Netanyahu and Israel

Netanyahu’s Israel is a Teetering Balancing Act

In December 2022, a triumphant Benjamin Netanyahu returned to office, eighteen months after being ousted by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid’s ‘change’ government. Returning for an unrivaled sixth term as prime minister of Israel, he stands at the helm of a far-right coalition government of ultra-nationalist and -religious parties. His comeback, however, has faltered over a string of political crises that some predict forewarns serious  challenges for both Netanyahu and Israel.

Crises on multiple fronts

Over the last month, Israel has faced simultaneous assaults on its eastern, western and northern fronts.

Since January, Israel has been engulfed by unprecedented mass protests following the announcement of a planned judicial overhaul that would ostensibly reign in the overreach of the judiciary by transferring greater authority to the Knesset over the appointment of judges and Supreme Court decisions. The move, widely seen as an effort to subvert Israel’s system of checks and balances and the secular freedoms historically protected by the courts, has galvanised broad swaths of Israel’s society. Nationwide demonstrations, at one point accounting for as many as five hundred thousand protestors[i]reached their zenith following the unceremonious firing of Israel’s Minister of Defense over his criticism of the judicial reforms. This prompted Israel’s Histadrut labor federation to declare a nationwide labor strike, with closures across the health, transit, retail, education, and banking sectors.

Relenting to public pressure, on March 28, Netanyahu conceded to a temporary postponement of the legislative vote but did so promising to push through reforms “one way or another”[ii], setting off ongoing negotiations on a judicial compromise between the coalition and opposition parties, which has thus far not yielded a resolution[iii]. Protests have meanwhile continued, although at a smaller scale and turnout, providing a timely reprieve for the government as it turned to the brewing security crisis along its borders.

Over the last month, Israel has faced simultaneous assaults on its eastern, western and northern fronts[iv], following a precipitous surge in violence at the convergence of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian holidays in early April. The most recent bout of violence erupted after a series of violent police raids[v] at Al-Aqsa Mosque, with a rocket barrage from southern Lebanon[vi], the Gaza Strip and Syria, and retaliatory strikes against Hamas and Syrian military sites. The engagement with Lebanon marked the biggest military escalation since the war in 2006. These incidences follow months of soaring violence and military raids in the West Bank and East Jerusalem[vii], the cessation of security coordination with the Palestinian Authority and a growing spate of terror attacks, putting 2023 on course to be the deadliest year since the Second Intifada[viii].

A model of pragmatism

Israel’s recent crises evince clear strains on Netanyahu’s efforts to maintain a political balance.

While Netanyahu has in the past fallen back on his ‘Mr. Security’ bona fides to successfully drum up support, he now finds himself in the uncanny position of acting as the moderate voice of reason among his coalition partners. Promising a heavy price “for every act of aggression,” he has nevertheless moved with care to avoid wider regional conflagration[ix]. The rocket barrage from Lebanon was attributed to Hamas forces, voiding any connection to or instigation by Hezbollah—a statement reinforced by the group as it denied responsibility for the attacks in an effort by both sides to prevent a broadening of the conflict. Strikes in both Lebanon and Gaza were similarly aimed at Hamas infrastructure and weapons sites, thus minimizing casualties[x]. At home, Netanyahu reinforced restrictions on non-Muslim visitors to the Al-Aqsa compound during the last ten days of Ramadan, and perhaps most noticeably, reinstated Defense Minister Yoav Galant in a bid to quell public unrest[xi]. This strategic circumspection is also evident in the handling of Operation Shield and Arrow, launched on May 9 in response to renewed rocket fire from Gaza. Here too, fighting has been targeted at the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in an effort to deter Hamas’ embroilment in the conflict.

Netanyahu, however, has to do all of this while treading a tenuous tightrope between his coalition’s hardline factions, which have openly pushed for the use of more aggressive force against Palestinians[xii], an expansion of settlement construction as a “response to terror”[xiii] and the ultimate annexation of the West Bank[xiv]. Executing this high-wire act is a matter of both political and personal exigency for Netanyahu, who is dependent on the support of Otzma Yehudit and the Religious Zionist party to sustain a governing coalition, and, as a consequence, guard against charges in a pending corruption trial that could see him facing jail time. Ever the pragmatist, Netanyahu has thus strived to maintain government cohesion by bartering acquiescence to the far-right platform of his coalition partners. At this latest series of political hurdles, he authorized the creation of a national guard[xv] to be overseen by National Security Minister and Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir – a controversial figure who has long been relegated to the fringe of Israeli society for his extremist views [xvi]– to ease disquiet over the postponement of judicial reforms[xvii]. The launch of Operation Shield and Arrow amid a dispute between Netanyahu and Ben Gvir has similarly raised speculation that the offensive was designed to appease criticism over the government’s security policy.  

Yet, Israel’s recent crises evince clear strains on Netanyahu’s efforts to maintain a political balance and represent a deepening divide within his government. The judicial reforms—while adamantly endorsed by the far-right—faced considerable pushback from officials within the security establishment and saw several Likud party members voicing support[xviii] for a pause in the legislative process which prompted calls for resignation[xix] from the far-right and efforts to oust supporters from the party[xx]. This public rift belies simmering tensions engendered by a series of concessions made to the far-right. These concessions, importantly, have bifurcated military command in Israel: wrestling jurisdiction over the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and civil administration in the West Bankwhich, among other things, includes oversight of illegal construction, settlement planning and construction, and land allocationsfrom the Defense Ministry for Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, while handing control over police and border patrol in the West Bank[xxi], traditionally under the auspices of the Army, to Ben Gvir. The creation of a privatized militia for Ben Gvir only stresses these tensions further[xxii]. Netanyahu has so far managed to maintain party discipline, but cracks in party unity are becoming evident. Ben Gvir’s latest threats to quit the coalition has invited calls for his withdrawal[xxiii] by Likud party officials in signs of a growing standoff between the far-right and ruling party.

Diplomatic setbacks

[A key challenge] has been the visible cooling of ties between Israel and its regional neighbors.

This new track has likewise seen a steady worsening of relations between Israel and its allies. For months, the Biden administration has maintained a dual-track approach to the mounting crises in Israel: leading with careful, if pointed, public statements
[xxiv], while maintaining consistent pressure on Israel over its overhaul agenda and developments in the West Bank through the countries’[xxv] delegates [xxvi]. In a sign of boiling tensions[xxvii], on March 29, President Biden offered a rare public rebuke of Israel’s judicial reforms and denied plans for Netanyahu to visit the White House, prompting strong pushback from Netanyahu and his government against foreign meddling. Netanyahu has, however, been careful not to push tensions too far, using his address at the Summit for Democracy to reaffirm the “unshakeable”[xxviii] alliance between Israel and the US. And conditions have conspired to temporarily temper further conflict. Despite their personal disagreements, Biden finds himself hampered by the Republicans’ stalwart[xxix] support[xxx] for Israel, which, on the eve of a presidential election year, underscores the risk of deepening the partisan gap on the issue. The rocket barrage and terrorist attacks in Israel have also helped the White House find itself on familiar ground, prompting renewed guarantees of America’s “ironclad”[xxxi] commitment to Israel’s security. The recent leak of Pentagon documents[xxxii] has turned the tables further, with the US taking pains to reassure Israel of its enduring commitment to their security partnerships[xxxiii].

More challenging has been the visible cooling of ties between Israel and its regional neighbors. Already apprehensive at the induction of a new far-right, ultra-Orthodox government, Arab countries have expressed growing concern and condemnation at the spiraling security situation in Israel and inflammatory rhetoric by members of the Israeli government. A planned state visit by Netanyahu to the UAE, originally scheduled for January, was canceled after Ben Gvir’s visit to the al-Aqsa courtyard[xxxiv]. In further signaling its discontent, in March the UAE hosted[xxxv] Netanyahu’s former protégé Naftali Bennett at the height of Israel’s judicial crisis. This came several days after it sent a senior emissary[xxxvi] to privately relate their distress over the economic and political fallout of the government’s decisions, and the dangers it posed to the advancement of normalized relations and regional stability. As ministerial trips to the Gulf country remain embargoed until Netanyahu’s official visit, no member of his government has traveled to the UAE, putting a further strain on the development of closer bilateral ties between the UAE and the current government. In the meantime, visits between senior officials from Morocco or Bahrain, signatories of the 2020 Abraham Accords which normalized diplomatic relations with Israel, have been minimal. Both Morocco[xxxvii] and Bahrain[xxxviii] have fended off growing public criticism of the alliance amid escalating violence in the West Bank and sustained pro-Palestinian sentiment at home.

Relations are perhaps at their worst with Jordan, which has harshly condemned[xxxix] Israel’s action in East Jerusalem and pushed for an emergency response through the Arab League, Organization of Islamic Cooperation and United Nations Security Council, as well as direct intervention from the US and the UAE. Israel has in return accused Jordan[xl], which acts as custodian of the al-Aqsa compound, of propagating violence by Palestinian worshippers. Relations have continued to deteriorate when, on March 22, Jordan voted to expel the Israeli ambassador; the arrest[xli] of a Jordanian lawmaker on April 24 alleged to have been smuggling weapons into the West Bank is the latest incident ratcheting up tensions even higher between the two countries.

Israel, for its part, has fumbled opportunities to mitigate tensions.

Israel, for its part, has fumbled opportunities to mitigate tensions. The Aqba summit convened to recommit
[xlii] both sides to de-escalation, yielded verbal guarantees from Israeli negotiators to temporarily cease new settlement construction and the authorization of outposts and home demolitions. This guarantee, however, was subsequently back peddled[xliii] and countermanded[xliv] by the Israeli government in yet another demonstration of concession to right-wing partners—though later reaffirmed at Sharm el-Sheikh to little effect[xlv]. Visible momentum on normalization has consequently stalled. The regional forum for multilateral cooperation created through the Negev framework postponed[xlvi] its annual ministerial summit originally set to have taken place in March – although rumor has it plans for the summit will finally move forward this summer. Despite continued assurances from Israel[xlvii], little progress has been made in expanding normalization in the region, and Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iran might indicate a sea change[xlviii] in prospects, which could deal a major blow to Netanyahu’s efforts to bring Israel into the regional fold.

Looking forward

The political dysfunction laid bare over the last few months is unlikely to be mitigated.

The political dysfunction laid bare over the last few months is unlikely to be mitigated: with the far-right determined to reshape Israeli society and borders to reflect their vision of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy and sovereignty over all the ‘Land of Israel’. And, it will continue to doggedly push forward its agenda as long as it remains in government. As such, Netanyahu will find it increasingly difficult to balance the survival of his government against the preservation of his political legacy. Israel’s recent predicaments have won him no friends—either abroad or at home. Polling predicted[xlix] a 2 to 12 seat drop for Likud were an election held today—the worst prognosis for the party in 17 years. Predicted losses for the Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit ticket would further plunge the coalition government under the threshold needed to govern. Nor is Netanyahu himself immune from the pervading public sentiment. 71% reported[l] dissatisfaction with his performance, with only 25% supporting the current government composition. Another more worrying concern is his ability to sustain government unity as members repeatedly hint at quitting the coalition[li] in capitulation to constituents’ criticisms, which would leave Netanyahu without a parliamentary majority.

One option could be for Netanyahu to double-down and appease rumblings within the right-wing. But as recent struggles have shown, continued efforts to push through their agenda will face steep opposition and regional incitement, leaving the far right’s defection an ever-present threat. Nor has Netanyahu been keen to place[lii] regional and security decisions into the hands of his coalition partners. Another option might see Netanyahu considering an off-ramp while he still has bargaining power. A potential unity government with Benny Gantz, whose National Unity party is enjoying a resurgence in the polls, might be a tempting alternative—allowing Netanyahu to remain in power without new elections, while also shedding the weight of his current coalition partners. Such a union would also help smooth relations with both the US and regional neighbors, adding a renewed jolt in momentum for normalization. Though such an alliance is not unchartered territory for either and both have repeatedly ruled out[liii] the possibility of sitting together for another coalition government. Both sides would need deep assurances to make the jump, and Netanyahu’s will almost certainly require immunity against looming criminal charges. This is not a reality either side may favor and only time will tell if it is one they will consider.

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[ii] ToI Staff. (2023). “There can be no civil war”: Full text of Netanyahu’s announcement on overhaul pause. Retrieved from
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[v] CNN. (2023). Video shows Israeli police beat and injure Muslim demonstrators at mosque. Retrieved from
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[xviii] Jerusalem Post .(2023). Three Likud ministers announce support for reform pause. Retrieved from
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[xxvii] Federman, J. (2023). Israeli pm, Biden Exchange Frosty words over legal overhaul. Retrieved from
[xxviii] Gov.Il (2023). PM Netanyahu Addresses the US State Dept. Summit for Democracy 2023. Www.Gov.Il. Retrieved from
[xxix] Ravid, B. (2023a). McCarthy to become 2nd House speaker to address Israeli knesset. Retrieved from
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[xxxi] Department Press Briefing – April 6, 2023. (2023). State.Gov. Retrieved from
[xxxii] Saric, I. (2023). What we know about the pentagon document leak. Retrieved from
[xxxiii] Ravid, B. (2023c). Austin told Israel’s gallant that the U.S. is taking steps to prevent future leaks. Retrieved from
[xxxiv] United Arab Emirates Ministry of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation. (2023). UAE condemns storming of al-Aqsa Mosque Courtyard by Israeli minister. Retrieved from
[xxxv] Times of Israel. (2023). Former PM Naftali Bennett meets with UAE leader in Abu Dhabi. Retrieved from
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[xlv] MaaNews. (2023). Sharm el-Sheikh Summit: Palestinian-Israeli Agreement on the need to achieve calm on the ground. Retrieved from
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[xlvii] Khalid, T. (2023). Israeli FM: Saudi Arabia Visit “on table”, an Arab country to normalize ties in 2023. Retrieved from
[xlviii] Zaaimi, S. (2023). Is Saudi-Iran reconciliation threatening the future of Israeli normalization? Retrieved from
[xlix] Jerusalem Post. (2023). Israel election poll: Benny Gantz holds lead over Netanyahu’s Likud. Retrieved from
[l] Times of Israel. (2023). Poll shows a dramatic drop in support for Likud, surge in backing for national unity. Retrieved from
[li] Times of Israel, & Berer, S. (2023). While claiming to weigh leaving gov’t, Ben Gvir says bringing it down not an option. Retrieved from
[lii] Keller-Lynn, C. (2023). Ben Gvir solves his own coalition crisis, leveraging Gaza op to pump up his base. Retrieved from
[liii] Obel, A. (2022). Netanyahu and Gantz trade barbs, rule out any future coalition together. Retrieved from

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