Under the cover of war, Israel’s far right and ultra-Orthodox leaders are looking to turn Israel from a liberal, largely secular democracy into something more religious, nationalist and intolerant.
|PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s unwillingness to tolerate any competition inside his Likud party has alienated him from the political establishment | Amir Levy/Getty Images
By David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg is an editor and a columnist at Haaretz English. He’s the author of “Israel’s Technology Economy” and a former bureau chief for Bloomberg News.
The Hamas attacks on Oct. 7, 2023 were supposed to have put an end to the wrenching political and social controversy in Israel over the government’s judicial overhaul plans.
Everyone across the political spectrum — from ultra-Orthodox and the fanatical supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the left and the Arab minority — all lined up behind the war effort. And though this sense of national unity is being tested as the conflict drags on, for the great majority of ordinary Israelis, the war effort captured by the slogan “together we’ll win” — now adorns everything from tissue packages to online bank statements — is still sacrosanct.
However, it has become increasingly apparent that under the cover of war, Israel’s far-right and ultra-Orthodox leaders are continuing to pursue their prewar agenda, looking to turn Israel from a liberal, largely secular democracy into something more religious, nationalist and intolerant.
The judicial overhaul itself has been a flop so far. Supported by those who want to help clear the way for a political and social revolution by neutering and politicizing Israel’s justice system, only one of the planned laws ever won Knesset approval. And in January, even that was struck down by the High Court of Justice. Yet this hasn’t deterred the far right or the ultra-Orthodox from pursuing other means to achieve their goals.
One route for this has been the government budget.
The war has saddled the Israeli government with huge costs to aid the army, shore up the economy and fix the damage from the Hamas attack. And as a result, the deficit, as a percentage of GDP, will more than double this year, some taxes will rise and ministry budgets are being cut by 5 percent across the board. But not everyone will be feeling the pain equally.
As part of the agreement that formed Netanyahu’s government in 2022, the ultra-Orthodox, the West Bank settlers and the far right were all showered with unprecedented government funds to benefit their favored institutions and causes. A handful of ministries and government agencies were created for them as well. And though the 2024 budget cut such allocations by close to 30 percent, they still amount to about $1.5 billion.
However, it’s important to note that these specific allocations mainly benefit the ultra-Orthodox, who want to ensure their community grows and prospers on the state’s tab. For the settlers and the far right, the government’s main achievements lay elsewhere.
In the West Bank, settlers backed by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — who is also part of the Defense Ministry responsible for civilian (i.e., settler) affairs — have been harassing Palestinians, engaging in vigilantism and forcing Palestinians off the land. Meanwhile, the far right in the coalition government has been making life for West Bank Palestinians economically intolerable, refusing to lift a ban on Palestinians working in Israel, which was imposed as a security measure at the start of the war.
Until recently, far-right ministers had also been blocking the tax money Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority (PA) from reaching it, which is part of a wider strategy meant to destroy one of the last remaining vestiges of the Oslo Accords and any chance of Palestinian statehood. It’s for the same reason that Smotrich and his allies have precluded any role for the PA in a postwar Gaza, as the far right’s dream is to permanently restore Israeli control over the enclave and reestablish the settlements evacuated in 2005.
Furthermore, Israel’s Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir has been distributing firearm permits with virtually no vetting process, which may well be contributing to the surge in settler violence. And his ministry, led by Justice Minister Yariv Levin — the architect of the judicial overhaul — has been clamping down on antiwar protests as well.
All this activity is occurring under the cover of war-related security, but there’s good reason to doubt anything will change when this crisis is over. For instance, Ben-Gvir had planned his gun giveaway before the war, reflecting his fantasies of patriotic Jewish Israelis lording over the “enemies of the state,” whether they be leftists or Israeli Arabs.
Interestingly, Netanyahu doesn’t share in the vision of the far right or the ultra-Orthodox. While his politics have always been right-wing, his focus has been ensuring Israel’s national security and creating a free-market economy — not remaking Israeli society along illiberal lines. However, the longer he has remained in power, his main concern has simply become staying in power. And that is a problem.
Netanyahu’s unwillingness to tolerate any serious competition inside his Likud party, and his refusal to leave office after being indicted, has alienated him from most of the political establishment — including the center right. As a result, Likud’s ranks are now filled with sycophants whose only asset is loyalty to the leader. And the only political parties willing to join a government led by Netanyahu are the far right and the ultra-Orthodox, as Netanyahu is willing to pay whatever price they demand to gain and retain power.
Even before this war, Netanyahu’s deal with the devil was proving unpopular. Voters had swept the religious-right into power in 2022 because they’d believed it when Netanyahu said he would keep it in line. Moreover, as they had never been in power before, the public wasn’t fully cognizant of their agenda.
If current opinion polls are correct, however, the war has pushed the Netanyahu coalition off a cliff. If an election were held today, its 64-seat Knesset majority would shrink to at most 51, quite possibly even fewer. And Benny Gantz — the head of the center-right National Unity party filled with anti-Netanyahu right-wingers — would easily be able to form the next government.
Alone among the opposition parties, National Unity agreed to join the emergency government at the start of the war, but it isn’t expected to remain in the Cabinet for much longer — mainly due to Gantz’s disgust at how Netanyahu and his coalition partners are exploiting the war for political ends. And when he does leave, an important pillar of wartime unity will have cracked.
What happens after that is unclear. If Netanyahu were an ordinary politician, and his partners less driven by ideological certainty, the government would call an early election — or enough coalition lawmakers would support a change in government through a vote of no-confidence in the Knesset. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t appear anything short of a political earthquake will do that.
As it stands, both the far right and ultra-Orthodox are well aware their days in power are probably numbered, so they’re intent on creating as much change on the ground as possible while they still can. But if given enough time — and Netanyahu has his own reasons for giving them that — they may just alter the face of Israel irrevocably.
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