of ultra-religious and ultranationalist lawmakers, say the plan is meant to fix a system that has given the courts and government legal advisers too much say in how legislation is crafted and decisions are made. Critics say it will upend the country’s system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of the prime minister. They also say that Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, has a conflict of interest.
The Israeli government is set to vote on Monday on the first reading of the controversial amendment to overhaul the country’s legal system, which has prompted unprecedented anti-government protests.
The government has been pushing for changes that would limit the Supreme Court’s powers to rule against the legislature and the executive, giving the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) the power to override Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority of 61 votes out of the 120-seat Knesset.
A second proposal would take away the Supreme Court’s authority to review the legality of Israel’s Basic Laws, which function as the country’s constitution. Protesters fear the legal reforms may diminish the checks and balances within the Israeli state.
The reforms would also change how Supreme Court justices are selected, giving politicians decisive powers in appointing judges.
The reform also would weaken the Supreme Court and give the Netanyahu-dominated Knesset effective control over judicial appointments.
Critics fear Netanyahu wants to leverage the judicial push to freeze or cancel his trial, which he has denied.
The independent panel for selecting judges currently requires politicians and judges who sit on it to agree on appointments. The present proposal would change that, giving the government far more sway.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in the coalition want to pass a law exempting their community from conscription in the military, which they worry may be struck down by the court if its powers are not cut back.
Simcha Rothman, a far-right lawmaker leading the legislative initiative, presented the proposal to the Knesset during a stormy debate. Several opposition lawmakers were escorted out of the hall by security for screaming at him, while a spectator was carried away by guards from the viewing gallery after smashing the protective glass in anger.
Netanyahu accused the demonstrators of inciting violence and said they were ignoring the will of the people who voted the government into power last November. Netanyahu for his part, along with his political allies, denied the legitimacy of the short-lived previous government which briefly unseated him in 2021.
Last week, some 100,000 people demonstrated outside the Knesset as a committee granted initial approval to the plan. It was the largest protest in the city in years.
The opposition also says Netanyahu’s nationalist allies want to weaken the Supreme Court to establish more settlements on land the Palestinians seek for a state. But settlements, which are considered illegal under international laws, have continued under successive Israeli governments. Nearly 600,000-750,000 Israelis now live in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has pressed ahead with his agenda despite a call by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog on Sunday to freeze the legislation and begin a dialogue with the opposition.
Some of the coalition’s proposed changes now sit with the Knesset’s plenum (authoritative body), where they await a first reading of three needed to be written into law. The schedule has not yet been set. Other changes are still being discussed.
Herzog, whose role is largely ceremonial, has outlined a five-point plan as a platform for discussions.
Opposition leaders have said they will not talk before legislation is halted. Justice minister Yariv Levin has said he was open to discussion but not to stopping the legislation.
The result of this assessment will have a significant impact on the extent of power that Netanyahu’s government will be able to exercise during its term both domestically, and internationally.
Suspension from African Union
In a sign of the increasing diplomatic isolation of the Netanyahu government, Israel’s attempts to expand its ties and presence in Africa have appeared to hit a major roadblock.
The African Union has said that Israel’s observer status at the bloc was suspended which is why it was not invited to attend the weekend summit.
The news comes after Israeli ambassador Sharon Bar-li was removed from the African Union’s annual summit in Ethiopia on Saturday as she attempted to attend using a non-transferable invitation issued only to Israel’s ambassador to the African Union, Aleli Admasu.
“The status is suspended until such time as this committee can deliberate … and so we did not invite Israeli officials to our summit,” AU Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat told reporters on Sunday, adding that an investigation was being conducted into Saturday’s incident.
A spokesperson for Israel’s foreign ministry said Bar-li was “an accredited observer with an entry tag”, and accused the AU of being taken hostage by a “small number of extremist states like Algeria and South Africa, which are driven by hatred and controlled by Iran”.
The incident highlighted a spat within the pan-African bloc over a unilateral 2021 decision by Mahamat to give Israel observer status, triggering protests by several member states.
Israel obtained observer status after two decades of diplomatic efforts. It had previously held the role at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) but was long thwarted in its attempts to regain it after the OAU was disbanded in 2002 and replaced by the AU.
The Israeli foreign ministry said at the time that the new status could enable Israel and the AU to forge stronger cooperation on various aspects, including the fight against the coronavirus and the prevention “of the spread of extremist terrorism” on the African continent.
Last year’s AU summit suspended a debate on whether to withdraw the accreditation and established a committee of heads of state to address the issue.
The South African government said the African Union’s decision to award Israel the status was “even more shocking in a year in which the oppressed people of Palestine were hounded by destructive bombardments and continued illegal settlements of the land”.
This week’s diplomatic embarrassment will surely deal a blow to Israel’s hopes in the region and displays the limits of its influence on African states.
Strong US support gives Israel confidence
Despite its struggles on the African front, and the more broadly set potential diplomatic isolation that Netanyahu’s government could face as a result of its aggressive policies towards Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, recent events have shown that the US’s support remains strong and continues to act as the most significant facilitator of Israeli foreign policy and its policy towards the Palestinian Territories.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has informed the United Nations Security Council of its decision to no longer call for a vote today on a draft resolution against Israel’s expansion of illegal settlements, agreeing with the Palestinian Authority (PA) to drop the opposition following intervention by the United States.
After Israel’s new far-right government announced earlier this month that it will lift all restrictions on the building of illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, many nations throughout the Arab world and the West condemned the move in varying degrees.
The PA and the UAE had also decided to call for a vote at the UNSC for a resolution which “reaffirms that the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.” It would have demanded that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory”.
In a near last minute decision before the UNSC meeting today, however, the UAE and PA withdrew their intent to call for the vote, with senior diplomats and officials revealing that pressure by the Americans had changed their minds, as well as a reported deal offering Palestinians incentives in return for their restraint.
Reports by several other US and Israeli news outlets citing diplomatic sources said the PA agreed to drop pursuit of the vote amid pressure from the US government, including promises of a financial aid package as well as a temporary suspension of announcements on new Israeli settlement units and Palestinian home demolitions.
“[US Secretary of State Antony] Blinken reiterated an offer to the Palestinians for a US package of incentives to entice them to drop or at least delay the resolution,” the Associated Press said in a report published on Sunday, citing “diplomats familiar with the conversations”.
“Those incentives included a White House meeting for Abbas with President Joe Biden, movement on reopening the American consulate in Jerusalem, and a significant aid package,” the report continues, adding that “Abbas was noncommittal”.
Another report published by the Axios news website, said that in addition, “Israel agreed to several economic steps that will increase Palestinian tax revenues by more than $60m a year.”
It is therefore clear that although International opposition is growing towards the Netenyahu government and its policies, Israel’s policy changes in this regard will likely continue unharmed as long as the US maintains its diplomatic support. The domestic threat to the Netanyahu government however remains real and could lead to yet another election in Israel in the coming period.