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Deal or No Deal, Can Israel's Government Free Itself From Netanyahu's Shadow?

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset.
Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

It turns out that time can fly even when you’re not having fun: It’s been over six months since the “government of change” took office – slightly more than an eternity in “Israeli government years.” Combined with the fact that the theoretical switch between Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is already on the horizon, it’s not too soon to begin drawing a portrait of this government, whose main change to date is the identity of the prime minister. On the level of policy, the spirit of Benjamin Netanyahu never left.

These are a few of the things taking place around us, as the entire state is captive to a stormy discussion over the legal fate of the criminal defendant, former prime minister and current opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, in no particular order:

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The expulsion policy continued in Sheikh Jarrakh on Monday. The government of change gave permission to the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in order to expel Bedouin. Settler violence is at a height, while the prime minister downplays the phenomenon. Tenders for building in the settlements are quietly going forward, including steps to restore construction plans in E1, the area of the West Bank between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim. The illegal outpost of Evyatar has been rendered legitimate and deals are brewing over Homesh. Palestinian civil society organizations have been designated as supporters of terrorism, and of course the Citizenship Law, in its various versions, is being advanced by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

These are only a few examples of the policy of the current government, which in practice is strongly right-wing but whose right-wing character is also measured incessantly only against Benjamin Netanyahu. There is no step that isn’t examined by endless comparisons to his tenure, whether if in an attempt to resemble him, or in an attempt to criticize him (“But Netanyahu also approved the planting!”/But Netanyahu also stopped the planting”).

If at its swearing-in it was claimed that this would be a “status quo” government, and someone mistakenly imagined there would be some kind of balance between the policy of the left and that of the right, it is already completely obvious that the status quo shaped by Netanyahu during his years in power is what has remained, in spirit and in practice.

What remains for the “left-wing” branch of the government – which is presumably the Labor Party (where is it, really?), Meretz and the United Arab List – is mainly to complain. Even Lapid mainly complains about the planting in the south, when a member of his own government was the one who approved it. Because what can they do? Threaten to really and truly resign? That’s impossible, the heavy shadow of Bibi, with or without a plea bargain, continues to hover.

Cabinet Secretary Shalom Shlomo explained it well, when the lawmakers of Meretz whined to him last week that they feel “out of place” in the government (an embarrassing situation in itself, when a Knesset representation pleads with a government official): “Your voters are very satisfied with the fact that you joined the government and that you removed Netanyahu from the Prime Minister’s Office.”

In other words: Everyone knows that even your voters are making do with the “anyone but Bibi” government, and they’ll forgive you for the Citizenship Law. Unfortunately, he’s right. Therefore, Netanyahu, even when he is a member of the opposition and even when he is approaching his departure from the playing field, continues to shape government policy.

So it’s true, the Israeli “left” doesn’t really have an alternative coalition to offer, even if Netanyahu suddenly leaves for a Greek island after the deal. But the internal pressure that they could nevertheless try to exert among their electorate is infinitesimal to nonexistent. It’s enough to see the public declarations of the United Arab List, compared to Meretz’s weak complaint to “Mr. Shlomo.” Or as Meretz MK Mossi Raz likes to say: You don’t have to explain the problem to me, I’m the one voting against my own bills now. So whether or not there’s a plea bargain with Netanyahu, the big question is when there will also be a deal to liberate the government from his shadow and his policy.

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