Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or “Bibi” as many in Israel and overseas refer to him, is not ideologically what some would call a person of the hard-right camp. Some in the media as well as in the Biden administration have characterized Bibi’s coalition government as a “danger to Israeli democracy.” Professor Eugene Kontorovich, an international law expert pointed out to CBN-TV that such a response to a right-of-center coalition was predictable. Kontorovich said that “This time a right-wing coalition won a very clear majority in government. Now, with the religious and right-wing parties winning a majority, liberals around the world, and particularly in America, are saying that this government is the end of an open liberal Israel, that this government is going to result in harming of the ties between Israel and America.”
Kontorovich believes that the cry about the loss of democracy in Israel is not really about democracy but rather about policy. He explained that the Biden administration’s warning the new Netanyahu government may be undemocratic is highly premature to say the least. Kontorovich explained that the outgoing Lapid government gave away parts of Israel’s territorial maritime waters without a vote in the legislature simply through executive action. That, Kontorovich asserted, is undemocratic, yet that undemocratic action was encouraged and applauded by the Biden administration.
Although the new coalition government includes two ultra-orthodox religious parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) and a nationalist party (Religious Zionism), Netanyahu’s Likud party is by far the most dominant in the coalition. And like Netanyahu, it is predominantly a secular party. In fact, Netanyahu’s views on personal rights are rather liberal in nature, as are his views on many social and economic issues. The one area where Netanyahu could be described as a hawk is on national security and defense. So, when the media and some in the Biden administration make dire predictions about the future of Israel’s democracy, it simply betrays their liberal and leftist bias.
Let’s remember that Bibi’s formative years were spent in the US. He attended a liberal high school in Philadelphia and a rather liberal campus at MIT in Boston, Mass. Bibi is unlikely to allow the likes of Ben Gvir, Smotrich or Deri to derail Israel’s relations with the US or impose their religious views on the Israeli public. All the parties in the coalition have a common interest in strengthening the Jewish identity of the Jewish state without jeopardizing individual freedom.
Bibi is hardly thrilled by Itamar Ben Gvir’s antics, and Naftali Smotrich’s previous demands, but the reality is such that the centrist parties have resolved not to join the Netanyahu government. While there are no ideological differences between Benny Gantz (leader of the centrist National Unity party) and Bibi, Netanyahu’s bad faith move to scuttle their Unity government in 2020-2021, to prevent passing the premiership to Gantz as was promised, created “bad blood” between them. As a result, Gantz is eschewing the possibility of once again joining a Netanyahu-led government. Then, Gantz joining with the embittered former Likud Knesset Members Saar and Elkin, who still seek to avenge their alleged “mistreatment” by Netanyahu and the Likud, makes the chances of cooperation between Gantz and his National Unity party with Netanyahu and the Likud nearly impossible.
Currently for Israel, the personal animosities of the likes of Saar and Elkin override national interest, and they are obstructing the possibility of a strong Israeli unity government. It is unfortunate for Gantz who jumped into the political arena to bring positive change, wanting to be prime minister to enable him to improve life and security in Israel. As a former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff, Gantz like Netanyahu is serious about Israel’s security and defense. There is little else that differentiates between them other than Netanyahu’s vast experience in the political arena and his diplomatic and economic successes. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh observed in an interview that the difference between Benny and Bibi (Gantz and Netanyahu) “is the difference between Pepsi Cola and Coca Cola.”
During the changing of the guard ceremonies in the Knesset earlier this month, it was Gantz, unlike his colleagues in the outgoing government, who didn’t resort to cynicism and biting remarks leveled by the likes of Lapid, Lieberman, and Bar-Lev. Gantz focused instead on Iran and other critical issues such as the drafting of orthodox youth as an imperative for the future strength of the IDF. In noticing Gantz’s more dignified approach, Bibi and his Likud colleagues must have pondered the lost opportunity of having Gantz as a partner.
The inclusion of Gantz in the nationalist, right-of-center government would have taken away the stinging criticism from abroad and the US in particular. The talk of an “extremist religious government,” and such warnings by the self-righteous hypocritical Europeans of “fearing the end to democracy in Israel,” would have appeared pathetically awkward, and mean spirited, as it still does… Moreover, there would be more confidence in the Netanyahu government that included Gantz, in Washington, Brussels, and more importantly in Abu Dhabi.
Clearly, the people of Israel have the right to choose their government, and they did it in an exemplary democratic election. However, the perception abroad was skewed by the negative reporting in the leftist dominated Israeli media, that supported the previous ineffectual coalition government. Considering all their previous follies as outsiders, Finance Minister Smotrich and National Security Minister Ben Gvir are now inside the government and must behave responsibly. It is clear that Netanyahu will not allow them to jeopardize Israel’s relations with the Arab peace partners of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, nor change the status quo vis-a vis the domestic scene. Although he is dependent on their support, the two have enough respect for the longest serving Israeli prime minister to adhere to his decisions.
Gantz has claimed that he has entered the political field for ten years and hoped to become prime minister in the process, fulfilling his public mission, then retire. Realistically, the only way for this to materialize is for him to join the government of Netanyahu and the Likud. Regrettably, that option seems closed for now, given that his supporters in the National Unity party would never forgive him for such a move. The end result is that not ideological differences, but rather personal animosities have overridden national interest.