Illiberal democracy rests on bare majoritarian rule without checks and balances. In contrast, liberal democracy conjoins the general will of citizens with rule of law and the principle of judicial and legal autonomy and separation of powers, including limits on executive and parliamentary branches. Essential are a robust and variegated civil society sphere, codified rights, and equal protections respecting the dignity and autonomy of all citizens. For all its faults and contradiction, the State of Israel used to be a liberal democracy, more or less. The new government engineered by Benjamin Netanyahu represents a radical threat to the old regime. The combination of majoritarian power, anti-Arab racism, Jewish ethnic supremacy, rightwing Religious Zionism, settlements (all of them illegal) in the occupied West Bank, and Haredi power was always eating away at liberal structure. The mutation promises to render incoherent once and for all the formula of a “Jewish + democratic” state. It eats away at the very coherence of the secular state itself.
Before the establishment of the state and in the early days of the state, secular rightwing or Revisionist Zionism represented the minority against the political and cultural hegemony of Labor Zionism. Even after he was elected to power in 1977, Menachem Begin and his people understood the importance of the secular rule of law and the neutrality of state institutions as essential to protecting their own political voice and power. Netanyahu has since then turned the Likud party into a populist party based on a crude majoritarianism. Having mastered the arts of mob rule and gutter politics, the Likud under Netanyahu has purged itself of any trace of the lower-case liberal rule-of-law conservativism that once characterized rightwing, secular Revisionist Zionism. To secure his place in power, Netanyahu and the Likud needed coalitional allies. The only ones left were religious. Regime actors and apologists lay claim to a pseudo majoritarian principle. “The new government is acting in accord with the will of the people.” The claim is arguably not true. The unprecedented confluence of illiberal ethno-politics and illiberal religion in the State of Israel under the new government elected in November 2022 and its transformation into something that looks like theocracy.
Engineered by incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to secure his hold on power, all of the parties that have been joined to this coalition are exclusively radical and religious. There are three rightwing religious factions that ran together under the Religious Zionism Party: Religious Zionism, Jewish Power, and Noam. There are also 2 Haredi parties representing at least three sectors in Haredi society: United Torah Judaism and Shas. Netanyahu probably thinks he can control them, but they reflect his own worst instincts. All of the religious parties are committed to narrow, socially divisive sectoral interests. Religious parties have now been given unprecedented power to advance sectorial religious interests. These interests include  deepening the hold of the settlements in the occupied West Bank,  cementing the character of Haredi Jewish society as a separate and autonomous enclave, and  extending the hold of rightwing and orthodox Judaism into the public sphere. Apart from the Likud, which represents half of the coalition, there are no secular parties in this coalition.
The threat to liberal political governance under what is a new ethno-religious regime will be directed against the separation of powers made possible by the relative independence of the judiciary, media, education, police, and army. It concentrates power in the Knesset and Prime Minister’s office. It works to politicize the entire structure of the state by placing partisan party operatives in charge of the entire governing apparatus. The new regime puts a rightwing religious stamp on Jewish identity and a racist, political stamp on Judaism. From liberal democracy to populist theocracy, the new regime in the State of Israel institutes a new mutation.
[You can read more below]
State apparatus. Fascist states subordinate national institutions and social functions (courts, army and police, education, economy) to the government that has been taken over by a party or camp in the name of “the people,” “the majority.” Fascist-party actors representing exclusive world-views destroy from within overarching state and civil society institutions to re-create state and society in their own narrow and hardened image. To secure power, the new regime in Israel is swapping out departments in governing ministries and creating new national authorities, while apolitical professional appointees and advisors inside the ministries are being replaced by party hacks with no professional experience. The intention is to weaken the power and independence of ministries and other organs of the state apparatus.
Judiciary. To protect Netanyahu from legal prosecution, Likud and their allies spent years publicly attacking prosecutors, the police, the Attorney general, and judges. Now back in power with a radical and religious rightwing agenda, they plan to lay waste to the authority of the courts and the principle of judicial review. Minister of Justice Yair Levin has been given the task of demolition. “There are judges in Jerusalem,” he is quoted, in reference to a famous declaration by Menachem Begin. He goes on to say, “[B]ut there’s also a Knesset in Jerusalem, and there’s also a cabinet. And they are the clear expression of the people’s democratic choice. I believe that not only the Knesset and cabinet serve by virtue of public trust, but the judicial system is also based on the trust that the public gives it.” In the name of “the people,” the first attacks on the independence of the judiciary are  to pass laws that allow the Knesset majority to “override” Supreme Court decisions by a simple majority and  enable the sitting government to appoint Supreme Court justices. There are plans to split the authority of the Attorney General into two separate funcutons: chief prosecutor and legal adviser. Legal advisers will become political appointees, not appointed by the Attorney General. From across the entire coalition, indicted and convicted criminals and terrorists lead the new government, including among them the ministers of Interior and “National Security,” and the Prime Minister himself. A crown jewel of the secular state, the Supreme Court was a bulwark in securing civil rights for women, LGBTQ, and Israeli Palestinian citizens. In the West Bank, the Court was toothless, but exercised some very limited say in deciding appeals of Palestinian non-citizens living under military occupation regarding rights over land and water. Lastly, the new ethno-religious regime will try to pass new semi-constitutional Basic Laws to entrench orthodox Judaism as defined by the Religious Zionism and Haredi parties. Overriding the Supreme Court and legal system means that anything is possible according to the will of the governing majority and without judicial restraint. This includes the possibility of passing laws that permit withholding of public services and other acts of discrimination on the basis of religion faith or feelings.
Religion and religious parties. National religious and Haredi religious sectorial interests are at the heart of the new regime in Israel. Religious party actors in government seek to govern and rule on the basis of religious principles and values, as they understand them, and to impose these principles and values in the larger public sphere. Theocracies are a political form based on rigid religious hierarchies). The religious or ethno-religious-nation state is not committed to the larger public good or to inclusive social contracts based on the principle and practice of equal and universal citizenship. As per rightwing religious settler Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the ultra-rightwing Religious Zionism party, Israel has taken “another historic step today to establish a Jewish, Zionist and national government that will restore security and governance.” A Jewish theocrat committed to the rule of Torah law in opposition to the civil courts, Smotrich is a major power in the new government. He will be both Finance Minister and a minister in the Defense Ministry responsible for civil affairs in the West Bank. He commits to “promote historic reform in the legal system, regulate and develop the settlement enterprise, strengthen Jewish identity in the spirit of Religious Zionism and proudly wave the flag of Zionism.” Religion commits the new regime against principles of equality with non-Jewish citizens of Israel and peace with neighboring countries. Rightwing Jewish religion stands itself against a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while committing the government to an aggressive posture against Israeli Arabs and secular Jews.
Settlements and the State. Settlements and their political representatives who now dominate religious Zionism are at the heart of this political mutation.Once upon a time, settlements were arguably part of a larger state and national system. In the early days after the 1967 Six Day War, settlements were formed, more or less, under the control and authority of the state. Under Labor governments, the settlements originally served what the state considered to be the national and security interests of the state; for some to many secular Israelis, settlements in the occupied West Bank reflected in religious form the original pioneering ethos of Labor Zionism. The settlements are by now a golem taking unprecedented control of the state. After the elections in November 2022, the government is now turning into an apparatus of the settlement movement and ultra-Orthodox religious parties. The state now serves settlements and rightwing religion, not vice versa.
Administering the occupied West Bank. Rightwing religious agents of regime change in the occupied West Bank look forward to the ultimate annexation of this territory. In the meantime, the new government is chopping up the Defense Ministry in order to put control of civilian life in the occupied West Bank under Smotrich. He will serve as a minister alongside the designated Minister of Defense. As a minister in the Defense Ministry, Smotrich and his people in Religious Zionism will be given authority over the two governing military bodies that rule the West Bank. The newly created minister will assume the power to nominate  the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). COGAT is the umbrella IDF unit responsible for implementing the government’s policies in the West Bank. COGATcoordinates with the Palestinian Authority on a range of issues especially relating security, as well as matters relating to the Gaza Strip.  The new minister will also appoint the head of the Civil Administration. A part of COGAT, the Civil Administration is in charge of civilian issues relating to Jewish settlers and Palestinian populations in the occupied West Bank. They exercise control over settlement expansion for Jews and restricting building permits for West Bank Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, which is the 60% of the territory under direct Israeli military occupation. Traditionally, COGAT was part of a military regime in the territories, not part of the civilian regime. Appointments until now were made by the IDF, with the approval of the defense minister. Now these appointments are secured by a religious commissar placed inside the ministry. As pointed out by XXX, “Smotrich will have the power to authorize any legal position submitted to the Supreme Court in response to a petition relating to these issues. This would mean, for instance, that it is highly unlikely that the state will ever concede to the Court that land is privately owned by Palestinians, making it even harder for Palestinians to fight for their cases in an already hostile legal environment.”
Army. The new regime in Israel will allow rightwing religious actors in and out of government to challenge the authority of the IDF in the occupied West Bank. Politicians representing religious national parties want to interfere with chain of command, pushing for a heavier hand against West Bank Palestinians and leftwing Jewish activists. The Border Police, active in suppressing Palestinian demonstrations, has been transferred from the army chain of command to national-religious firebrand Ben-Gvir, now the minister of “National Security.” About the incoming army chief of staff, XXX writes, “One may imagine the fundamental contradictions [he] will face when he must navigate between the policies of the prime minister and the defense minister and orders from Smotrich, or to coordinate the activities of the army with those of Border Police units in the West Bank, which will serve as Ben-Gvir’s private militias.” The outgoing chief of staff has already said that he refuse orders from either Smotrich or Ben-Gvir. As reported in the Israeli press, concern was expressed by the outgoing Minster of Defense about the need to maintain a wall of separation between the IDF and political involvement in operational decisions. He also expressed concern about the splitting up of the defense establishment into subunits that are subject to political interference and disconnected from the chain of command. Regarding operational decisions, there is vague language in the governing guidelines of the new regime that promise to “back” soldiers and police, which have been generally understood to mean blanket immunity. No longer under chain of military discipline and law, the extension of blanket immunity will bring Israeli soldiers, commanders and governing officials closer to being brought to international criminal justice at the Hague. The overarching threat to national security is posed by provocative acts by state and non-state actors exacerbating and blowing up conflict in the security sphere. At issue is who controls the IDF and its soldiers and commanders in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Police. Who is in control of the police is the next related question, the minister and his political appointees or professional organs and bodies of the national police. Along with winning control over the Border Police, a unit operating in the West Bank, the police are now being placed under the direct control of the Minister of National Security. As minister, Ben-Gvir wants to dictate operational policy over policing citizen-civilians within the State of Israel. He is on record stating that he wants to exercise the same authority as the Minister of Defense does determining military policy. Presumably this includes setting open-fire and other use of force regulations, heavy hand policing in Arab Israeli/Palestinian Israeli communities in the center and north and Bedouin communities in the south of the country. Amidst a massive spike in settler violence over the last year, an even more free hand will be given to extremist religious settlers who attack Palestinians and Jewish activists in the West Bank. The current police commissioner once accused Ben-Gvir of starting a wave of violence in May 2021 that included violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and a massive wave of violence between Jewish and Arab Israelis. It is unclear what dangerous authority the new Minister of National Security will enjoy setting policy regarding Jewish access to the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary. Especially sensitive is permitting Jewish prayer at the site, the spread of which in recent years is already violating decades a long status quo that has kept a semblance of public order.
Education. Who controls education?The Education Ministry is in the process of losing many of its departments and units to the new ministries. The ministry is being chopped into pieces in order to meet demands of coalition partners promoting rightwing-religious formations of Jewish identity and religion. There are now two ministers Ministry of Education: a senior minister from Likud, and another from Shas who will be in charge of Haredi education. From the Prime Minister’s Office, far-right and religious homophobe Avi Maoz will serve as a deputy minister and head of a new “National Jewish Identity” authority. In addition, the unit in the Ministry of Education that organizes external educational programing is being transfered over to Maoz’s control. For its part, the department of Jewish Culture in the Ministry of Education is being swapped out and transferred to Orit Strock of Religious Zionism who is now the Minister of a new and so-called “National Projects Ministry.” Lastly, the Israel Association of Community Centers has been broken off from the Education Ministry and transferred to Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri in Shas. As per Anshel Pfeffer, “the centers are a staple in many communities, providing educational programs, youth activities and sports training. The Israel Association of Community Centers says it operates over 700 community centers in more than 150 municipalities.” About funding for Haredi education, see below.
Haredi autonomy and privileges. The newregime is cementing in place and expanding by way of special privileges and financing the autonomy of Haredi society. The point is to keep Haredi society separate and autonomous from the larger secular society. Haredi society depends upon the state and upon massive infusions of financial and municipal resources to which it contributes little. The UTJ seeks increased funding for private ultra-Orthodox schools even if they do not meet state core curriculum requirements. Money to meet those demands will come from munipal governments, further straining the secular and national-religious schools. Haredi parties continue to resist teaching Haredi students core curricular subjects such as math, science, and English putting more strain on the economy, in which Haredi men overwheloming do not participate. According to coalition agreements, the government will advance a basic law on Torah study that establishes as a semi-constitutional Basic Law yeshiva study. In addition to embedding religion into state law, it will make it difficult for the Supreme Court to invalidate exemptions of yeshiva students from military service. Equalizing secular and yesghiva education is meant to lower educational standards in order to allow Haredim to enter the country’s civil service and other sectors of the workforce and national economy. Special laws of concern to Haredi communities include cancelling a tax on sugary soft drinks and single-use plastic cutlery. More serious is proposed legislation protecting gender segregation at state funded public events. A deputry minister in the Ministry of Transportation will see to the particular needs and demands of that sector. Haredi parties have also won control of Housing to provide subsidized housing exclusive to this growing population. Also proposed are cancelling reforms advanced by the previous government regarding conversion, communications technology, and kashrut licensing that had sought to weaken monopolistic control of Haredi rabbis and the Chief Rabbinate in Haredi society. There has been some talk about outlawing “incitement to anti-Haredi racism.”
Public Sphere. Violence is not unrelated to religion in the public sphere. It includes the violence of uncivil discourse in the public sphere, and the physical violence of nationalist and religious-nationalist non-state or para-state actors. Also the physical violence of state actors. The new regime will seek to extend rigthwing Jewish religion into the larger public sphere by funding rightwing Jewish social initiatives. As reported by Michael Hauser Tov, “The incoming government will inaugurate the National Missions Ministry, headed by Strock, whose purpose will be to manage Sherut Leumi, an alternative national service program for young Israelis exempted from the army. As reported in the Israeli press, the new ministry will also oversee the settlement division, and the Garinim Torani’im – a movement of young religious Zionist families who settle in Israel’s periphery and mixed Jewish-Arab cities who critics charge is a right-wing movement meant to Judaize cities and push out Arab residents. Furthermore, the ministry will have authority over pre-military preparatory schools and over the division for Jewish culture generally under the purview of the Education Ministry. National-religious parties seek legal exemptions, such as the right to discirominate by way of permitting private citizens and businesses to withhold services to members of the larger public based on religious faith and feelings. About the violence of state actors in society, look to the police. Under directives issued by Ben-Gvir in his capacity as Minister of National Security, a portion of the heavy hand of police-violence suffered by Palestinian society in occuppied East Jerusalem will be brought to bear against civil protest in the larger Israeli public sphere when secular Israeli and Palestininan Israeli segments representing those sectors protest against the new regime, including threats to arrest and imprison leaders of the opposition.
Art and Culture: State funding of the arts will only go to projects and platforms that conform to the ideology of the national camp. The Communications Minister plans to close public broadcasting in Israel (Kan and Army Radio).
Discrimination against minorities. The new regime cements aggressive expression of Jewish identity based on anti-Arab Racism and a crackdown on Israeli-Arab-Palestinian activists. The national camp will continue to deligtimize Israeli Arabs and their political representatives as being supporters of terror. The Palestinian flag will be banned from the public sphere and Arab-Palestian activists and leaders will be threatened with deportation. It is an old story, now voiced by senior governmoing parties deepening the institutionalization of systemic anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic racism in Israeli society. Increasingly, there has been an uptick of attacks on Christian citizens and institutioins by rightwing religious Jews and Jewish youth.
Who is a Jew
Who is a Jew, the Haredi and the Religious Zionism parties are seeking a raft of laws intended to shore up a righwing model of Jerwish identiy. The new regime will further radicalize the status quo in which the representatives of orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism exercise hegemony over matters of religion and state. This involves ending the so-called grandfather clause of the Law of Return that allows immigration to Israel for people with only a single Jewish grandparent and who are not considered Jewish according to orthodox Halakhah, control conversions in Israel, and suppressing egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
Diaspora Relations alienation. Tension, around religion and illiberalism.
The new ethno-religious regime under Benjamin Netanyahu is not interested in diaspora affairs apart from seeking to stifle attempts in North America and Europe that “delegitimate Israel.” In this spirit, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry will change its name to “Diaspora Affairs and Combat Antisemitism Ministry.” This name change was the brainchild of Minister Amichai Chikli, who is on record voicing severe criticism of progressive Jews and Reform Judaism. The new ethno-religious regime in Israel stands in opposition to the liberal values that dominate diaspora Jewish communities. The posture is patronizing. The new regime will sharpen Israel-Diaspora divisions by deepening the tradition of conducting affairs with the Jewish diaspora not on the basis of mutual recognition and equality.
An article which you can read here includes an official lineup of the governing coalition and many of its members. I will only post the link here.
The official government guidelines are arguably neo-fascist. You can note the foundation of exclusive Jewish rights across all of the territories controlled by the State of Israel + national security + backing (immunity) for soldiers and police officers + Jewish heritage and Jewish national interests + “reforms” of education and judiciary. There is only one vague statement seeking peace with Arab countries subordinate not just to Israelis security, but also to “historical and national interests.” There is no recognition of Palestine and the Palestinian people in the document and nothing about citizenship and equality irrespective of religion, race, or gender.
Following and here is The Times of Israel’s translation of the formal coalition guidelines of Israel’s 37th government:
The government will act in accordance with the following guidelines:
- The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop the settlement of all parts of the Land of Israel — in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan and Judea and Samaria.
- The government will actively work to boost national security and provide personal security to its citizens, while resolutely and determinedly fighting violence and terrorism.
- The government will act to continue the struggle against Iran’s nuclear program.
- The government will work to strengthen the status of Jerusalem.
- The government will aim for social justice by developing the periphery and reducing societal gaps, while uncompromisingly combating poverty through education, employment and increased assistance to the weaker segments of the population.
- The government will act to encourage the use of public transportation and to solve the traffic congestion problems on the roads.
- The government will advance a plan to deal with the soaring cost of living and will work to create economic conditions that will enable sustainable growth.
- The government will view reducing housing prices and increasing the supply of apartments as a national goal, and will act to lower housing prices.
- The government will take steps to guarantee governance and to restore the proper balance between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.
- The government will act to increase Jewish immigration from all countries around the world.
- The government will regard education as a top national priority and will work to advance reforms in the education system while ensuring equality between all populations in the various education systems, and strengthening Jewish identity.
- The government will preserve the Jewish character of the state and the heritage of Israel, and will respect the practices and traditions of members of all religions in the country in accordance with the values of the Declaration of Independence.
- The status quo on issues of religion and state will be preserved as it has been for decades in Israel, including with regard to the holy places.
- The government will act to address the problem of personal security in Arab society and to fight crime in Arab society, while encouraging education, providing adequate and appropriate solutions for young people, and investing as necessary in infrastructure in Arab localities.
- The government will act to advance vocational training and education in technological professions in order to adequately meet the current needs of the industry in Israel as a major economic growth factor.
- The government will work to integrate people with disabilities of any kind into societal life, while assisting in their education and employment, will take care of the basic needs of those who are unable to sustain themselves, and will act to improve the status of the elderly, the disabled and families with many children.
- The government will act to protect the environment in Israel, to improve the quality of life of the country’s residents, and to have Israel contribute to the global effort on climate and environmental issues.
- The government will work to strengthen the security forces and to give backing to soldiers and police officers in order to fight and defeat terrorism.
- The government will act to recognize the Golan Heights as a strategic region with broad development potential, and will lead a wave of settlement, development and promotion of initiatives while preserving the Golan’s unique values of nature, humanity and the environment.
Last Word re: Regime Change, Secularism, and Religion in Israel
Talk in Israel about regime change, religion, rule of law, equality and democracy is inundating the very large political and civil opposition to the new government. Even radical leftwing Palestinian and Israeli activists who have never minced words about Zionism and state violence in Israel are observing that the new government represents a new and dangerous development. I want to give the last word here about regime change to Israeli Palestinian journalist Daoud Katoub. A veteran journalist and not a “radical,” he’s writing here at Ynet about the status quo at the holy site in Jerusalem. He opens the article with some sympathy about Jewish history and even Jewish nationalism, as he goes on to identify in brief what is different now in relation to religion and state.
“When Israel was established in 1948, its founding members went out of their way to lessen the religious Jewish connection and focus on the national needs of the post-Holocaust Jews in need of a safe haven. The same position was pushed after the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, as the two chief rabbis forbade Jews from entering the esplanade known to the world as Haram al-Sharif/Al-Aqsa Mosque and to Jews as the Temple Mount. All this appears to have disappeared today as the religious element appears to trump the national needs of a people who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, thus turning a political conflict into a full-blow religious one.”
“The combination of majoritarian power, anti-Arab racism, Jewish ethnic supremacy, rightwing Religious Zionism, settlements (all of them illegal) in the occupied West Bank, and Haredi power was always eating away at liberal structure. The mutation promises to render incoherent once and for all the formula of a “Jewish + democratic” state. It eats away at the very coherence of the secular state itself.” this plus demographics (minority rule) and some version of power corrupts makes this all seem inevitable but still wrenching to see. Be interested in what you make of the theological/scriptural take on the messianic promise of a theocracy to come now coming…