Netanyahu's Government Isn’t Too Right-wing - It Just Isn't Going Anywhere

With a prime minister whose sole goal is to remain in office, even motivated ministers like Shaked and Kahlon will find it hard to get anything done.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 6, 2015.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 6, 2015.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Next Wednesday – barring unexpected developments – Moshe Kahlon will be sworn in as Israel's new finance minister. By the time he enters the treasury the next day, Israel will have been without a senior politician overseeing its economy full-time for five and a half months. Some will say that's not such a bad thing; the bureaucrats who actually run that ministry are the elite of the civil service and they have kept things ticking over admirably. Considering the amateurishness of the previous minister – Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who had these professionals on a wild goose chase, going from harebrained scheme to half-baked initiative for 18 months – it was probably preferable to keep the minister's office vacant.

Kahlon, of course, is another matter. He proved his mettle in two other economic ministries – Communications and Welfare – and he comes equipped with detailed plans for sweeping reforms in the banking system and housing market. But will he succeed?

In theory, Benjamin Netanyahu has assured Kahlon that he has full authority to implement his grand design. But carte blanche from the prime minister doesn't mean full backing. Kahlon's reforms will inevitably pit him against the economic interests of a whole range of tycoons and power-brokers. What possible interest does Netanyahu have in helping Kahlon beat them down, when the credit – if successful – will go to a political rival? There are a thousand ways he can indirectly obstruct the reforms, especially with a majority of just one in the Knesset.

Kahlon is not the only reform-minded minister who will take office next month. Ayelet Shaked is the unexpected winner of the ministerial going-out-of-business sale that Netanyahu held this week, as he scrambled to build a coalition before Wednesday night's deadline. By all accounts, Shaked was as surprised as anyone to be promised the Justice Ministry – but nothing can prepare her for what she will face when she enters that imposing fortress on Jerusalem's Salah a-Din Street. The Justice Ministry is another place where the civil servants think they get along much better without a minister. In this case, however, Netanyahu shares Shaked's eagerness to ruin the complacency of the judiciary.

But despite the prime minister's backing, proposed amendments to cut the Supreme Court down to size are extremely unlikely to pass through the Knesset. Kahlon' coalition agreement with Netanyahu grants him power of veto over any such legislation; even if he doesn't exercise it, he can merely abstain – along with the other nine members of the Kulanu faction – denying Shaked and Netanyahu a majority. Shaked will try and make life hell for the Supreme Court, but her chances of achieving any lasting change in the legal edifice are exceedingly slim.

Uri Ariel – the third Habayit Hayehudi lawmaker to snag a ministry this week – will also find it extremely hard to change the situation on the ground. Ariel is the new agriculture minister, but - more importantly – he's also the minister in charge of the Settlement Division, which funnels funds into the West Bank. Yes, he will build roads and public buildings and find other ways to benefit his settler constituency, but he won't be capable of delivering what they really want: homes. Planning authorizations across the Green Line will remain tightly held by the Prime Minister's Office, and while Bibi is not interested in ever establishing a Palestinian state, he has consistently built fewer homes in the settlements annually than any of his predecessors. Crucially, he has not green-lighted in the last six years new settlements and neighborhoods – only extensions. He doesn't need the hassle of more diplomatic tension than he already has with the Americans and Europeans. That doesn't mean, of course, that he's anxious for any kind of diplomatic breakthrough either. And with no movement likely on the diplomatic front, Netanyahu hasn't replaced Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned this week as foreign minister.

On paper, this is one of the most right-wing and reform-minded governments in Israel's political history. Left to their own devices, with those ministers, it could certainly become the most radical. But this is not the kind of government possible under Netanyahu. As he begins his fourth term as prime minister, Netanyahu is obsessed with his own political survival.

His first priority in coalition negotiations was for all parties to commit not to support any legislation touching on the media without the government's endorsement, preventing future attempts to impose limits on the unabashedly pro-Netanyahu freesheet Israel Hayom – which is owned by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. Apart from that, he has no policies or priorities; whatever his ministers may be planning or were promised, they are about to discover that their priorities don't matter.

In some ways, this tiny coalition is perfect for Netanyahu. After all, ministers under constant threat of losing their seats won't rock the boat.

No-one is powerful or influential in the new cabinet; how could they be when the government has been born paralyzed? Left-wingers can maybe take a small shred of comfort from the executive straitjackets that will be distributed to the ministers the moment they step down from the podium at the swearing-in ceremony. Of course, all the existing travesties – the occupation, the inequality, the erosion of democracy and civil rights – will continue, just slowly. Rot and stagnation will remain on their natural course. Netanyahu's fourth administration is going nowhere.

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