What to Expect On the Ground This Summer

4 May 2023
Daniel Sokatch FB social share

With the Knesset back in session as of this week, Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremist government is once again kicking into high gear to advance dangerous legislation. From targeting human rights organizations’ funding to likely re-upping the judicial coup legislation to attacks on freedom of expression, I’m deeply concerned about what the coming weeks and months hold for Israel.

Last week, in anticipation of the beginning of the new Knesset session, tens of thousands of right-wing Israelis marched in Jerusalem to demand that Netanyahu’s government move ahead with its plan to gut Israel’s judiciary. At the rally, funded by the coalition’s political parties, far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir demanded the full slate of judicial reform legislation and the “national guard” militia promised to him by Netanyahu when he agreed to “pause” the decimation of Israel’s only remaining checks and balances at the very end of the last legislative session. As Ben-Gvir spoke, the crowd cheered “the next prime minister,” Haaretz reported.

The implications are clear — Netanyahu’s coalition partners are throwing around their weight and backing him into a corner. If he doesn’t move ahead with the judicial coup, they have the power to break up the government or demand consolation prizes that will threaten equality, justice, and democracy.

Ben-Gvir is wasting no time in advancing his own racist, ethno-nationalist agenda. He has introduced a hachlata memshaltit — which translates to a “government decision,” a tool akin to administrative rulemaking in the United States — which would have the government “activate” Israel’s supremacist Basic Law: Nation State of the Jewish People. This is a law asserts the “national value” of Jewish settlement in the land of Israel, and commits the state to “encourage and promote its establishment and development,” granting Jews and Jews alone the exclusive right “to exercise self-determination in the State of Israel.” When it was passed, legal analysts (including the justices of the Supreme Court!) argued that it would not infringe on individual or minority rights because it was largely symbolic. That instead of being an actionable law enshrining Jewish supremacy that it was merely a statement of values putting a finger on scale for the “Jewish” in “Jewish and democratic.” But what Ben Gvir wants to do (and fast – he’s hoping to push this through next week), is to do what those analysts said could never happen, and operationalize the Nation State Law by encouraging Jewish settlement in the Negev and Galilee, two regions with comparatively larger populations of Arab citizens of Israel. This is on top of pushing for the “retroactive legalization” of more than 70 illegal outposts in the West Bank, as NIF grantee Yesh Din noted today (you can read their excellent analysis here). 

Ben-Gvir and his demagogic friends seek to ensure that Israel’s Jewish character will far outweigh its democratic one.

Meanwhile, the Knesset must pass its budget by the end of May. If the budget does not pass, the coalition will likely collapse and elections would be called. And because all of the coalition members want to prevent this outcome, even as they jockey over their competing interests, they will try and keep things simple. The thing is, even once the budget is published and passed, the public won’t know about some of the key funding decisions, like various efforts to promote “Jewish identity” using public funds, because those are the kinds of decisions that will be made through horsetrading afterwards through what are euphemistically called “budget transfers”. This loophole – a profound failure of budgetary transparency – has long been a point of frustration for the political left. It makes it quite hard to prepare for what might be coming.

In Netanyahu’s coalition agreements with other parties, passing the budget was suggested as a deadline for other far-right agenda items. One of them, that we at the New Israel Fund are particularly concerned about, is a piece of legislation that would levy a 65% tax on contributions to NGOs by “foreign state entities”. Especially if the judicial coup does not move forward, this law might advance as a consolation prize. This would be devastating to human rights organizations, including many of our grantees who receive substantial funding from European Union countries and, to a lesser extent, the United States. Why would any government choose to allocate a grant to an Israeli NGO when nearly two-thirds of the money would go to the Israeli government instead of the intended recipient?

Alongside this legislation, Likud Member of Knesset Ariel Kallner announced a new Knesset caucus focused on “fighting antisemitism and delegitimization,” code for any criticism of Israeli policy. Together with far-right coalition satellite organizations Im Tirtzu and Ad Kan, they are trying to shut down human rights organizations, and right now they’ve got their sights on Hamoked, which offers legal aid Palestinians and East Jerusalemites. This will only escalate further over the summer, as the International Court of Justice’s case on Israel’s alleged violation of international law in the occupied territories is set to ramp up, since human rights organizations are likely to contribute to the briefs submitted for it.

Against this backdrop, I’m watching with concern as a renewed cycle of violence appears to be unfolding after Khader Adnan, a Palestinian prisoner, died this past Tuesday after 87 days on hunger strike. He had been held under administrative detention without charges, trial, or legal recourse since 2021. Over the course of his lifetime, he had spent eight cumulative years in prison. Following his death, militants in Gaza launched rockets at southern Israel, and the Israeli military responded with bombings. 

Within Israel, the death toll from high levels of violent crime in Arab communities has reached over 70, as Ben-Gvir, who oversees the police, chooses to ignore the growing power of organized crime, making clear he has little regard for the lives of Israel’s Arab citizens. Ben Gvir campaigned on bringing law and order to Arab communities, but it’s a promise he has yet to even speak about. He’s been utterly silent in the wake of some of these horrific murders, which have included the murder of a mother and her two children just this week. We at NIF believe that everyone deserves to feel safe in their home. It’s what we fight for every day.

 All of these challenges can feel overwhelming. But NIF, our action arm Shatil, and our grantees are continuing their vital work to defend human rights, equality, and democracy. Civil society will never give up — and we at the New Israel Fund are proud to have their backs.