Analysis |

What's New in Israeli Politics? Nothing, Really

From the flurry of new laws and grand pronouncements, you might think the government is getting a lot done. In fact, the players are jockeying for position and sending messages to their voters

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, January 8, 2018
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, January 8, 2018Credit: Emile Salman
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

One of the top headlines that opened the week in Israel was the list, issued by Gilad Erdan’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, of 20 organizations whose key figures will be denied entry for supporting an economic, academic and cultural boycott of the state. Big news. One of the organizations is Jewish, another has a proud history of helping Jews during the Holocaust. The government is going to clamp down on them.

Only it isn’t really news, in the sense of anything new happening. The policy hasn’t changed. Some activists with ties to these organizations (and others not on the list) have been refused entry at Ben-Gurion International Airport and border crossings for years. Others have been allowed in. There is no actual new list of these groups’ members, just an ongoing list being updated, mainly on the basis of posts and tweets on social media. Nor have the Interior Ministry’s powers to deny entry to Israel changed. They have been used to block hundreds of pro-boycott activists each year. So what has changed? Nothing really, except now we have an official (if partial) list of organizations on the watch list. Why has it come out now? We’ll get back to that later.

In the meantime, a few more recent headlines. This was the week the government’s plan to deport 38,000 African refugees was supposed to go in to effect. Those agreeing to leave “voluntarily” will each receive $3,500 and a seat on a flight to Rwanda; the remainder are to be detained indefinitely. Only it turns out that many pieces of the puzzle are missing: The Israel Prison Service was not informed of the need to take in thousands of asylum seekers, an agreement with Rwanda on absorbing the refugees was not concluded and the estimated billion-plus shekels ($290 million) the program will cost has not been approved. In addition, Israel has yet to process the asylum applications of thousands of the refugees, without which they cannot be deported. So we shouldn’t expect any mass deportations soon. The question that remains is whether the confident statements of Benjamin Netanyahu about the imminent expulsions were based on any actual plan. Why did the prime minister rush to make the announcement and order the deportations before any of the pieces were in place? Did he actually mean it?

Similar questions can be asked about the two main pieces of legislation the coalition passed in the Knesset last week. At Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s demand, a death-sentence law was passed. Terrible, yes, but a similar law already existed and prosecutors as a matter of policy have not demanded the death sentence for decades and this is not about to change. So the law is meaningless.

Another grand law passed last week, this time due to the urging of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, was one stipulating that any territorial concessions on Jerusalem would require a special majority of two-thirds of the Knesset. Once again, meaningless because the law can be changed with a simple majority, and there is already a law requiring a referendum in such a case. So why?

Just about every major policy announcement or piece of legislation coming from the government now is meaningless. This week, the coalition is battling to pass Interior Minister Arye Deri’s bill giving him the power to order local governments to shut down convenience stores on Shabbat. But the law, should it pass, will be unenforceable because local authorities who oppose it can simply choose not to send inspectors to check on the stores.

Last week, Netanyahu praised the Trump administration’s move to defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. He knew that behind the scenes, Israeli diplomats and military officials were frantically looking for ways to guarantee the agency still had the necessary funds to operate in the Gaza Strip and avoid a further escalation. But he said it anyway. Just as a week earlier he made no effort to block the Likud Central Committee from passing a resolution to annex the West Bank settlements to Israel — despite the fact that the government has no plans to carry out its main party’s new policy and Netanyahu himself certainly has no interest in rocking the boat by doing so.

Politics always involves a fair amount of empty gestures and posturing of this sort, but the current situation, in which just about everything this government does or says is devoid of any concrete meaning, is unprecedented. The only period in which a government should ever be so impotent is on the eve of an election, but all the members of the coalition are currently in favor of carrying on into 2019, before announcing when Israel will go to the polls. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is busy putting the final touches on next year’s draft budget, always a sign of continuity and stability. So why is the rest of the coalition behaving in such a fashion?

The only credible interpretation of their conduct is that while they would love to remain in office, they are increasingly fearful that the government’s fate is on a knife’s edge. Some time over the next month or two, the police will wrap up their corruption investigations against Netanyahu and submit their findings to the attorney general — together with, almost certainly, a recommendation to indict the prime minister. No one can predict what will happen next. Depending on the details that will presumably be leaked from the police recommendations, a huge new level of pressure will be brought on members of the coalition to resign and force Netanyahu’s departure; all it will take is for half a dozen MKs, or just one of the partner parties, to buckle and we’re off to elections.

Nothing quickens the instincts of a politician more than an election in the air, and the first item on their agenda is always to shore up the base. For religious and right-wing parties, this is the populist, xenophobic and nationalist measures we are seeing. They know full well how ineffectual these are but this isn’t about substance, it’s about the message to the tribal voters.

Netanyahu may well survive the police recommendations; he certainly doesn’t plan to resign of his own accord. But even he knows that if he does not, he must prepare for possible elections. Just like his cabinet ministers, he is intent on preaching to his choir of the faithful. Nothing means anything right now, it’s garbage time in Israeli politics.

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