- USIEA Team
New Israeli Government
Week of January 8, 2023
New Israeli Government: Last week, Israel swore in her thirty-seventh government after her fifth election in three years. The government is led by Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, who is back for his third stint as the Prime Minister. He is already Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister. As with all Israeli governments since the birth of Israel in 1948, this government is made up of a coalition, holding 64 out of the 120 seats in the Israeli Knesset. As Israeli governments go, this one owns a relatively large majority (the previous government held only 61 seats), making it relatively vulnerable to political turmoil.
The coalition is comprised of four parties:
Likkud – 32 seats: Led by Bibi Netanyahu
Religious Zionist Party (RZP) – 14 seats: Led by Betzalel Smotrich
Shas - 11 seats
United Torah Judasim (UTJ) – 7 seats
Setting up a coalition took about six weeks. First, coalition agreements were signed with RZP, UTJ, and Shas, and then the remaining ministries were divvied up from within the Likkud, accompanied by an inordinate amount of infighting. The resulting coalition is an exercise in contrasts but it keeps everyone happy, at least for the time-being. Key ministries are allocated as follows:
Minister of Defense: Yoav Galant (Likkud). Gallant, a former three-star general who began his military career in the elite Shayetet 13 naval commando unit, is a highly regarded military strategist. Though once in the running to be IDF chief of staff, he had to pull out after becoming embroiled in a scandal in 2010, regarding the encroachment of his house and garden onto public lands. Many believe that the scandal was created by Gabi Ashkenazi, a former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Foreign Minister in the outgoing government, in an effort to keep Galant from being appointed.
Foreign Minister: Eli Cohen (Likkud). Cohen, who served as economy minister and intelligence minister in previous Netanyahu governments, was a surprise pick for the job, confirmed only shortly before Netanyahu made the announcement. The assumption was until then that the post would go to former Ambassador Ron Dermer, who ended up being appointed Minister of Strategic Affairs. Cohen will serve in a rotation with Israel Katz, who will take over the post in two years. The running assumption is that Bibi will be the de facto Foreign Minister while Cohen will serve in the position in name only. Cohen is familiar with USIEA, having worked with Avi Zimmerman and the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry in his position of Minister of the Economy.
Justice Minister: Yariv Levin (Likkud). A former vice chairman of the Israeli Bar Association, Levin has been involved in legal reform since he joined the Likud’s Knesset slate in 2009. He will now oversee some of the new government’s most controversial policies, with judicial reforms that will see the Knesset reduce the oversight power of the high court and expand its own control over judicial appointments. His reform policy brought 80,000 people to Rabin Square over the weekend in protest.
Economy and Industry Minister: Nir Barkat (Likkud). Barkat is the former Mayor of Jerusalem and a successful high-tech entrepreneur. Barkat is widely expected to succeed Bibi. He was given a relatively “quiet” ministry to bide his time and keep away from turmoil until the time has come to elect a successor. Barkat is also familiar with USIEA, who, at his request, critiqued his plan for growth in Judea and Samaria before he presented it to Congress in 2021.
Interior Minister, Health Minister: Aryeh Deri (Shas). Deri will serve in a rotation and will trade his posts with Betzalel Smotrich (RZP), who currently serves as the Finance Minister. This is possibly the most problematic appointment in the government. Deri has a lurid political history. He was convicted in 2000 for bribery, fraud and breach of trust and served 22 months in prison. In 2018, Israeli police recommended that Deri be indicted for "committing fraud, breach of trust, obstructing court proceedings, money laundering, and tax offenses." In 2021, all the charges except the tax offenses were dropped and Deri was given a one-year suspended sentence through a plea bargain. Israeli law states that anyone who has been convicted of a “malicious” crime cannot serve as a cabinet minister. Deri claims that as his plea bargain resulted in the charges against him being reduced, he is fit to serve as minister. The High Court is now arguing his case. Even if Deri is permitted to serve as minister, he and Smotrich have very different views regarding economics and finance. Smotrich is a classic political conservative and supports reduction of government funding and reduction of taxes. Deri, catering to a Haredi clientele that is largely unemployed, favors extended government funding and increase of taxes. How the ministry will function under two very different financial dogmas is yet to be seen.
While this government has more than thirty different ministers, a few others stand out:
Energy Minister: Israel Katz (Likkud). Katz, a long time Likkud heavyweight, was a favorite for the position of foreign minister and stormed out of a meeting with Bibi after being told he would have to share the post with Cohen and go second in the rotation.
Environmental Protection Minister: Idit Silman (Likkud). Silman was responsible for prematurely ending the term of office of the previous government. While still a member of then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennet’s Yamina party, she resigned from the coalition, ostensibly after the Minister of Health allowed visitors to enter hospitals over the Passover holiday while in possession of leaven (chametz).
Tourism Minister: Haim Katz (Likkud). Katz, once the head of the largest union in Israel Aircraft Industries, received a six-month suspended sentence earlier this year after being convicted under a plea bargain in a graft case.
National Security Minister: Itamar Ben Gvir (Jewish Power). The newly formed National Security Ministry – an expanded Public Security Ministry – will have unprecedented powers over the Israel Police. The ministry gives Ben Gvir direct authority over the Border Patrol Police, previously under the supervision of the Ministry of Defence. Ben Gvir, who was elected partially on his strong stance on rule of the law (he was supported by many Israelis who do not support continued Israeli presence in Judea and Samaria), is being given all of the tools he needs to get the job done.
Israel is a country of contrasts. It is composed of Ashkenazim from Europe and Sephardim from North Africa, religious and non-religious, conservatives and liberals, Jews and Arabs. It is a foregone conclusion that her government will reflect her own contrasts. The question is whether or not this government has what it takes to overcome the wild variations in the style and substance of its ministers to survive an entire four year term. No government since 1988 has done so. Whatever happens, it certainly will make for inserting watching.