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War? What War? Netanyahu’s Coalition Excels In Divisive Political Power Plays

Democracy in Times of War  

December 8, 2023 




Protesting for the safe return of kidnapped Israeli citizens, Tel Aviv. Photo by Lior Segev, Shatil Stock

The State of Israel currently faces one of its most challenging periods. Over the past two months, thousands of active and reserve military personnel have been engaged in combat against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, a conflict that has tragically claimed the lives of dozens of soldiers. This week, the grim toll impacted the family of Gadi Eisenkot, a former Chief of Staff and currently a senior minister in the war cabinet overseeing the war, with the loss of his son in the fighting in Gaza.


The situation remains tense as 138 Israelis are still held captive by Hamas. 

The financial burden of the conflict is immense, with costs soaring into the tens of billions of shekels. 


Additionally, the war has necessitated the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Israelis from areas surrounding Gaza and along the Lebanon border, underscoring the need for a sustainable long-term solution.


The security landscape for Israel is further complicated by the presence of Hezbollah along the northern border. This organization, with significantly greater military capabilities than Hamas, represents another formidable threat. Moreover, Israel must now contend with threats from more distant adversaries. For the first time in its history, the nation has come under attack from long-range cruise missiles launched from Yemen, allegedly with Iranian support.


Amidst these challenges, there is a call for national unity and to set aside politics until the war's conclusion. However, the actions of Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition appear contradictory to this appeal. Recently, the Knesset passed the revised state budget bill for 2023 in its first reading, indicating an inevitable increase in defense spending. Given the current circumstances, diverting funds from war and post-war reconstruction seems untenable.


Yet, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, backed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, is reluctant to adjust budgets allocated for the coalition's sectoral goals. The nature of this budget is highlighted by the strictly partisan voting result – 62 in favor versus 53 against. 

Benny Gantz's "Machane Mamlachti" party, despite being part of the war cabinet, could not endorse this budget.


The new state budget is set at 636 billion shekels, with the 23 billion war-related addition to be financed by increasing the fiscal deficit. This approach essentially places the financial burden on taxpayers, both current and future generations. 


A major point of contention is the doubling of funds for non-essential government ministries, from 0.8 billion to 1.6 billion shekels. These include the Ministry of the Diaspora, the Ministry of the Negev and the Galilee, the Ministry of Social Equality, the Ministry of Intelligence, the Ministry of National Projects, the Ministry for the Advancement of the Status of Women, the Ministry of Heritage, and others. There is public consensus that these ministries are redundant and should be abolished, but the ultra-right and ultra-orthodox coalition parties ignored the public outcry. 


This insistence on preserving sectoral budgets by Netanyahu's coalition is concerning. It suggests that the apparent national unity in the face of war masks deeper issues. Behind this façade, there is a consolidation of an anti-democratic coalition, increasingly exerting control over power centers, budgets, and planning to continue undermining the liberal democratic foundations of the State of Israel.


 

Dr. Ido Baum is the legal commentator of the daily newspaper TheMarker. He is an associate professor of law at the Haim Striks Law Faculty at the College of Management in Israel and heads the Louis Brandeis Institute for Society, Economy, and Democracy. He is also a contributor to USA for Israeli Democracy.

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