As Israel implodes, does nobody in Netanyahu’s Likud have the guts to defy him?

The national turmoil over the PM’s judicial overhaul is now being exacerbated by surging Palestinian terrorism and settler extremism. And still his entire Likud faction is silent

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with other Likud MKs including Nir Barkat (back to camera) and Avi Dichter (right) in the Knesset plenum on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with other Likud MKs including Nir Barkat (back to camera) and Avi Dichter (right) in the Knesset plenum on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

The surprise is not the unraveling of practical and moral leadership by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The surprise is the rapidity with which it is happening.

The coalition — Netanyahu’s own Likud party and its far-right and ultra-Orthodox partners — has only been in office for two months.

As Israel’s security forces seek to grapple with a sickening surge in deadly Palestinian terrorism — 14 Israelis killed in the past month — their battle to protect Israeli lives is being complicated, not assisted, by Jewish supremacist members of the government, including ministers who have been unconscionably handed powerhouse roles, and extremist MKs who are encouraging violent settler vigilantism.

When you give the anti-Arab, ultranationalist Bezalel Smotrich a key position at the heart of your government, including authority over aspects of the settlement enterprise, there should be no surprise if some of the most extreme settler criminals believe their hour has come.

And all too plainly, that is what they believe, as they rampaged through the Huwara area on Sunday night, setting Palestinian homes on fire, hours after two Israeli brothers were shot dead by a Palestinian terrorist in that West Bank town.

Smotrich on Sunday had “liked” a tweet by a prominent settlement official that called “to erase the village of Huwara today”; on Wednesday, he publicly called for the State of Israel to “wipe out” Huwara.

Finance Minister and Minister in the Defense Ministry Bezalel Smotrich speaks at a conference hosted by The Marker on March 1, 2023. (Screenshot: Twitter; Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The no-nonsense Yehuda Fuchs, the IDF general in charge of the area, took personal responsibility Tuesday night both for failing to prevent the killings of Hallel and Yagel Yaniv, and for underestimating the “scale and force” of the radical settlers’ reprisal action.

“We were not ready for a pogrom on the scale of dozens of people with flammable material and the means to set it alight, heading to 20 or more places… and setting random Palestinian homes and cars on fire,” he explained. “And this is not a case of [people] ‘taking the law into their own hands’,” Fuchs clarified, “because law-abiding people do not spread terror among a population.”

Head of the IDF Central Command, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, during a TV interview on February 28, 2023. (Screenshot: Channel 12; Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

When you offer Itamar Ben Gvir, an oft-convicted anti-Arab provocateur, more power than any police minister before him, including responsibility for Border Police units in the West Bank, a surreal but predictable result is the sight of those Border Police forces dutifully seeking to evacuate settlers from an illegal outpost that the same minister is encouraging the settlers to occupy — as happened at the Evyatar hilltop on Sunday and Monday.

And an additional consequence is that some of the overstretched security forces are diverted from the imperative to quell the Palestinian terrorism.

Screen capture from video of security forces evacuating the illegal Evyatar outpost, February 27, 2023. (Twitter. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law.)

A program for ‘regime change’

For the two months that Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition has been in office, Israel has been at risk of “consuming” itself, to use President Isaac Herzog’s appropriately drastic language, in the ferocious argument over the Netanyahu-backed judicial “reform” — the one that, if it is legislated as currently intended, will within a few weeks give the governing majority almost complete control over the High Court, and render Israel’s most basic civil rights and liberties, including religious freedom, equality, freedom of expression and the right to vote, potentially vulnerable to the political leadership’s abuse and violation.

What Netanyahu’s former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit described Tuesday night as a program for “regime change,” which he said would end Israel’s liberal democratic form of government, and former prime minister Ehud Barak on Saturday called “an assassination of the Declaration of Independence, which will turn Israel into a dictatorship,” has prompted weeks of demonstrations, strikes in the tech sector, panicked protests from usually sanguine bank chiefs, and bitter warning letters from everyone from military veterans to law professors.

Mounted police clash with people as they protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2023. Erik Marmor/Flash90

Wednesday is seeing some of the most bitter protests to date, with confrontations worsening during the day, while the coalition advances further elements of the legislation in the Knesset.

With police minister Ben Gvir in the control room, his forces utilized horses, stun grenades and water cannons to clear demonstrators blocking Tel Aviv’s main Ayalon Highway; at time of writing, 39 people had been arrested and 11 injured; one man reportedly lost an ear after being hit by a stun grenade; another was subdued by a cop with a knee on his neck.

Screen capture from video of a police officer kneeling on the neck of a protester during clashes at a demonstration against the government’s planned overhaul of the judiciary, Tel Aviv, February 1, 2023. (Twitter. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Now, that raw national divide over the very nature of the Israeli state, its governance and its people’s rights is being exacerbated by the more familiar internal turmoil over how to tackle the Palestinian issue, terrorism, settlement, the territories — all of this to the delight of Israel’s enemies and the mounting concern of its most important allies, and much of Diaspora Jewry.

Craven Likud MKs

Netanyahu spurned Herzog’s plea to halt the legislative onslaught and carefully negotiate with the opposition on consensual judicial reform. He has long lost any capacity or even apparent desire to serve as a unifying Israeli figure, but his insistent destruction of his own security and economic legacy, and of any claim to moral leadership, is a function of his knowledge that this incendiary coalition, all of whose members have their own reasons for advocating the demolition of Israel’s independent judiciary, is the only political combination that will keep him in power.

To what will be their abiding shame, several key members of his own Likud party — those who know exactly how dangerous are the likes of Ben Gvir and Smotrich, and see clearly through the false claims of judicial “reform” — have declined to challenge him.

Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir in the Tel Aviv police command center, during demonstrations in the city against the coalition’s judicial overhaul, March 1, 2023 (via Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Even ministers with a direct interest in a credible High Court, including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, a former Shin Bet chief, have opted not to highlight the warning summarized by former Foreign Ministry chief Alon Ushpiz last week, to the effect that Israel relies on the shield of an independent judiciary to protect it and its soldiers from scrutiny by the International Court of Justice and other world tribunals and forums.

By the Likud Knesset faction’s craven standards, the admission by Economy Minister Nir Barkat, a tech multi-millionaire who knows a thing or two about the financial world, that he has heard expert predictions that “the Israeli economy is going to crash,” constitutes a veritable act of patriotic heroism.

It could only take a few Likud MKs — whose personal attention must surely have been captured by polls showing eroding support both for the overhaul and for the coalition — voicing support for Herzog’s dialogue plea, and indicating a disinclination to vote for steamrollered judicial change, to compel Netanyahu to reconsider. But while the prime minister proved ready to concede to spectacularly far-reaching demands from his minor far-right and ultra-Orthodox partners, his own loyalists in Likud, by far the largest coalition party, have thus far meekly accepted their marginalized role in their own government.

Settlers look on as cars and homes burn in the West Bank town of Huwara on February 26, 2023. (Courtesy)

Amid their silent compliance, their leader’s absolute power grab, and the rabble-rousing of some of their ministerial colleagues, it falls to the likes of the redoubtable General Fuchs, when condemning the “shameful” behavior of the extremist settlers in Huwara, to mourn their departure from “the values that I grew up with, the values of the State of Israel, the values of Judaism, in my opinion.” And to remind the watching public, as he did when explaining why it is the army and not the mob that is responsible for security, that “Israel is a democratic state.”

It won’t be for much longer. Not unless some of those around Netanyahu in whom the electorate placed their trust have the guts, and the Zionist commitment, to stand up to him and the pyromaniacs he has empowered.

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