What's so right-wing about the new Israeli government?
As the new government led by Benjamin Netanyahu is finally taking over after weeks of horse-trading and intense deliberations, many fear that the coalition, comprising Netanyahu’s own Likud Party, ultra-orthodox and national religious parties, will become the most far-right government in Israel’s history. However, If we explore two core issues, economics and national security, it becomes very difficult to pan the new government as far-right.
Critics and the media’s superlative-throwers seldom bother to define the terms they use. In economic terms, if we apply the universally understood differences between right and left, then right is about free markets and maximizing individual freedoms and the left is for planned economies with expansive government involvement.
As for national security, historically, it’s exceedingly difficult to pinpoint how a right-wing policy differs from a left-wing one. The Oslo peace process was a left-wing endeavor, but Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement was carried out by a right-wing government. Right-wing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made two generous peace offers to the Palestinians as did left-wing Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the time.
So what makes Netanyahu’s stance on the Arab world right-wing?
Netanyahu, widely considered a hawk, has in reality followed a path of diplomacy most of his premiership. Under his leadership, Israel made peace agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and has built a de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia. During his tenure Israel has forged close ties with a number of countries, in the West and Far East, solidifying relationships with Greece, Balkan countries and of course, India. Militarily, Netanyahu has averted large scale conflicts, focusing on surgical operations to counter Iranian maneuvers in Syria. Netanyahu’s fellow right-winger, Ariel Sharon, who was Prime Minister in 2001-2006, withdrew from Gaza.
If Netanyahu’s foreign policies are right-wing, then we can surely expect a slew of peace deals from the incoming far-right government.
Itamar Ben Gvir, the new Minister of National Security, holds some beyond-the-pale views on a whole host of issues that place him outside the traditional political spectrum. As for the Palestinian issue, he opposes the two-state solution, but so does 60% of the Israeli public. Is 60% of the public far-right?
If not national security, what then makes the new government the most far-right government in Israel’s history?
Let's try economic policy.
The new government will have a comfortable majority of 64 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset. Netanyahu’s Likud (32 seats) is the largest party, followed by the Religious Zionist Party (14), Shas (11) and United Torah Judaism (7).
So, where are the economic right-wingers?
The Shas party claims to represent the interests of Sephardic and Mizrahi Haredi Jews and to fight discrimination against the Sephardic and Mizrahi community. The party led by Aryeh Deri has no clearly defined economic platform to speak of. Its main objective is to maximize benefits for its voters. In other words, often this means simple horse trading to get the most out of the government’s coffers.
UTJ is a joint list made up of the ultra-Orthodox parties Agudat Israel and Degel HaTorah. The party promotes the interests of the Haredi community in Israel in the areas of education and welfare and regarding specific issues such as army service. Again, its primary focus is to safeguard the interests of a specific group in Israel. Its political leanings are flexible and difficult to pinpoint as it sat in the Ariel Sharon government that withdrew from Gaza. Both Shas and UTJ seem largely uninterested in the Palestinian issue, but tend to side with Netanyahu’s Likud in hopes of having a sympathetic ear to their demands.
In economic terms, both Shas and UTJ would be comfortable sitting in a socialist government.
As for Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionist Party and the new Finance Minister has in the past displayed a good understanding of economics and a willingness to enact free market reforms.
In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Smotrich expressed a willingness to emulate the US when it comes to market reforms and labor laws. As finance minister he wants to advance a free-market agenda and to take on Israeli labor unions.
Smotrich’s thinking probably echoes Netanyahu’s own, but the perception of Netanyahu as a great union-buster does not hold water. In fact, labor union participation has increased since Netanyahu’s reign as Finance Minister in 2003-2005 and as Prime Minister in 2009-2021. A 2021 study by the Bank of Israel showed a decade of increasing rates of unionization in Israel for the first time since the 1980s, with wages of unionized workers at 16% higher than non-unionized workers. Israel’s upward trend of unionization stands in stark contrast to the global trend of declining membership in workers’ unions.
Even though Netanyahu’s tenure as finance minister under then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was a masterclass in modernizing a stagnating economy, Netanyahu’s very own Likud has a flurry of union-types on its slate of MKs. For example, Haim Katz, a powerful Likud politician, a long time trade union activist and once the chairman of the pension funds policy team of the Histadrut, Israel's national trade union center, representing the majority of Israel's trade unionists, is unlikely to back reforms that would see unions weakened. Miri Regev, the new Minister of Transport and Road Safety, is also a supporter of unions.
"I see unions as the solution, not the problem. There are those who may not agree with my statements of protecting workers' unions and controlling prices, like that of bread,” she told Davar magazine in November.
Considering internal opposition from powerful Likud politicians to any market reforms that threaten unions, it’s highly unlikely that Smotrich - even with the support of Netanyahu - can push through any meaningful reforms.
Spot the differences
In many ways, there are few policy differences between the Bennet/Lapid-led center-left coalition and Netanyahu’s new government. The main difference seems to be in newspaper headlines.
As a parallel, the center-left government had Merav Michaeli from the Labor party as transport minister. Michaeli has called the traditional nuclear family inherently unsafe for children, and advocated for the state to make all parenting decisions. She also gave a TED talk in which she argued that traditional marriage should be canceled.
Yet, even with such minority views, very few news headlines were written about the previous Israeli government being the most far-left in the country’s history.
The Bennett/Lapid government also featured an Islamist party. Headlines at the time were hailing Israel’s broad and diverse government, but no one from the so-called liberal left protested the party leader, Mansour Abbas’ remarks in support of conversion therapy for LGBTQ, or his opposition to pro-LGBTQ legislation. Abbas was given the benefit of the doubt by much of the media. Smotrich, too, has expressed support for conversion therapy. How do we then reconcile all the far-right labels when the previous center-left government featured a political party that also supported this policy?
Tribal business as usual?
To label the incoming government as far-right seems void of any meaning. If we look closely at different political parties and candidates, very few can be classified as economically right-wing.
Whether so-called Left or Right the onus in Israeli politics is never on creating an environment for success, but making sure the existing political framework works to maximize benefits for those in power and their supporters. It’s about tribal loyalty, not policy.
As with previous governments, much of the government’s energy and focus will go into keeping the current coalition together. This fact alone will likely mean that nightmarish “far-right” policies will continue to exist solely in the minds of media types and opposition politicians. In fact, if we are true to definitions, the new government will likely be more left than right, at least when it comes to its economic policies. On national security, it will follow a policy of putting out bushfires as opposed to implementing a right-wing policy agenda, because it does not exist and has never existed.
Indeed, the very few on the actual political right - yearning for more individual freedom and market-based economics - should be gloomy about the prospects of seeing anything of the sort from the new government. Netanyahu’s government will likely be no different from the preceding ones, and will be mired in political infighting, and populist rhetoric that will not translate into meaningful reforms or radical change.
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