Analysis: ‘Bloat’ is the least of the new Israeli government’s problems

The views of key members of Netanyahu’s administration are at odds with policies he hopes to implement, the biggest being annexation.

By Ruthie Blum, JNS

Public criticism of the new Israeli government has focused on how “bloated” it is. Prior to and since the swearing-in on Sunday of the coalition’s 34 ministers, every headline in the print and broadcast media was and has been highlighting its unprecedented size.

In addition, each disgruntled analyst has bemoaned the exorbitant cost of maintaining dozens of ministries, many of which were concocted to satisfy the demands of coalition partners and party members fearing relegation to the backbenches of the Knesset.

The main outcry over the high price of assuaging egos in this fashion is that more than 1 million citizens are newly unemployed, with businesses imploding all over the place, as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns.

It’s a valid argument, to be sure. But as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed out in his speech during the four-hour plenary session that preceded the swearing-in ceremony, “If we had gone into a fourth election, the additional cost would have amounted to NIS 2 billion (approximately $567 million). The additional cost of a unity government [was roughly] NIS 85 million ($24 million) a year, infinitely lower than the cost of additional elections.”

Furthermore, following three rounds of legislative elections in a little more than a year — on April 9, 2019, Sept. 17, 2019 and March 2, 2020 — the public had grown weary of going to the polls. Particularly since an end to the political deadlock was nowhere in sight, while the coronavirus was beginning to spread. In fact, a mere three weeks after the third round, the entire Jewish state was in virtual or literal quarantine.

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At that point, Israelis couldn’t have cared less about politics. We were too busy buying toilet paper and debating the merits of surgical masks.

The announcement on April 20 that Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz had struck a deal, therefore, came as a relief to the majority of the population. The general attitude was that we have to get the ravaged economy back up and running again, even if that means settling for a less-than-ideal government in Jerusalem.

Only left- and right-wing ideologues were truly unhappy. They would have preferred another round of elections to having their representatives in the Knesset compromise on crucial issues in order to be part of a mish-mosh coalition.

Sadly, their misgivings already appear to be on the mark.

The statements made by three new ministers on Monday, upon receiving the proverbial keys to the offices from their immediate predecessors, illustrate that Israel’s 35th government is in for a very bumpy ride.

Let’s start with the words of Gabi Ashkenazi, the Blue and White member of Knesset who replaced Israel Katz as minister of foreign affairs. (Katz is now finance minister.)

After referring to U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace plan as a “historic opportunity,” Ashkenazi revealed his party’s reservations to the part of the “deal of the century” that involves Israel extending sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and parts of Judea and Samaria. He did this through euphemism.

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Jerusalem, he said, would have to act “responsibly, with full coordination with the United States and maintaining all of the state of Israel’s peace agreements and strategic interests,” especially with Egypt and Jordan.

What he meant was clear to anyone familiar with Blue and White’s stance: that Arab consent, international community backing and Palestinian statehood are required in order for Israel to move ahead with Netanyahu’s intention to “extend Israel’s law over regions that are the cradle of the Jewish people,” as early as July.

Then there’s Avi Nissenkorn, the new justice minister. Nissenkorn, former secretary general of the Histadrut labor union, replaced Amir Ohana, who is now minister of public security. While Ohana spent his tenure fighting against the judicial activism and intervention in legislative affairs, Nissenkorn took advantage of his inauguration address to announce that he would be the judges’ defender and champion — their protective “wall.”

Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz, the new economy minister — replacing the Likud Party’s Eli Cohen, now intelligence minister — is another figure whose politics are antithetical to those of Netanyahu.

His inaugural speech was an ode to socialism.

“The strength of those who held extreme economic stances that led to piggish capitalism in earlier governments is smaller in this coalition, and this gives us a bigger chance to advance humane economics,” he declared proudly.

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Views on sovereignty, court interventionism and the free market are what separate the right from the left in Israel. Though the former garnered far more votes at the ballot box — three times in a row — the latter is now in charge of the ministries that handle those very matters.

Whether Netanyahu is going to be able to proceed with any policy that conflicts with his coalition partners’ political positions remains to be seen. But it is a concern that makes the problem of “bloating” pale in comparison.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”