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    Netanyahu’s Government Takes a Turn Toward Theocracy


    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition government, which was sworn in last week, is routinely referred to as “extreme right,” but this tortures the meaning of conservatism in a democracy. Thirty-two of the coalition’s members in the Knesset (out of a hundred and twenty parliamentary seats) are disciples of so-called religious parties, the political arms of theocratic communities. These parties, and factions of parties, can be divided into three groups: The largest alliance, with fourteen seats, is religious Zionism, whose forebears were preoccupied with preserving the rabbinic privileges afforded by the British Mandate in the new state of Israel—such as supervision over marriage, burial, conversion, and dietary laws, and state-supported religious schools—but which, since 1967, has been overtaken by the messianic claims of West Bank settlers. The Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, with seven seats, represent self-segregating communities living mainly in and around Jerusalem. Shas, with eleven seats, are a populist, anti-élite party of Orthodox Mizrahi immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, who tend to be poorer and less educated.

    In recent years, the three groups have meshed ideologically into the “national camp,” adhering in particular to the ultranationalist, Greater Israel vision of the religious-Zionist alliance: prohibiting the surrender of Biblically promised land, and moving the state further toward Orthodox law. Indeed, the other, anchoring half of the government majority, Netanyahu’s Likud party, includes many rank-and-file members who also openly identify with religious Zionism. (The new minister of environmental protection, Idit Silman, is a former backbencher of a religious-Zionist party who jumped to the Likud last summer, abandoning the “change government” of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, thereby helping to bring it down.)

    So, at least half of the coalition government cannot be said to be on the right in any ordinary sense, because its leaders and followers aren’t really committed to the secular social contract, founded on scientific skepticism and liberal norms, that even Zionist rightists including Vladimir Jabotinsky embraced. A 2016 Pew study found that eighty-nine per cent of Haredi, and sixty-five percent of dati—others who feel themselves governed by Jewish ritual law and practice, or Halacha—believe that, if the choice is between democratic principles or Halacha, the latter should “take priority.” Yair Nehorai, a former acolyte of religious Zionism, and the author of “The Third Revolution,” a book documenting the teachings of the rabbinic mentors of the messianic movement, believes that these attitudes amount to a novel politicized Jewish creed, advanced by “Jewist” activists who, in pressing for a Halachic state, are equivalent to “Islamist” activists who advocate for Muslim governmental supremacy and Sharia law. “Rabbi Eliezer Sadan, a renowned Israel Prize winner, set up a program in 1998 that’s prepared twenty-five hundred young men for the military—half of whom became officers, even senior officers,” Nehorai told me. “My book quotes him from 2017 preaching that the ‘Torah is our constitution,’ and the nation, ‘living in its land,’ should conduct its life on the basis of ‘divine precepts.’ ”

    Accordingly, the coalition wasted little time trying to “land a knockout to liberal-democratic Israel,” as the editor-in-chief of Haaretz, Aluf Benn, put it. The new Knesset was sworn in on November 16th, two weeks after the election and more than a month before Netanyahu presented his government. The coalition rushed to use its fresh majority to amend various laws and ordinances, including the nation’s Basic Law—a set of quasi-constitutional provisions that define government functions and guide the High Court of Justice, Israel’s Supreme Court. Alarmingly, Netanyahu agreed to appoint as national-security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a lawyer and a settler zealot who is the leader of a religious-Zionist group called Jewish Power, and who has been charged more than fifty times by the justice system (he says he was exonerated forty-six times). He has been convicted for incitement to racism and support for a Jewish terrorist organization—a record that caused the army to refuse his induction. Ben Gvir also champions unrestricted Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount, the Haram al-Sharif, in Jerusalem. By precedent, the Islamic authorities who administer the Haram’s ancient mosques have allowed Jews to visit the Mount, but not to establish prayer groups there. The Border Police are routinely tasked with keeping order at the site. But, as of a Knesset vote last month, which changed the law governing the administration of the national police, the border force is now under the direct supervision of the national-security minister—Ben Gvir—rather than the independent commissioner of police. The coalition also changed Basic Law to remove the supervision of the civil administration in the occupied territories from the minister of defense, and created a minister in the defense ministry to do the job. It handed that post to another religious-Zionist leader of the settler movement, Bezalel Smotrich, who is also the designated finance minister.

    These changes pave the way for encroachments on the Temple Mount and for a de-facto annexation of “Area C,” the sixty per cent of the West Bank where the settlements are situated and an estimated three hundred thousand Palestinians live. Ben Gvir made a surprise visit to the Mount’s Al-Aqsa compound on Tuesday morning, earning a strong rebuke from, among others, the U.S. Ambassador and the United Arab Emirates, which postponed a planned visit to that nation by Netanyahu. (He denied that this was the reason.) Before Ben Gvir’s visit, King Abdullah II had warned Israel not to cross “Jordan’s red lines” in Jerusalem’s holy places. Netanyahu, deflecting the criticism, claims to have ultimate authority over occupied territory, implying that the status quo will not be disturbed. But the status quo is something that Ben Gvir and Smotrich can work with. On Thursday, Smotrich told the Knesset that he will enjoy increased budgets to “regulate and strengthen our grip on the homeland,” meaning to legalize new settlement outposts and to increase construction in existing settlements, while Ben Gvir and the army suppress resistance to settler provocations. Correspondingly, a coalition agreement signed before the government took office pledged to limit options for prosecuting soldiers and Border Police for acts committed during their operations, but to institute the death penalty for acts of “terrorism.”

    There is more. The coalition has appointed to head both the health and interior ministries Shas’s leader, Aryeh Deri, who a year ago agreed to a plea bargain, entailing a suspended sentence, on charges of tax fraud. (It was not his first conviction.) To enable the appointment, the coalition first amended the Basic Law to allow a person who, having bargained for a suspended sentence, is not actually in prison, to hold a ministerial position. But the coalition agreement commits to further amendments to Basic Law that limit the Court’s authority to decide the constitutionality of any Knesset legislation—in effect, subordinating the judiciary to the executive. The change, an “override clause,” will empower a simple majority of the Knesset to nullify High Court objections. I hasten to add that Israel has no Bill of Rights, only Basic Law—in this case, the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty, passed in its final form in 1994—which the High Court has interpreted as giving it warrant to nullify laws that encroach on civil rights. Moreover, appointment to the Court is by a judicial selection committee composed of politicians, judges, and Bar Association members; this tends to promote a kind of self-perpetuating professionalism on the Court rather than political allegiances. To override the Court, in this context, is to remove protection against the tyranny of Knesset majorities.

    The ultra-Orthodox parties have not been overlooked. The coalition commits to new Basic Law declaring that “Torah study is a fundamental principle in the heritage of the Jewish people.” An intent here is a general exemption from military service of Haredi students—who study the Torah and Talmud, but more than a quarter of whom do not study math, science, or English—an exemption that the High Court ruled against in 2017. (Only half of the Haredi men in Israel are employed; demographers project that, by the end of the decade, the Haredi will comprise sixteen per cent of the population.) In a speech to the Knesset, the outgoing Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, charged that the new government’s educational budgets will fund Haredi students at a higher rate than students in the secular state-education system. In fact, the ultra-Orthodox leader Moshe Gafni, the newly elected chair of the Knesset’s finance committee, suggested that, as in the days of King David, “half the people will study Torah and half will serve in the army.” Economists in the finance ministry project that ultra-Orthodox communities stand to gain almost six billion dollars in government spending, although, per capita, secular Israelis—most of whom do serve in the military—pay six times more in taxes than the ultra-Orthodox do.

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