Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cemented his power this week with a strategic coalition shift that makes him the most powerful head of government Israel has seen in nearly three decades.
By adding the Kadima party to his coalition, Netanyau now commands 94 of the Israeli Parliament’s 120 seats, an overwhelming majority that should allow him to push through legislation and motions that other Israeli premiers have only dreamed of.
But how he will use that power has become a subject of speculation and debate in Israel, with many worrying that a wave of anti-democratic legislation might be the result.
“This move happened at a time where it seems like there is a significant rollback on people’s ability to express themselves politically against the government,” said Didi Remez, a prominent Israeli activist.
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He pointed to a series of bills passed in the last year by Israel’s Parliament that impose monitoring and reporting requirements on the activities of left-wing organizations and to what many here characterize as increased cooperation between the government and right-wing groups.
“When you combine what has been happening with the new super majority he has in the Parliament, well it begins to look like a Putinzation of Parliament,” Remez said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tough grip on his country’s politics.
Other activists pointed to anti-government protests this week as an example of the new police crackdown. Less than 24 hours after Netanyahu announced he had successfully created the largest coalition government Israel has seen since 1984, more than 1,000 protesters took to the streets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Holding signs saying “Bibi’s new government is not what we voted for” and “Bibi = undemocratic,” the protesters demanded new elections.
“I voted for the Kadima party because it represented the anti-Bibi. Now they sit in the same coalition as him?” said Ben Mazor, a 26-year-old law student. “It just goes to show that politicians are all liars and it doesn’t matter who you vote for, they’ll go and join any government that suits them.”
Just as the protest was getting underway, Israeli police arrested its leaders. A spokesman for the police said that the protest was illegal, although legal aid advisors at the protests said that all the necessary permits had been obtained and the protest was lawful.
“They just don’t like the protest because it will make (Netanyhau) look bad,” said Mazor. “But in what kind of democratic country can you stop a protest for those reasons?”
Several journalists covering the protest were also detained and complained that police had seized their equipment.
“What the police did doesn’t seem random. It seems pretty clear that this is part of the general trend of the last couple of years,” Remez said. “What used to be sacrosanct _ the right of freedom of expression for Jewish citizens of Israel _ is now in doubt.”
Shaul Mofaz, the leader of Kadima who struck the deal to join Netanyahu’s government, defended the decision, calling the new government a “historic opportunity.”
“When I took the decision to go ahead with this historic move, which is so important for the state of Israel, I knew there would be criticism,” Mofaz told the Israeli website Ynet. “I am completely at peace with the decision. Over the past three-and-a-half years Netanyahu’s government has been unable to advance a number of issues, and now it has a great opportunity to do so.”
The new majority would allow Netanyahu maneuvering room to pass even difficult legislation that requires approval of two-thirds of the Parliament, such as changes to the basic laws of the state and advance contentious bills that could alter the nature of Israel’s West Bank settlements.
Israeli political analysts point out that Netanyahu now also enjoys a consensus on the issue of Iran. Talk of an Israeli strike on Iran has picked up in recent days, as analysts pointed out that instead of busying themselves with a national election, Israeli politicians could now form a consolidated front against Tehran.
Yisrael Katz, a minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet, told Israel Radio on Wednsday that Iran should be worried, “because from today the state of Israel will be more united, both in its ability to deter and also, if necessary, in its ability to act.”
Sheera Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.