On Monday, Sara, the wife of former and future Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited the spouses of party leaders from her husband’s still-coalescing coalition to tea at Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria hotel.
Only men lead the conservative and religious parties angling to join the incoming government. Among their wives, only Sara Netanyahu’s legs and hair were visible: all the others adhere to the covered-up dictates of orthodox Judaism.
When the ladies posed for pictures, Yafa Deri, wife of aspiring finance minister Aryeh Deri, who served two years in prison for bribery in the early aughts, stood to Netanyahu’s right. On her left, the gun holstered into the skirt waist of Ayala Ben Gvir—wife of aspiring police minister Itamar Ben Gvir—jutted into Mrs. Netanyahu’s hip.
Together, Deri and Ben Gvir’s husbands have been convicted 55 times, Ben Gvir for terror-related crimes and Deri, most recently, for tax evasion. “The appointment of a convicted felon, Ben-Gvir, as the ministerial overseer of all police activity, hardly raises an eyebrow anymore,” Amos Harel, a columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz wrote about the administrative and political bedlam.
Benjamin Netanyahu is currently on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies the charges.
Welcome to Israel 2022, a morass of (alleged and convicted) miscreants, fraudsters and violent extremists.
Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, did not respond to a request for information about Ben Gvir’s gun. The prime minister’s office had no comment. Ayala Ben Gvir issued a statement: “I live in Hebron, I’m mom to six sweethearts, I drive on terror-infested roads and I’m married to the most threatened man in the country, so yes, I have a gun. Deal with it.”
Itamar Ben Gvir is a man associated with numerous threats. His first brush with infamy was as a teenager threatening the life of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, mere weeks before Rabin was assassinated. The sole Knesset member convicted of terror, Ben Gvir regularly menaces Ahmad Tibi, a veteran legislator, threatening to deport him to Syria. Last weekend, Tibi finally goaded him, “OK Samson, deport me to Syria already.” Israel's aspiring police minister replied: “Ahmad, believe me, you are one of the projects I will personally take on.”
Israeli law does not permit a minister indicted for crimes to remain in office, but the lawmakers who wrote it neglected to specify that the term “ministers” included the prime minister, never envisaging an indicted head of government, much less one refusing to vacate his post.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister, who was indicted in late 2019, made the unimaginable reality.
His trial is ongoing. This week, the court heard testimony from Zev Friedman, an accountant for Hollywood mega-producer Arnon Milchan, who is accused of bribing Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s trial is the looming cloud behind Israel’s new reality, in which a Ben Gvir, a serial provocateur and rabblerouser recently accused by Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai of sparking and inflaming the violence that rolled across Israel and the Palestinian West Bank in May, 2021, is now poised to become his boss.
Netanyahu’s legal troubles have manacled him. Most leaders of Israeli political parties refuse to sit in government with an indicted criminal. The parties willing to help him form a majority coalition out of the Knesset’s 120 seats are those who believe they have no other avenue to power: the ultra-orthodox Jewish religious parties and an agglomeration of previously marginal extremist groups who have until now been rebuffed by Israel’s mainstream.
The deal offered by Netanyahu goes something like this: his partners will back a slate of “judicial reforms” that will effectively dismantle Israel’s judiciary, and Netanyahu, in turn, will reward them with real power.
This is the political jam which has brought Israel to the cusp of saluting Defense Minister Bezalel Smotrich, 42, a self-described “proud homophobe” and a segregationist who believes Jews and Arabs should not have to mingle, who aspires to impose the “the law of the Bible,” and who evaded his own military service.
Israel’s incoming justice minister has not yet been named, but neither Smotrich nor Ben Gvir are expected to be warmly received—or welcomed at all—by their cohorts among Israel’s closest allies.
Deri is rumored to covet the finance ministry, in which he'd impose upon fellow citizens the same taxes he was recently convicted of evading.
As things stand, he cannot legally be made any sort of minister. In a plea deal signed in January, 2022, he admitted to defrauding the state by reporting to tax authorities a falsely undervalued estimation of a Jerusalem property he sold to his brother.
His appointment is certain to be challenged in court, where he is expected to lose. He has a simple answer: “The public knew everything there was to know about Netanyahu, me and the entire bloc, yet we received a large majority and the public expects us to govern,” he said on Israeli radio. So I hope they [the Supreme Court] will not interfere with this matter.”
But if it does, he warned, “it will be the government's first test of governance.”
Netanyahu, in fact, cannot form the barebones skeleton of his new government without overriding the supreme court. Without Deri or the extremists, he has no majority. With no majority, his trial proceeds ahead. The plan, according to numerous Israeli media outlets, is for the Likud, Netanyahu’s party, to install a new Knesset speaker by next week. Then they would rush legislation imposing an override act, followed by a new law permitting a minister to serve even if he is on probation from jail, as Deri is. Thanks to the override act, the supreme court would not be able to declare the new law illegal.
Israel could cease to have an independent judiciary in a matter of days– a transformation driven by indicted and convicted political criminals.
As an indicted suspect in crimes of corruption, Netanyahu is prohibited from wielding any influence on any aspect of the judiciary, a prohibition he is openly flouting. This is also expected to be fought in court, even as Netanyahu makes every effort to neuter the courts.
The override clause would have far-reaching effects. Netanyahu’s slim majority of 64 legislators could, for example, outlaw all Arab-majority parties, representing most of the 20 percent of Israel’s population which is Arab. If the law, on appeal, was found to be unconstitutional, lawmakers could decide simply to supersede the ruling.
One hundred and twenty-six law professors wrote a letter beseeching Netanyahu to abandon the override clause, noting that it would leave Israel as “the only democracy in which there is no mechanism to protect rights.” Netanyahu has not responded.
Ben Gvir, 46, leader of the extremist Jewish Power party, is the most notorious of Netanyahu’s incoming ministers, a provocateur who often brandishes his personal firearm despite questions about the legality of its possession.
This week, attempting to temper his image, Ben Gvir declared that he “does not believe all Arabs should be expelled from Israel—only the terrorists,” a message which might have been better received if it had not been made at a memorial ceremony for the ultra-nationalist Meir Kahane, where he was booed by hundreds of true believers.
Neither Ben Gvir nor his political partner, Smotrich, recognize the mass of world Jewry—or any non-Orthodox Jews—as genuinely Jewish, a position expected to trigger an unprecedented crisis in Israel-diasporic ties.
Smotrich lives in an illegal outpost in the occupied West Bank, and was defined as a “Jewish terrorist” by Shin Bet officials who have surveilled him for decades. He is an active proponent of a far-right conspiracy theory that holds that the Shin Bet radicalized and encouraged Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin, a position Netanyahu ally Avi Dichter, a former agency director, described as “detached from reality.”