More than a month has passed since Israel’s voters returned Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right partners to power. They have not yet assumed office, but their tropism toward blood, soil, and submission to the state are already on display.
With Jewish supremacists Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich slotted for cabinet posts, Bibi’s Israel is doing its darndest to resemble a high-tech version of Hungary—with religion and majoritarianism assuming greater roles in the public sphere. Simultaneously, personal ambitions appear to be gradually trumping previously established norms.
Legislation designed to make the judiciary the handmaiden of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), is already on the table, evoking protest from Alan Dershowitz—the notorious Harvard law professor emeritus who is a Netanyahu friend and defended Donald Trump at his first impeachment trial.
“It would be a terrible, terrible mistake for an override to be permitted by the Knesset in Israel,” Dershowitz announced. “It would be a terrible mistake to weaken the independence of the Supreme Court. It would be a terrible mistake for politicians to be able to dictate who is on the Supreme Court or how the Supreme Court decides cases.”
At the same time, Netanyahu’s allies are discussing the possibility of short-circuiting the prime minister-elect’s ongoing corruption trial. From the looks of things, the rule of law and judicial integrity have seen better days.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu prepares for the return of the twice-convicted Aryeh Deri to the cabinet. In 1999, a court convicted Deri of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Earlier this year, he entered a guilty plea to tax charges. Significantly, Deri is presently barred from serving as a government minister, the operative word being “presently.” Deri is set for the interior and health portfolios, and then he’ll shift to the finance ministry. Here, too, the Knesset will make the law yield to political expediency.
The judiciary won’t matter much unless it is needed. Already, it has provided Netanyahu and company with a much-needed fig-leaf.
“This is a man who for many years had hanging in his home a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, the infamous Jewish terrorist who murdered 29 Palestinian Muslim worshipers in 1994 as they were praying in a mosque,” Weiss reminded Netanyahu.
“Ben-Gvir’s eligibility to be a coalition member and a minister was determined by none other than the Supreme Court, and they gave him complete clearance,” Netanyahu responded.
The Biden administration is not thrilled by what it sees, but for the moment is keeping its powder dry. Regardless, the incoming government will likely receive a gimlet eye from congressional Democrats. They still remember Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to a joint session of Congress as a stick-in-the-eye aimed at then-President Barack Obama.
According to an Axios report published on Wednesday, the U.S. is weighing a freeze-out of Ben-Gvir, who will helm Israel’s internal security, and Smotrich, the finance minister-designate. Practically speaking, don’t expect Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, FBI Director Christopher Wray, or Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to meet with Ben-Gvir or Smotrich anytime soon.
Likewise, Tom Nides, the U.S. ambassador to Jerusalem, has refused to say whether he would meet Ben-Gvir. “I’m not going to speculate what Ben-Gvir’s going to do—who we’ll meet with, who we’re not going to meet with,” Nides told Israeli television.
“Orban and Netanyahu are close. Both men have previously touted their ties to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, with Netanyahu featuring Trump and Putin in a past campaign ad.”
In stark contrast, the Emirati ambassador to Israel warmly greeted Ben-Gvir and met with Smotrich. Then again, liberal democracy is not a priority in the United Arab Emirates.
History has a way of repeating itself. Back in the day, James Baker, then-secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, treated a younger Netanyahu as persona non grata at Foggy Bottom after Netanyahu declared that “lies and distortions” served as the predicates for U.S. Middle East policy.
In a recent speech to J Street, the liberal Jewish group, Secretary of State Antony Blinken put the Israelis on notice—but did not throw down the gauntlet. “We’ll continue to express our support for core democratic principles, including respect for the rights of the LGBT community and the equal administration of justice for all citizens of Israel,” Blinken announced to applause. “We will gauge the government by the policies it pursues rather than individual personalities.”
In other words, prepare for some daylight between the two governments, but not headline-generating clashes. Blinken spoke on behalf of Joe Biden—possibly the last pro-Israel Democratic president—not Barack Obama.
Already, the issue of gay rights is in the spotlight. Netanyahu has received pushback from local authorities after he named Avi Maoz, a far-right politician with a history of anti-LGBTQ speech, to head the new “National Jewish Identity” authority. Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orban would be proud. He successfully banked on an anti-LGBT campaign to return him to office.
For his part, it appears that Netanyahu is not prepared to full-throatedly sing from the U.S. hymnal. In his interview with Weiss, Netanyahu reiterated that Israel would “continue to work with China” and distinguished Israel’s policy concerns from unnamed “others.” It should be noted that Hungary is China’s most reliable European partner.
Orban and Netanyahu are close. Both men have previously touted their ties to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, with Netanyahu featuring Trump and Putin in a past campaign ad. As for supporting Ukraine, neither is enthusiastic.
Netanyahu has expressed his hope that Putin is having “second thoughts” about Russia’s invasion, but has not indicated that he intends to have Israel play a larger role. As for Orban, he is actively thwarting the EU from offering greater assistance to Kyiv.
The distance between Budapest and Jerusalem shrinks daily, while the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel is likely to hit a rough patch.