New Israeli gov’t stirs controversy, criticism over hardline policies 2 weeks into office

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen during an official inauguration ceremony at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on Dec. 29, 2022. Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving Israeli leader, returned to power on Thursday as the country's prime minister at the helm of an extreme-right coalition. (JINI via Xinhua)

With rapid implementation of its hardline policies since taking office two weeks ago, the new Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, considered the most rightist in the country’s history, has stirred domestic controversy and international criticism.

“We are not waiting, and I think the citizens of Israel already feel this. We formed a different government, with different policies, and we run things differently,” Netanyahu told a meeting of his Likud party on Monday, according to a statement issued on his behalf.

On Wednesday, the new Israeli government unveiled for the first time a detailed plan to weaken the Supreme Court and enhance the government’s power in the appointment of judges.

The draft legislation, issued by Yariv Levin, Israel’s justice minister and a close associate of Netanyahu, would cancel the Supreme Court’s ability to cancel laws passed by the parliament, even when a law is deemed unconstitutional or a violation of basic human rights.

Under the bill, seven of the 11 members of a committee responsible for the appointment of new judges will be chosen by the government, when a majority of no fewer than six members of the committee will be enough to approve appointments.

“We received a clear mandate from the public, to carry out what we promised in the elections and this is what we will do,” Netanyahu, who is facing a criminal trial over corruption charges, told Monday’s Likud meeting.

In a letter of protest issued on Thursday, signed by seven former attorneys general and four other former senior legal officials, denounced the proposed changes, saying they will destruct Israel’s legal system.

“We call on the government to withdraw the proposed plan and prevent serious harm to the justice system and the rule of law,” the letter read.

The legal system is not the only dangerous line the new Israeli government is trying to cross.

On Jan. 3, just a few days after the new government was sworn in, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a sensitive site in East Jerusalem holy to both Muslims and Jews and a long-time focal point of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

This visit drew a strong backlash from the Muslim world, including the Gulf states that have normalized relations with Israel, and even a warning from the United States.

More worryingly, Ben-Gvir, who holds criminal convictions for inciting racism against Palestinians and supporting Jewish terrorism, instructed on Sunday the police to confiscate Palestinian flags presented in public, although the Palestinian flag is not banned under Israeli law.

The new coalition has also taken punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority. On Jan. 6, the Israeli security cabinet decided to cut about 39.6 million U.S. dollars from the tax money the Israeli government collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and freeze building permits in Area C, which is under full Israeli control in the occupied West Bank.

The decision came after the Palestinian Authority’s approach to the International Court of Justice in the Hague for an opinion on the legal consequences of Israel’s 55-year occupation of Palestinian territories.

The punitive steps were taken as a “response to the Palestinian Authority’s decision to wage political and legal war against the State of Israel,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement on Jan. 6.

Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, on which the Palestinians want to establish an independent state, and has since controlled or besieged them despite a Palestinian struggle and international criticism. Under coalition agreements, Netanyahu vowed to annex parts of the West Bank.

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