Benjamin Netanyahu passes Israel budget, gains control of coalition

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JERUSALEM — Since it took power almost six months ago, the new government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been marked by chaos — within its ranks and across a country upended by unprecedented street protests. Now, after pounding militants in the Gaza Strip and quelling a rebellion of coalition partners, this week’s passage of a budget marks a rare moment of unity and stability for the fractious alliance of right-wing nationalist and religious parties.

Netanyahu immediately suggested he could use the window of calm to bring back explosive proposals to gain power over Israel’s judiciary, which he suspended in March in the face of mass demonstrations against them.

“Netanyahu has new leverage with the budget passed, more degrees of freedom,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. “Now he needs to decide what he wants to do with it.”

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Wednesday’s vote to approve a two-year national budget, a commonplace piece of parliamentary housekeeping that has become increasingly fraught in a divided nation, was a moment of peril for Netanyahu’s fragile partnership. Far-right and ultra-Orthodox factions threatened to withhold their votes unless the government poured more money into programs under their control, including millions for a parallel yeshiva school system that teaches religion while ignoring national standards for math and science.

Failure to meet the budget deadline would have led to an automatic collapse of the government — a fate that befell a coalition in 2020 — and Netanyahu caved to the demands, hurriedly committing more than $130 million for religious programs and for projects supported by far-right settler leader Itamar Ben Gvir, the national security minister.

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Critics slammed the last-minute deals as evidence that Netanyahu remains beholden to his most extreme partners. They decried the “giveaway” to the growing ultra-Orthodox sector, which seeks more influence over religious and secular society.

But with protesters shouting “Shame!” in the pre-dawn dark outside the Knesset on Wednesday, the financial package passed by a four-vote margin, granting the government a two-year window before the next budgetary battle.

Netanyahu hailed the document as a “responsible, excellent budget that will faithfully serve the citizens of Israel.” Opposition leader Yair Lapid described it as “blackmail.”

“While you slept, the worst and most destructive budget in the history of Israel was passed. It has nothing positive, nothing to help fight the cost of living,” Lapid tweeted.

Inside the government, the moment could signal at least a temporary shift from the tumult that has plagued it.

Almost immediately after taking power months ago, hard-liners introduced a sweeping bid to remake the judicial system and reduce the power of the Supreme Court. The move, launched with no public preparation, sparked months of strikes, mass demonstrations and protests by military reservists. Some Israeli diplomats resigned, and world leaders, including President Biden, condemned the initiative as anti-democratic.

Amid the backlash creating fractures in the coalition, Netanyahu pulled the legislation in March and agreed to talks with the opposition.

The government was slow to find its footing in other ways. Critics say the cabinet has done little about spikes in inflation, which topped 5 percent, and in the homicide rate, especially in Arab-Israeli communities. Netanyahu failed in his bid to appoint a Likud hard-liner as his consul in New York and another crony as the head of the national statistics office. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant remains in his job, despite being “fired” by Netanyahu in a dramatic televised address at the height of the judicial protests.

“After serial bungles, just passing the budget seems like an achievement,” Plesner said. “Until now, this government has a record free of successes, and Netanyahu understood that.”

The unrest has taken a toll, with polls showing the coalition would lose 10 seats and its Knesset majority if elections were held today. For the first time, more Israelis say the centrist former defense minister Benny Gantz, not Netanyahu, is the “most suitable” to be prime minister.

Netanyahu had also come came under fire from the right for not responding with enough force after Islamic Jihad militants initially fired more than 100 rockets into Israel following the death of jailed Palestinian hunger striker Khader Adnan on May 2. Ben Gvir launched a boycott of parliamentary votes to protest the lack of military action.

Those far-right lawmakers cheered a week later when Israeli planes killed six Islamic Jihad commanders in surprise airstrikes on Gaza neighborhoods. At least 33 people in Gaza and two in Israel were killed in the five-day bout of violence that followed.

The Gaza action shored up Netanyahu’s support on the right. That, and wrangling the budget over the line, gives him a chance to restore a sense control, central to his cultivated image as a political master.

“For him, the important part is being able to say ‘I’m the only one who can manage the circus of Israeli politics,’” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv-based pollster and campaign consultant.

But it remains far from clear that he can keep his allies in line. Israeli media reports suggest that Netanyahu would like to quietly bury the judicial overhaul plan and the furious opposition it provokes. But pressure from his right to bring it back is already growing, with Justice Minister Yariv Levin reportedly threatening to resign if his pet initiative isn’t revived.

Supporters of the overhaul see it as crucial to reining in a judiciary they believe has usurped legislative authority and is hopelessly biased toward Israel’s leftist elite. Critics say it’s a power grab that would gut the long-standing balance of power between the legislative and judicial branches and set the country on a path to authoritarianism.

Talks between coalition and opposition leaders are continuing, with no confirmed reports of progress. When asked shortly after the budget vote whether he expected the issue to return, Netanyahu said: “Of course. But we are trying to reach understandings [in negotiations]. I hope we will succeed in that.”

Opponents of the courts overhaul said demonstrators would be back in the streets.

“After funneling unprecedented amounts of state revenue to buy off the threats of ultra- Orthodox and far-right settler party leaders, Netanyahu revealed that he plans on proceeding with the judicial overhaul,” said Josh Drill, a spokesman for an umbrella organization of protest groups. “Israel is under imminent danger, and only mass protests can stop this dangerous legislation.”

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