Domestic and Foreign Policy Under Israel's New Government

Held on 13 February, 2023


Yossi Mekelberg | Professor of International Relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House.

Dr. Einat Wilf | Former Israeli politicians and a leading thinker on Israel, Zionism, foreign policy and education.

MK Sharren Haskel | Israeli politician and member of the Knesset, currently serving as a member of the National Unity Party.


The state of democracy in Israel

There is the sense of an ambush, the government seems to be in a hurry to rush through constitutional changes that should take years.

The primary topic covered by the panel was the recent judicial reforms proposed by Netanyahu’s government, and the wider connotations that this may have on the democratic integrity of Israel in the near future. The panellists disagreed on the wider nature of Israeli democracy. Professor Mekelberg argued that the democratic fabric of Israeli society is by nature fragile, a comment which Dr. Wilf challenged, crediting the endurance of Israel’s democratic institutions to the strength of the Jewish tradition of argumentation.

Touching more specifically on the recently proposed judicial reforms, the panellists discussed the reasons behind the public outcry over the proposed changes which has led to thousands of Israeli citizens taking to the streets in protest. Professor Mekelberg noted that the current protests are not against the government or the legitimacy of the election, but are fuelled by the lack of legitimacy of the proposed changes and the way they are being done. According to Mekelberg, there is a sense of an ambush, as the government seems to be in a hurry to rush through constitutional changes that should take years. MK Haskel noted that whilst the judicial system in  Israel is in need of reform, the benefits that this new legislation would bring to Netanyahu and his personal legal problems, and the risks that accompany the personalisation of legislation in democratic society. Dr. Wilf suggested that it is this element that has brought the issue to the forefront of Israeli concerns, as the need for judicial reform has previously been a widely overlooked issue.

Reflecting upon Netanyahu’s proposed legislation and the compromise which the President has put on the table, MK Haskel shared her thoughts on how the approach toward judicial reform should be adjusted by Netanyahu’s government moving forward. Likening the current protests to the civic response seen in reaction to the evacuation of Gaza and the Oslo Accords, she suggests that the common denominator is a lack of a wide consensus surrounding the issue. She reminded the audience that touching such a delicate foundation of Israeli democracy must be done with a lot of care. Comparing the situation to a scale, she suggested slowly introducing separate smaller legislations, hesitating between each to observe its effect on the wider balance before proceeding. MK Haskel suggested that this approach would help prevent such a strong and divisive societal response, which Netanyahu’s present approach has triggered. She warns that without a more careful approach, these reforms could further polarise extremes in Israeli society and deteriorate into violence which may take Israeli society years to heal from.

Israel and the Palestinian Territories

We are in a coalition where they are interested in different responses to violence, and the key question is how this will be managed.

Responding to a question posed by the audience regarding the recent resurgence of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, the panel discussed the likely response of the current government should the situation escalate. MK Haskel was sceptical of the current government’s capacity to adequately respond and neutralise terror threats. Citing the lack of experience in such matters and an undue focus on different matters such as the judicial reforms, she criticised the lack of concentration on this pressing security issue.

Dr. Wilf had a more positive stance on Netanyahu’s personal approach toward the challenge, stating that despite negative reputations, Netanyahu has proven himself to be very risk averse in this context and is very good at de-escalating situations to reduce violence. However, she pointed toward another constituent of the current coalition as being more conducive to the escalation of violence in this context. Dr. Wilf felt that this dynamic and conflicting stance toward the rising tensions between Israelis and Palestinians within the current coalition is worth paying attention to moving forward.

Commenting on the wider context of the recent rise in violence, Professor Mekelberg emphasised the importance of addressing the root of the Palestinian issue in order to establish long-term peace. Citing Saudi Arabia’s continued refusal to join the Abraham Accords, as well as the cycle of violence, Professor Mekelberg suggested that Netanyahu’s government should not look to respond in a heavy-handed manner, but should instead take an approach which centralises positive engagement to diffuse future violence.

Israeli security and the Iranian threat

Netanyahu will be strong and will receive a full backing from the opposition.

Responding to a question about the Iranian threat to Israeli security, the panellists considered the likelihood of an Iranian attack on Israel, and how Netanyahu’s government would respond. MK Haskel reminded the audience of Netanyahu’s personal ‘life mission’ to protect Israel from Iran. She declared that in the event of an Iranian attack on Israel, the Prime Minister would not hesitate to react, and would do everything in his power to prevent such an event from occuring. Both MK Haskel and Dr. Wilf concurred that the current situation in Ukraine, and Iran’s supply of weapons to Russia has emboldened Iran. Along with the current domestic unrest ravaging the country, they agreed that these factors make an attack against Israel likely in the near future.

Professor Mekelberg agreed with the predominance of the nuclear threat of Iran, but also emphasised the Iranian revisionism of the Middle East e.g. in Syria and Lebanon is another major issue in terms of regional and Israeli security. All three panellists emphasised the importance of continued international support in the context of Israeli security, specifically from USA and European countries. However, they disagreed on the nature and extent of this support. Professor Mekelberg brought into question the endurance of Western support of Israel in light of the ongoing Palestinian conflict, and MK Haskel highlighted the West’s neglect to involve itself in prominent matters in the Middle East in recent years. Ultimately, the panellists felt that the defence of Israeli security against Iran would be left to the hands of Netanyahu, who would without a doubt rise to the challenge.

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