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Break your head, devour analyses from supposed insiders, and try and figure out the logic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s behavior since he won the elections, stitched together his coalition, and focused its most concentrated efforts on neutering the judiciary. I defy you to produce a rational explanation.
Netanyahu is the greatest Israeli politician of our time. That’s not an absolute compliment; politics is a dirty business. But he is undeniably the master of the field. He demonstrated it, again, with his indefatigable campaigning through five exhausting election campaigns. He proved it, especially, by ensuring that barely a vote was lost from the pro-Bibi camp in last November’s decisive contest — crowbarring even the most extreme and unpalatable parties together to ensure they cleared the Knesset threshold — while his opponents complacently allowed half a million votes to go to waste.
Since that victory, however, his actions, as well as destructive, have often been illogical and sometimes plainly self-defeating.
He granted his allies concessions in coalition talks as though they had a choice about partnering with him. They did not. And yet he ushered the dangerous theocrat Bezalel Smotrich into the very heart of his government, as minister of finance with additional wide responsibilities in the Defense Ministry. He entrusted a perennial racist provocateur with control of the police, granting Itamar Ben Gvir greater powers than any predecessor. And he promised the ultra-Orthodox parties legislation entrenching a blanket exemption from military and national service, and vastly increased funding for their unsupervised schools and their ranks of full-time adult yeshiva students — steering that community away from gainful employment and self-sufficiency and deeper into poverty.
Again, all this as though these political leaders had mighty leverage over him, when he was the one who had led their bloc back to power, and they were all dependent on each other in order to maintain it.
He then immediately made the politicization and shackling of the judiciary his parliamentary priority — naming Yariv Levin as his justice minister, sending Levin, in the first week of his coalition’s term, to unveil a “first phase” of ostensible reforms, and blitzing the core legislation through the Knesset with such rapidity that, by the end of March, the law that would give the ruling majority the power to choose almost all of Israel’s judges was ready for its final readings.
En route, he ignored vast and relentless nationwide protests (and denounced the demonstrators in terms usually reserved for external enemies); dire warnings regarding the consequences for the tech-driven economy he had hitherto nurtured; clear signals that our vital military reservists will not serve in an Israel that is not dependably democratic; pleas to reconsider from Israel’s most important allies led by the president of the United States, and anguished requests from Israel’s president to abandon the legislation in its current form, because it was tearing the country apart, and instead to patiently negotiate a genuine program of reform that would entrench Israel’s foundational values as a democratic and tolerant Jewish nation with guaranteed basic rights.
And then he fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, for daring to break coalition ranks and speak publicly about the divide the looming legislation was causing within the security establishment — a rift that was threatening national cohesion and thus Israel’s capacity to protect and defend itself. Predictably, this spectacularly intemperate act triggered still greater public protest and a national strike, pushed Netanyahu’s popularity to new lows, further reduced the fast-falling public support for the overhaul legislation, sent jitters through his coalition, and compelled him to suspend the judicial selection legislation just a day or two before it was scheduled to be enacted.
That sequence of decisions simply makes no sense — even if you tend to the view that Netanyahu has long been convinced that his and Israel’s needs are one and the same, and that all means are thus acceptable to advance his interests. And it is only the near-mystical respect with which Netanyahu is understandably regarded as a political operator, constantly several streets ahead of his rivals, that has prevented our legions of analysts from saying so.
Instead, some argue that Netanyahu never really wanted the Levin-piloted legislation in the first place, or that he hadn’t realized it would be as devastating to democracy, or that he had believed Levin would be more open to compromise. Those are just absurd claims, impossible to reconcile with the working relationship between the two men.
It was long asserted that Netanyahu was shepherding the legislation in order to extricate himself from his corruption trial. But that has never made sense either. There are ways for him to improve his legal position, in a process that in any case could drag on for many years, that do not require the destruction of Israel’s independent judiciary. (For one, and I’m certainly not encouraging this: “reform” the post of the attorney general; divide it into two jobs — chief legal adviser to the government and head of the state prosecution — and make sure that whoever is appointed to the latter post “reviews” the indictment against him.)
Others contend that he got cold feet or changed his mind. Really? On his flagship legislation?
Still others believe that he underestimated the diversity, potency and tenacity of the street protests. If so, then this is emphatically not the Netanyahu of just a few months earlier, the Israeli politician most attuned to the national mood.
The Netanyahu of old, for sure, would not have been so foolish as to sack the defense minister, unleashing a higher tide of protest, at the very moment when his coalition’s obsessively supported bill was about to become law. (Gallant has since been restored.)
The Netanyahu of old — indeed, of not very long ago — would not be giving interviews boasting about how, as finance minister, he saved the economy by incentivizing the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities to enter the workforce in greater numbers, even as he backs legislation, to be enacted once the High Court is prevented from intervening, that will have the opposite effect.
But then the Netanyahu of old, of course, would never have embarked on this path in the first place.
That Netanyahu would have recognized that a democracy in which the legislature is already the impotent tool of a like-minded ruling coalition, and in which the judicial system is to be denied the capacity to protect basic rights, would not be a democracy at all.
That Netanyahu for decades preached the importance of Israel’s independent top court, knowing that it protected the military — soldiers and commanders and their political bosses — from the worst attentions of international tribunals seeking to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes.
That Netanyahu watched as justice minister Ayelet Shaked eased a group of conservative justices onto the High Court bench via the perfectly effective Judicial Selection Committee that the new legislation would destroy.
Not too late
The damage that Netanyahu has done these past five-and-a-half months — with legislation that, if it is finalized, remakes Israel’s governance, rends the nation, imperils its future, and, not incidentally, casts him as a dark figure in the history of Zionism — is not easily corrected. But the harm is not irrevocable.
Those talks under President Herzog’s supervision are ongoing. We hear that they are serious, and that they have been making a degree of progress.
It is almost certainly too much to expect for them to yield a full-fledged constitution. But Netanyahu could choose to stick with them, however arduous and protracted the path, until they produce a consensual framework — based on the principles and values of the Declaration of Independence, and set out in legislation that would require a very high bar to amend — for an Israel in which our demographic mosaic can feel comfortable, protected and represented.
Israel needs internal cohesion, it needs an incentivized workforce, it needs an independent and capable judiciary, it needs reliable governance that will encourage overseas investment, it needs the confidence and support of its allies, it needs to deter its enemies — all of which the planned overhaul legislation has undermined, and that patient consensus-building could revive.
Nobody is going to quickly or easily designate Netanyahu as any kind of national healer. But it’s not too late for him to do the right thing by Israel, and to escape designation as a force for ill.
The old Netanyahu could effortlessly explain the about-face. It’s a safe bet that even the new Netanyahu could do so. Not all his coalition buddies would stay with him. But that’s the chance he would have to take. He remains a supremely effective politician, highly articulate; perhaps he could win over a majority again. But whatever the case, he’d at least begin to haul Israel out of the abyss into which he has chosen to plunge it.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
I'm proud of our coverage of this government's plans to overhaul the judiciary, including the political and social discontent that underpins the proposed changes and the intense public backlash against the shakeup.
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