For nearly four years, Israel’s 34th government has promoted a rightist-nationalist agenda, tried to help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu divert attention from the corruption investigations against him and bullied the media.
Besides economic growth and working to lower housing prices - efforts that haven’t always been successful - the governing coalition mainly tried to appease potential voters: The Knesset advanced legislation deepening Israel’s presence in the West Bank and legalizing illegal outposts; The culture minister acted against artists and institutions whose messages didn't conform to her politics; And the education and justice ministers declared war on the academic and judicial "elites."
Ahead of the election, Haaretz looks back at the legacy of the 34th government.
The Netanyahu government’s major legislative achievement has also been one of its worst failures. The so-called Nation-State Law, which describes Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, was originally envisioned as a way to subordinate democratic values to the state’s Jewish-national values. The law lacks the words "equality" and "democracy," and the Arabic language has lost its official status. But the clause that would have let judges stress the state’s Jewish character in their rulings was dropped, and a clause designed to allow Jewish-only communities was greatly watered down. Other aspects are only symbolic and already appear in existing laws, including stipulations on the flag, the state’s emblem, the national anthem and the declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Similar laws include the so-called flag law, which imposes three years in prison and a stiff fine on anyone defacing the Israeli flag. Also, a recently approved law prevents groups that operate “against the army” from speaking at schools. Another controversial law requires organizations that are funded by foreign countries to note this in their publications; this would put a clamp on left-wing groups. “This law symbolizes the budding fascism that is flourishing in Israel,” said the opposition leader at the time, Isaac Herzog.
From Jerusalem to Riyadh
In terms of foreign relations, the outgoing government hasn’t been much different from Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous team, even with the prime minister taking on the role of foreign minister. But Donald Trump’s entry into the White House rocked the traditional dynamics between Washington and Jerusalem. The pinnacle for Netanyahu was of course the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, a move sure to surface repeatedly in the coming election campaign. Netanyahu framed this move, heavily influenced by the evangelical Christian lobby, as a top goal of the Foreign Ministry, along with the usual hopes for changing voting patterns at the United Nations. Guatemala has also since moved its embassy, but a third country, Paraguay, had second thoughts after a change of government, leading to a crisis in relations with Israel. Netanyahu hoped that Australia’s evangelical Christian prime minister would follow Washington’s lead, but that country ended up only recognizing West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Other countries such as Brazil, the Philippines, Romania, Austria and Hungary have flirted with the idea but have not yet made the move. The common factor in those three European states’ relations with the outgoing government is their support in blocking pro-Palestinian resolutions in the European Union. Netanyahu, meanwhile, has exploited the crisis centered around the fate of liberal values in Europe. In recent years the far right has gained ground in Europe, and Netanyahu has consistently backed these parties, sometimes at the cost of harsh criticism of the moral implications. These parties’ leaders have been accused of anti-Semitism or attempts to rewrite the history of the Holocaust. A similar problem has emerged with Poland, and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro also fall into this category. Trump’s rise to power affected not only the Palestinian issue but also the tightening of Israel’s relations with the Arab world, mainly with Saudi Arabia. Russia’s growing power in the region also drives Israel’s foreign relations; Netanyahu is still waiting to meet with Vladimir Putin to discuss Syria’s accidental downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane in September. Two areas where efforts have continued with positive results are relations with African and Asian states. The friendship with Trump plays a role here too, but this sometimes has a negative impact on Israel's diplomatic efforts, as with China.
A message to the media
Israel’s 34th government might be remembered as one where the prime minister strove to emasculate the media. He has allegedly offered benefits for positive news coverage (the police’s cases 2000 and 4000), and don’t forget the lavish gifts to wealthy businessmen (Case 1000). All three cases, which await possible indictments, reflect Netanyahu’s efforts to intervene in the media market; this includes attempts to silence or fire journalists. When the government took office in 2015, television’s Channel 10 faced serious attempts by the prime minister to close it down; he later admitted this. Then came repeated attempts to delay or foil the setting up of a new public broadcasting corporation, which Netanyahu perceived as a threat. There was also an attempt to increase political influence at Army Radio by trying to transfer the station to the Defense Ministry, a foray that was blocked by the attorney general. There were also hastily passed laws tailor-made for Channel 20, which was supposed to abstain from news coverage but is actually operating as any other station and backing Netanyahu. Finally, cabinet members ratcheted up their attacks on media outlets that in the end actually benefited.
Netanyahu didn’t want to reach the point where he was on February 7, 2017, after the law allowing the expropriation of private Palestinian land was passed by the Knesset. But the coalition he had put together left him no choice – a good example of the etiquette that characterizes the outgoing Knesset. Even Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, a former cabinet secretary for Netanyahu, was unwilling to defend this legislation. Even though this law awaits a ruling by the High Court of Justice, it reflects the will of many members of the governing coalition seeking covert annexations in the West Bank. This was a government that ramped up cooperation with the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization, despite a scathing report by the Justice Ministry on the division’s modus operandi. The government also sought ways to legalize thousands of unauthorized housing units in the West Bank. It also built new units in Hebron for the first time in years, and set up a new settlement in the heart of the West Bank, Amichai, for evacuees from Amona, an illegal outpost that was demolished in 2017 following a ruling by the high court. The government, meanwhile, skirted court orders to evacuate illegal outposts, and has totally frozen attempts to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. But Netanyahu’s team, despite heavy pressure from the right, has avoided an annexation of the territories. Now comes a general election that puts an end to attempts at covert annexation but could lead to the launching of an overt one.
Conversion can wait
Regarding religion-state relations over the past four years, little has changed other than Netanyahu’s reneging on the deal for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The conversion law is still stuck; Reform Jews will have to wait for the next government to decide whether conversions by its rabbis are recognized. True, a law was passed against the opening of grocery stores on Shabbat, tightening the interior minister’s grip in blocking municipal bylaws. “But in practice, the law has little significance,” said Shuki Friedman, the head of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute and a law lecturer at the Peres Academic Center. “The Sabbath issue is one of enforcement, and in most places there is commercial activity with no enforcement of the law.” Kashrut was an area of change. Businesses can now present themselves as kosher without a rabbinical stamp of approval. The credit in this case goes to the Knesset, actually. “Conversion and the Sabbath; one hopes that in the next election voters will demand that their representatives compromise on these issues and reduce the main source of friction that threatens coalitions and society in general,” Friedman said.
Culture of fear
The most salient “achievement” of Culture Minister Miri Regev is a culture of fear and self-censorship, with artists and officials of cultural institutions hesitant about going ahead with protest works. The minister who impressively increased her ministry’s budget to 946 million shekels ($250 million) in 2018 from 569 million shekels in 2015 worked hard to eradicate art that didn’t conform with her political agenda. Under the slogan “freedom of financing,” Regev demanded a halt to public funding of works she believed harmed Israel. She suspended funding to the Al-Midan theater in Haifa, which staged the play “A Parallel Time” based on the writings of convicted terrorist Walid Daka. She demanded that funds be slashed at many institutions that presented works not to her liking. When her demands were unrequited by the Finance Ministry, she tried to pass the cultural-loyalty bill, which would have awarded such authority to her. But this legislation was foiled at the last minute when then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party left the coalition in November over Israel’s alleged soft policy on Hamas in Gaza. “Conversion and the Sabbath; one hopes that in the next election voters will demand that their representatives compromise on these issues and reduce the main source of friction that threatens coalitions and society in general,” Friedman said.
Cracks in the alliance
Relations between Israel and American Jews have broken records on the downside over the past four years. Every time it seemed impossible to wreak more damage, another cabinet member mouthed off, say, about “those Reform Jews.” Meanwhile, Netanyahu reneged on the deal allowing an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. This was a humiliating reminder that the prime minister’s ties to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties are more important than any shared values with America’s Jews. And the romance between the right-wing government and Trump has led many American Jews to further distance themselves from Israel. For the Jewish-American establishment, which represents the older generation, support for Israel remains a moral obligation, almost a religious one. But even leaders of pro-Israel groups admit off the record that the Jewish community is no longer with them. Israel is perceived by many young Jews as a far-right country ruled by medieval Orthodox clerics. The next government’s challenge will be to reverse the trend before it’s too late.
Arabs left with promises
The outgoing government will be remembered by the Arab community mainly for Netanyahu’s remark on Election Day 2015: “The Arabs are going to the polls in droves.” It ended with the passage of the nation-state law, with all its ramifications. This included delegitimization attempts against Arab Knesset members and civil society groups working in Arab towns and villages, as well as the trampling of any pro-Palestinian sentiment amid growing racism, including at public institutions. An issue that seemed neglected in the community is the most urgent one: personal security. Despite mounting crime rates and increasing numbers of illegal firearms, the prime minister and public security minister did nothing but make promises. No plan to eradicate crime, with an emphasis on organized crime, reached the implementation stage. Not much was done regarding housing, either. The expansion of planning and construction in Arab communities was neglected by the government, as it enforced harsher penalties for building violations. The government takes pride in its decision to transfer 10 billion shekels ($2.77 billion) to the Arab community, a decision that was made with the help of Arab legislators and mayors. This has yielded results in many towns and villages, but this budget falls far short of closing the gap with the Jewish majority.
From Syria to Gaza
For almost three years, the defense establishment garnered much praise, including from the opposition, for its responsible and correct conduct, much of which involved the prevention of Iran’s digging in Israel's northern borders, including the transfer of arms to Hezbollah. The Elor Azaria incident and the changeover of defense ministers were overshadowed by efforts in the north, which received much support on all sides. This ended on March 30, 2018, with the first “March of Return,” held by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. This was the first of many. These regular Friday marches and rallies, in which tens of thousands took part, led to clashes with the Israeli army, and became the government and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s biggest headache. Hundreds of Palestinians were killed and thousands more were wounded in these clashes. Later year in the summer, when incendiary balloons and kites were sent over the border, igniting fields in the south for weeks, Israel again had no answer to the problem. When things escalated, including the firing of rockets at Israeli towns, the government had to contend with demands from the right wing to launch a military offensive in Gaza. The security situation, which had previously given Netanyahu some relative quiet, became his toughest problem. Cabinet members, led by Lieberman and Bennett, started mudslinging in the media, over who was responsible for a policy they termed feeble. At the end of this round of confrontation, a snowball started to roll, marking the end of this government after Lieberman’s resignation. Netanyahu pounced on the opportunity, taking on the vacant portfolio as well as the credit for detecting Hezbollah’s tunnels in the north, before deciding to move up the election.
Missing the train
Ahead of the upcoming elections, Yisrael Katz will complete an unprecedented term of 10 years as transportation minister. One should note that in the preceding decade no fewer than nine ministers held that post. At the end of his first and second terms, Katz was praised for his vigorous promotion of investments in infrastructure, such as the interurban road network plan and the light rail in Greater Tel Aviv, and his firm stand in favor of competition in Israel’s seaports, including the building of privatized ports, the launching of the “open skies” initiative to increase competition in air flights, and reforms in car sales involving changes in import regulations. Not all these reforms succeeded but Katz is a man of action. However, the end of his third term shows that it was too much for him. Katz relied on projects he launched at the beginning of this decade, while failing to realize that the key problem is the worsening congestion on Israel’s roads, and that this problem will not be solved by paving new roads (which will only exacerbate the problem). The belated admission of the problem and the error made in finding a solution resulted in a huge failure in the upgrading of public transportation and the continued encouragement of using private vehicles. This came with absurd delays in plans for creating public transportation lanes and park-and-go compounds, while freezing initiatives for regulating traffic. The Transportation Ministry again yielded to Egged and Dan, leaving the taxi arena confused and full of flaws. The ministry blocked initiatives for cooperative transportation and for using foreign traffic applications, losing control of the light rail project in Jerusalem, forgetting about mass transport in outlying areas, and, to top it all, losing control of Israel Railway. At the same time, the ministry did not promote any initiative for reducing the use of private vehicles, delaying its understanding the potential problems associated with people moving into affordable housing projects, failing in promoting efficient transportation to business centers, and overall failing in its planning. The Katz who stood out in his creative thinking and in his attention to details disappeared, projecting weariness that did not characterize him in earlier years. If that weren’t enough, in the decade he held this job he didn’t manage to rehabilitate management in his ministry, repeatedly failing in his strange appointment of people who failed to deliver the goods. This year as well, he had to tolerate a corruption case that sent a senior official to be investigated by the police.
The Netanyahu investigations, as well as frustration over the striking down of new laws by the High Court of Justice, led the Netanyahu government to devote great efforts to wear down and weaken watchdog institutions. Most of the fire was directed at the Supreme Court and the Israel Police. The Knesset plenary approved the “Recommendations Law”, which forbids investigators to give their recommendations regarding prosecution of suspects in writing, to state prosecutors or the public; this law also applies to elected officials. Preceding the passage of this law were attempts to pass the “French Law”, which prohibits an investigation of a sitting prime minister, as well as a law limiting wages in the public sector. The initiator of the latter, coalition whip MK David Amsalem, clarified that this law was intended to impact the salary of the Police Commissioner. Not everything passed. The law allowing the Knesset to override a Supreme Court ruling, by passing a new law to replace one struck down, was blocked by Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon. However, he later stated he would support a limited version of the law that dealt with clauses in the Anti-Infiltration Law, which was struck down by the court. Another law which will not go forward is one relating to ministerial legal advisers, which would have allowed cabinet members to appoint advisers of their choosing, who identify with their policies. A first stage of this law, promoted by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, passed in the Knesset, but was harshly criticized by the Attorney General and by Likud Knesset members, who claimed that the law would do more harm than good.
Diminishing High Court
The Nation-State Law, the Arrangements Law (authorizing illegal outposts) and the so-called Recommendations Law (prohibiting the police from publicizing their reasons for recommending prosecution) are but some of the laws approved by the outgoing government. The first two laws are now under review by the High Court of Justice, but in fact, they are meant to bypass the courts. The main thrust of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s actions has been the diminution of the High Court’s power, through a series of various steps. While she did fail in an attempt to pass a law which would allow the Knesset to override a Supreme Court ruling by passing new legislation, she nevertheless chalked up several achievements. This includes the appointment of six new Supreme Court justices, four of whom are conservative, as well as passing a law which transfers the authority to rule on issues relating to the West Bank from the High Court to the District Court in Jerusalem. Overall, the Justice Ministry under Ayelet Shaked became a ministry for promoting the settlers’ agenda, with everyone toeing the line. Anyone who didn’t, such as Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber, was pushed aside and deprived of authority. As part of her plan, Shaked is promoting a creeping annexation of the territories, through the imposition of Israeli law beyond the 1967 borders. She also appointed an external personal adviser who is responsible for formulating responses to petitions submitted to the High Court of Justice on topics relating to the settlements. Shaked didn’t manage to prevent the evacuation of Amona, but she saw to it that the State Prosecutor’s Office did everything possible to delay its implementation. When the High Court blocked her, the cabinet approved unprecedented compensation for the evacuees. Shaked’s biggest achievement is the appointment of Avichai Mendelblit as attorney general. He espouses a conservative worldview and sees his role as mainly to help the government in carrying out its policies. A law Shaked has promoted, letting cabinet ministers personally appoint ministerial legal advisers, has not passed, but in the small battles she’s had with the AG so far, Shaked has usually won.
Still waiting for an apartment
Hardly anyone remembers that on his assumption of the role of Finance Minister, Moshe Kahlon promised to dismantle the Israel Land Authority, which holds 93 percent of state lands and is responsible for marketing them. Kahlon promised to create competing mechanisms. Fulfilling this promise, had it come about, would have generated a significant change in the housing market. Instead, the promise that made its mark on the public was the promise to reduce housing prices. However, as time passed and the complications of a plan for affordable housing became clearer, the promise to reduce prices faded away, replaced by a more modest and realistic one: enabling young couples to purchase cheaper housing. In the course of Kahlon’s term, this plan attracted 137,000 households which signed up for the program, at a cost of 5 billion shekels, ($1.32 billion) so far. However, to date, fewer than 60,000 of those households have won an apartment by lottery and estimates are that less than 1,000 have actually received the keys to their apartments. At the same time, Kahlon accelerated planning, with targets presented by planning authorities standing at double the average numbers presented in earlier years, due to accelerated procedures and large housing projects. So far, the rise in housing prices has been stemmed, but no one knows where prices will go next. One should remember that the pendulum of expectations can change rapidly after the announcement of elections, whereas a deeper-rooted addressing of the problems facing the housing market, such as reducing bureaucracy and the reduction in de facto construction, is left to Kahlon’s successor.
The situation of asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan only deteriorated during the term of the outgoing government. Those who came looking for asylum and commiseration in the land of Jewish refugees encountered a government that had nothing in common with the one which co-initiated the UN Convention on the status of stateless persons. Cabinet members (led by Netanyahu, Bennett, Shaked, Dery and Regev) painted these asylum seekers as the root of all societal evils, working day and night to distance Israel from its obligations under the UN convention, making their lives in Israel intolerable. The government announced their deportation, it incarcerated them and incited against them, passing a law robbing them of 20 percent of their wages while refusing to decide on asylum requests that have been waiting for years. It left these people frightened, impoverished, without status or access to social services. The enormous pressure put on them to leave has left its mark: between 2015 and 2018, more than 10,400 asylum seekers left “voluntarily.” One of the highlights of this abusive treatment was registered last April. Within 24 hours Netanyahu zigzagged dramatically from a festive announcement of an agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to receive 16,000 of them in Western countries to a total cancellation of this initiative. This happened after he was flooded with negative online responses. The small consolation the asylum seekers may have is that the outgoing government did not finish passing a limited version of a law overriding Supreme Court rulings, which would have allowed the Knesset to legislate new versions of a law that has been struck down by the High Court of Justice, in the framework of the anti-infiltration law. This would have allowed their forced deportation.
Just like Ayelet Shaked and Miri Regev, who declared war on the organizations they were in charge of, Naftali Bennett also viewed Israel’s academic world as an enemy which could be threatened, or better still, silenced. The malignant politicization spearheaded by the education minister over the last three and a half years undermined the status of higher education in Israel and the world. So did his boasting at having broken the “university cartel”, as he stated a few months ago. Bennett must be proud of the precedent he’s set: Never has such an aggressive statement been made by an education minister with regard to an organization the prosperity of which he is charged with fostering and promoting. The taming of the academic world includes, among other items, the attempt to impose an ethical code cooked up by Prof. Asa Kasher in response to a request by Bennett; the creation of a reporting and monitoring mechanism over clinics giving legal aid, the main purpose of which is to represent people with no voice or representation; the ousting of Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron as the deputy director-general of the Council for Higher Education while appointing a close associate in her stead, someone without the required standing; the demand to add Ariel University’s president to the Committee of University Heads. To this must be added the campaign to establish a faculty of medicine in Ariel, despite criticism by the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education and warnings by university heads that political pressure has invalidated any professional discussion of the matter. Bennett also expanded the gender segregation in educational streams for the ultra-Orthodox, not only due to his wish to please them but out of a desire to placate his national-religious Orthodox friends. As in the war against the legal and cultural systems, Bennett is not interested in diversifying the academic world, only in enfeebling it, by fiat or through self-censorship.
Quiet, we’re growing
The decent growth in Israel’s economy in recent years, the low unemployment rates and the relative quiet on the security front enabled Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to hand out benefits to the public. Whereas his predecessor Yair Lapid lauded the “working man”, Kahlon declared that he would help the weaker segments of society. These indeed enjoyed some improvements, such as increased benefits to the disabled, a reduction in public transportation costs; an increase in the minimum wage from 4,650 shekels a month ($1,230) to 5,300 shekels a month ($1,400). There were other steps taken by Kahlon, sometimes at the demand of his coalition partners. However, the affordable housing initiative, Kahlon’s flagship venture, is far from being focused on weaker segments of society. The benefits it pays are larger the bigger the apartment purchased. Ahead of the election Kahlon proudly displays his achievements, whereas his detractors present the compromises he made and the cost of those compromises. A compromise with the ultra-Orthodox parties underlies a savings program for children, for example. Kahlon’s excellent relations with the Histadrut labor federation avoided strikes but forced the prime minister to abandon his fantasies of reforming government monopolies, making the public pay through electricity bills for most of the reforms in the energy market. In other cases, Kahlon chose quick and easy steps, such as reducing the value added tax from 18 percent to 17 percent, while dragging his feet on other, more challenging tasks, such as raising the retirement age.
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