ToI podcast'Every camp wants to see its side standing its ground'

What Matters Now to ToI analyst Haviv Rettig Gur: The political perils of conflict

After the Gaza conflict ends, PM Netanyahu faces another battle — to pass the budget. Once he does, we will learn his true stance on the judicial overhaul

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Welcome to What Matters Now, a weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.

Israel stands unified this week as hundreds of Gaza rockets rain down on the country.

Unusually of late, even Israel’s political echelon has put aside its differences to stand together during the IDF’s Operation Shield and Arrow.

That’s really good news for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose own coalition has increasingly taken to covert — and overt — threats against the stability of his government.

But even after this conflict with Palestinian Islamic Jihad is put to rest, Netanyahu still has a battle on his hands: He must pass the budget or, as mandated by law, see his government topple.

When the budget does pass, and most think it will, only then will we see where the prime minister really stands on hot-button issues such as the judicial overhaul legislation package, according to senior analyst Haviv Rettig Gur, our guest this week.

“One of the terrible costs Netanyahu will pay for suddenly being in control again, for being in a position where his own coalition partners can’t topple him and demand from him everything they want and embarrass him, shatter his popularity and just destroy everything for him, is that the buck stops with him,” said Rettig Gur on Wednesday.

We sat down during a pocket of tense calm, just before the rain of rockets began. In our in-depth conversation, we speak about how Israeli leadership fares under rocket fire — for better and worse. We then turn to Netanyahu’s next operation, the budget, which has a fast-approaching expiration date of May 29.

In this week of rare political and national unity, we ask Haviv Rettig Gur What Matters Now.

The following transcript has been lightly edited.

Times of Israel deputy editor Amanda Borschel-Dan (left) and ToI senior analyst Haviv Rettig Gur at Jerusalem’s Nomi Studios, May 10, 2023. (Jamal Risheq/Israel Story)

Haviv, thank you so much for joining me today in the Nomi Studios from our partner podcast, Israel Story. It’s such a pleasure to have you here.

Amanda, it’s so much fun to be here. This is a very cool studio.

It really is. And we are here today on May 10, two years after the previous Hamas War. So, Haviv, I ask you, in this week of uncertainty, in this week of increased conflict, in this week of military operations, what matters now?

Well, Amanda, I think that on the domestic front, while this war is happening, while this potential escalation is happening, on different fronts inside Israeli politics, it’s weirdly quiet. The Israeli political scene, the judicial reform is right now frozen, and we’re waiting until the end of May to pass the state budget. If the government passes the state budget, it basically has almost two years of political quiet. It’s almost impossible to topple the government. And that’s when they want to get into the big fights. They made a mistake, they think of having these big fights up until now. And so we’re in a bubble of quiet. And the big question, what matters now, I think, is what’s going to be the day after that budget passes? What’s happening in June? How will Israeli society essentially rekindle these big fights?

That’s fascinating and we’ll get into that in just a minute. Before we do, I want to drill down a little bit about the idea of conflict and what happens to leadership during conflict. As I mentioned, two years ago, our prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, led the country during the previous larger-scale Hamas war. Do you remember anything about how he picked up approval — or disapproval — after that operation?

I think at the beginning of the fighting in May of 2021, there was a closing of the ranks in the public. That’s true of most countries in most conflicts. And then there was a sense as it dragged on that he [Netanyahu] didn’t really have a strategy, that there wasn’t a response. There was violence between Arabs and Jews in places like Lod, with certain Arab groups led by certain religious leaders, literally ransacking the streets and chasing Jews in the streets in those places. Again, not the large Arab community, but those sections of the Arab community who supported Hamas. And so the war had come into the streets of Israel, and there was no sense that the police could handle it or that anyone really expected it.

Over the last two years, we’ve seen wars in Gaza expand to Lebanon, right? Just a month ago, we saw rocket fire from Lebanon over tensions with Gaza. And so there’s a sense that things are expanding.

At the beginning, there’s a grace period to every leader, and then the average Israeli voter waits to see how the leader actually handles that political moment, that war. And that a lot depends on that.

People hold Hamas flags as Palestinians gather at the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, May 7, 2021. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

In the just previous iteration of the war with Hamas in 2021, it lasted almost two weeks. And if I’m not mistaken, Netanyahu was somewhat criticized for dragging it out. Do you remember that?

Yes, it’s happened multiple times. Also in 2014. As soon as war begins, right, Israel is not going to demolish Hamas, it’s not going to retake Gaza, and Hamas is not going to destroy Israel and liberate Palestine and any of this dramatic sort of rhetoric and dramatic goals that these sides have. Nobody wants to do them.

And so the question becomes, who ends on an image of victory? Who gets that last picture showing they’re the defiant ones and they’re the ones who succeeded? And how you frame the end drives these wars for another week or two or sometimes three. And so what we have seen is Hamas will start these exchanges of fire over the Temple Mount, over some other issue, over domestic concerns that it’s trying to distract from. Different wars have different starts, different causes, but then it becomes a question of who drags it out longer, who tries to create that victory image?

And Netanyahu’s interest usually is to show Hamas it doesn’t get to stop the war, and that’s because he’s thinking ahead to the next war. So next time you shoot, by the way, FYI, it might not end in three days, like it would be convenient for you, it might end three weeks later, and half of your leadership is decimated, plus terrible damage to Gaza, et cetera.

So those wars drag out sometimes by Israeli policy and sometimes, of course, it’s the other way around. Israel’s hammering Hamas. And Hamas’s only goal is to show that it won’t cow, it won’t surrender, it won’t stop, it can’t be deterred as also a message to the Israeli side.

Smoke rises over the skyline following an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza, Thursday, May 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

And as we’re taping today, Hamas, in the meantime, is saying, I’m not going to play this game. I have not yet retaliated, and it’s possible that I will when I want to, not when you decide, right?

Which is exactly what Israel just did, right? Last week, there was rocket fire, 102 rockets fired by Islamic Jihad in Gaza at Israel. And Israel then stopped, walked away. And to the point that it caused a miniature political crisis in Israel with the extreme right fringe of the government becoming angry and posturing and saying, we’re leaving, that we’re not going to vote with the coalition until you have a real response.

And then a day goes by and another day and another day, and suddenly, boom, the leadership of Islamic Jihad in northern Gaza, everybody’s surprised, everybody is stunned. Nobody expected it.

It turns out members of the cabinet weren’t told of it, and Israel just takes them out. And so Israel tried to say, just because we walked away doesn’t mean there won’t be revenge. And Hamas is doing the same thing back. Just so you know, we’ll take our revenge when we take it. You don’t get to rest. It’s a psychological war game.

Nissim Azoulai and his two daughters stand in front of the wreckage of a direct rocket hit in their Ashkelon neighborhood, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

One of the members of the Security Cabinet is also the person who was urging Israel to escalate last week. And we’re talking, of course, about National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. There are some on social media, and perhaps even in “media media,” who are saying that this current operation is in fact a way for Netanyahu to shore up his coalition and keep Ben Gvir in the fold. What do you think of that?

That would be very, very uncharacteristic of Netanyahu. Netanyahu has never favored conflict as a solution to a political problem. Netanyahu has proven to Israelis that he will do a lot to stay in power. He will not pass a state budget for an entire fiscal year. He will lie and cheat people on national television right in front of everybody, when everybody understands it, shamelessly, to stay in power. He’ll do many, many things to stay in power. This would be a big red line. So, no. I think that the attack was, the actual strike against Islamic Jihad, was that.

Also, as far as we understand, the whole driving force of this policy toward Gaza right now is being handled by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. And Defense Minister Gallant doesn’t do anything by Itamar Ben Gvir’s schedule. And so what I think Netanyahu did — and I think this is very smart of him to have done, and I think that he’ll do this again — is to use the schedule that the military asked for, for the response in a way that hurts Ben Gvir politically. Netanyahu is not above using a conflict to hurt his political opponent.

Ben Gvir stormed out of a cabinet meeting, ran down to Sderot, postured, and demonstrated and said he won’t vote with the coalition in the Knesset, which is a very big deal, because without him, Netanyahu doesn’t have a majority. And then Netanyahu apparently kept him completely out of the loop. That is politics.

Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir gives a press statement in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, May 3, 2023. (Flash90)

In other words, Ben Gvir is the National Security Minister. He’s a member of the Security Cabinet. He had no idea this was coming. And that was a humiliation. And it was, by the way, Likud said so. Ben Gvir said last week, I am not in the consultation forums, I’m not in the high forums. You’re not consulting with me, and I want a much stronger response in Gaza. And so that’s a problem, that you’re not consulting with me. And Likud put out an official public statement to the press that said, Netanyahu decides who’s in that forum, and if you don’t like that, you are welcome to resign. So it was calling his bluff. And so Netanyahu has used this Gaza conflict to humiliate somebody who he thought had stepped out of line.

Another interesting point about this, I think, is that the attorney general [Gali Baharav-Miara] seemed to support Netanyahu’s political use of not consulting with Ben Gvir. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, I mean, she explicitly said this was legal. The legal issue is very minor. Ben Gvir’s people were whining that you can’t go to war without a vote by the security cabinet, which by law is true. Israel goes to war only with the vote of the security cabinet, and the security cabinet is almost always, certainly right now, made up of the heads of all the coalition parties. So a prime minister can’t just declare war on Iran, for example. You do need some kind of representation of the parliamentary majority in some way by law. That’s in the law.

This is not a war. This is a single assassination intervention, disruption of some terror activity, and that’s been long established, and there’s no ground invasion, and it’s not even a lot of airstrikes. That doesn’t, of course, help the people hurt in the three airstrikes or four airstrikes. And there were civilians killed in Gaza. But it is a very, very small-scale operation. By the way, the United States has a similar thing. President Obama conducted a years-long drone war, targeted assassinations all over the world. Never got Senate approval, or he didn’t need to it’s not a war. Right. And so this is kind of a dynamic. So she said that it was approved, but she didn’t really need to. Nobody really questioned it except Ben Gvir.

Let’s talk about a case in which an Israeli leader didn’t receive more approval after a war or after an operation. I’m talking, of course, about former prime minister Ehud Olmert.

Yes, very powerfully. So Olmert in 2006 is elected prime minister as the head of Kadima. Talks about pulling out of the West Bank. He called it the Convergence Plan. This was an idea that had popular support in the immediate aftermath of the Disengagement, which Israelis today remember with some regret. Not all of them, but they do think that Hamas took over, and we’ve had endless wars since.

Then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, left, and Ehud Barak at a ceremony in Jerusalem on July 31, 2007. (Orel Cohen/Flash90)

But Olmert was talking about doing something like that in the West Bank. And then he has suddenly the Second Lebanon War happening on his watch, the Gilad Shalit kidnapping. There’s this whole big, dramatic in the summer of 2006, he’s in power. I think his government was formed in March of 2006. He’s already in Gaza fighting over the Shalit kidnapping, the killing of two Israeli soldiers, and the kidnapping of Shalit, by June and July 12, I think it was. Hezbollah carries out its first attack across the border in the six years since Israel pulled out in 2000.

And so Olmert suddenly finds himself at war with Lebanon and Gaza. And at the very beginning of that war, he has tremendous popularity. Israelis are rallying to the cause. This seems like a very, very legitimate and justified war. We had pulled out of Gaza to the last inch. We had pulled out of South Lebanon six years earlier after 18 years in South Lebanon.

It’s kind of the American experience of Afghanistan. There were tremendous numbers of terror attacks in the area. We enter it in 1982 at the very earliest moments that everyone’s generally in support, and then we get bogged down there for 18 years. And then in 2000, Barack pulls out overnight and Hezbollah takes over the vacuum left behind. And everyone kind of generally agrees that that was a terrible idea. And it’s very similar to the American experience of Afghanistan.

But six years later, Israelis are saying, hey, they’re attacking us from a place we’re gone from, right? We’re on the blue line, we’re on the border. And so Olmert has that political capital. And then the war drags on day after day, week after week. And no matter what Israel does, no matter how much Israel bombs the launch sites in South Lebanon, many of which are inside villages, no matter how every bridge in Lebanon is basically destroyed, parts of Beirut lose electricity, there’s tremendous damage caused in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s entire strategy is to show the Israelis that Israel can’t deter it, and there’s nothing Israel can do to Lebanon that will stop the rocket fire.

Tragically, Israelis believe Hezbollah and the Israeli public opinion turns fiercely against a unilateral withdrawal, also from the West Bank. And Olmert’s approval rating begins to tank. Roughly three weeks into the war, there’s a sense that there is no easy way out. And Olmert again has this strategy of dragging it out to show that Hezbollah gets to start wars, it doesn’t get to finish them. And so he drags it out. And on week five, finally there’s a UN resolution, and there’s a UN force in South Lebanon and all of that.

And so Olmert, by the end of the war, Olmert feels that he’s accomplished many things. Incidentally, we are now many, many years later. It’s 2023. That was 2006. Olmert says Hezbollah has basically been deterred since then. In other words, the smashing of Lebanon in that war really did accomplish what it was meant to accomplish. It was a success. But during that period, Israelis, hundreds of thousands of them, fled their homes. Hundreds of thousands.

In one of my first assignments for the Jerusalem Post, back when both you and I were both at the Jerusalem Post, our boss, David Horovitz, gave me a company car just for the day, and I drove north and was going to be embedded in a paratrooper unit going into Lebanon. And it was a ghost town. Kiryat Shmona, the biggest city on the northern border. Hundreds of thousands of people just literally fled. There was no Iron Dome. The Iron Dome was a response to that trauma.

And so Israelis concluded that it is unsafe to pull out. Olmert’s basic idea of the Convergence Plan, his sort of one big policy, was rendered moot in Israeli public opinion. And Olmert himself was a man who couldn’t bring deterrence, and we all suffered terribly because of it, et cetera. So that war destroyed Olmert. He never recovered in the polls.

An Israeli tank returns from southern Lebanon on August 14, 2006, after a UN-imposed ceasefire went into effect bringing an end to the Second Lebanon War. (Haim Azulay /Flash90)

Haviv, we’re here also to talk about how our Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is actually in a really great position right now, even as we hear from his coalition members so many threats over the past couple of weeks. You’re kind of like the boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and you always point out something that is overlooked but obvious. So tell us about how Netanyao is actually in a really solid position right now.

Well, over the last four months we’ve had a government that is the most right-wing government Israel’s ever had. It’s many pretty mainstream parties that have been in previous governments, but also the extremists and then the real extremists, people who were untouchable three years ago. People if you had told Netanyahu he would be sitting with them in the coalition — he was told that, would you support them? And he said, emphatically, no, they’re terrible people and I will never support them — and then he is the one who actually shepherded them in, Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party and some pretty politicians who are pretty racist and pretty awful.

I try not to label people morally because the least interesting thing I have to tell anybody is my moral opinion about a politician. But there are people who cross a line and putting a picture of Baruch Goldstein, the mass murderer of the Hebron attack, who just murdered dozens of Muslims in a shooting spree at the Tomb of the Patriarchs on your living room wall for 20 years, as Ben Gvir did. I hope it’s not controversial to say is a red line.

And so these people are now in his coalition. That has drawn a tremendous amount of blowback. And then that coalition has handled itself in four months in ways that just burned up a tremendous amount of political capital, of support. Half of the voters for his government or a third of the voters for his government — depends on the poll and how they ask the question — are very, very disappointed with this government. They push the judicial reform, but a version of it that they themselves believe is an extreme version, thinking that it’s an opening position, but it’s a version of judicial reform that leaves us without a functional democracy in many ways. And so many Israelis saw this and not as the start of a negotiating process, but as a signal of the government’s intent, which was to destroy democracy. And so they created the largest civil protest; it’s certainly the most sustainable in the history of the country, probably.

And this is a government that came to power after five long election cycles and finally could function and could lead and managed to just burn that capital, just destroy it and come out limping. Favorability ratings are down and it’s in a terrible state.

Focus in on Netanyahu personally, you discover something interesting.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference on May 10, 2023. (Haim Zach / GPO)

There was a change to Israeli law in 2014. That’s very technical, but really important to understand this moment where, like any parliamentary system in the Israeli parliament, you can vote no confidence in the government and then the government falls.

In 2014, that was changed to something called constructive no confidence. It’s not enough for a majority to vote saying I have no confidence in the government, and then the government falls. You actually have to vote in a different government from within the same parliament. So you have to pick a prime minister and you have to pick a cabinet. And if that gets a majority vote, then the old government falls. A constructive no-confidence vote changed the game.

No vacuum, essentially.

No vacuum. Exactly. And the point was to make it harder to topple governments to ensure to create stability. And Netanyahu is now going to enjoy the fruits of that change because the threats from Ben Gvir that he won’t vote with the coalition, if on May 29 this coalition doesn’t pass a state budget, the Knesset dissolves itself to elections automatically by law. I don’t think it even has the numbers to change that law. And Goldknoff, the head of the United Torah Judaism Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Party, said, we’re not voting with you. Maybe Netanyahu should resign. You’re not giving us what we want on the draft bill for ultra-Orthodox draft, on the override clause with the judicial reform on a whole bunch of issues. And Porush, Meir Porush, one of the UTJ’s ministers in the government, said maybe Netanyahu should resign. And you’ve just seen from across the board, just ally after ally after ally talking about maybe Netanyahu should resign.

Even within Likud, we should add.

Even within Likud. And what is that? Is Netanyahu’s government about to fall apart? Are they bitter and angry? Their problem is, the fear of this coalition, of Netanyahu’s coalition partners is that he’s going to pass May 29, he’s going to pass that budget, and then there’s just no way to topple him. Once you pass May 29, once that budget passes, this government is in power without any way to dissolve itself, really to be dissolved from outside, basically until the spring of 2025, because it’s a two-year budget, and if you can’t pass a budget, you go to elections, but the budget will have passed for two years.

And so Netanyahu gets past May 29 with that budget, Netanyahu will make it to March 2025. And the only way to topple him is to go to the Knesset, the current Knesset, without a new election, and find someone else to be prime minister and a coalition around them and vote that in with a majority in the Knesset. [Yesh Atid head] Yair Lapid doesn’t have those supporters in this Knesset. Neither does [Blue and White head] Benny Guntz, most likely, even though he does have some support from the ultra-Orthodox. But the crisis has to be catastrophic for anybody from the coalition to jump sides and maybe back Benny Gantz. It’s a very, very unlikely scenario.

And therefore, if Netanyahu gets this budget passed, it’s free sailing for him. And that is not a problem for the opposition. That is not a problem for Yair Lapid because the opposition, in any case, can’t topple him. It’s a problem for his own partners. Over the last four months, one of the dramatic and most important causes of the cataclysmic chaos of this government, the fact that they pushed really stupidly and poorly and badly the judicial reform. By the way, I happen to think, and I’ve written many times in the past that there is a judicial reform that’s needed. And incidentally, we have pretty good polling: 70% of Israelis support reform of the judiciary and 70% of Israelis are convinced that this was a bad reform.

In other words, the government really failed when it should have succeeded easily. One of the reasons the government has failed so many tests, just dozens and dozens of bills of massively illiberal and horrible ideas that are deeply unpopular, massive funding for Haredim, even when major campaign promises for Israeli working-class voters for the Likud’s base have been have just not advanced, while massive funding has been promised to Haredim. All kinds of different controversial things this government has done.

The reason that this government behaved so chaotically and became so unpopular is that all of these coalition partners around Netanyahu essentially control him. He can’t move without their votes, he can’t survive without their votes for the budget, for example. And therefore any single part, Ben Gvir, has enough votes to topple this coalition. And so Netanyahu has been essentially in the pocket or at least desperately trying to maneuver out of the grasp of every single one of his coalition partners, including the most extreme factions in Israeli politics.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir walks past Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (seated, left), Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Infrastructure and Energy Minister Israel Katz in the Knesset plenum on May 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

So, Haviv, are you saying though, that after the budget passes — after June 1, for instance — can Netanyahu no longer rely on Ben Gvir? Can’t Ben Gvir, for instance, still quit the coalition? And wouldn’t that itself topple the government?

He can quit the coalition and then Netanyahu will have trouble passing legislation because he won’t have a guaranteed coalition. Ben Gvir might not support legislation he disagrees with anyway. He’s a little bit of a chaotic maverick in the Knesset. He doesn’t follow coalition discipline in many instances. Netanyahu will lose a parliamentary majority but there won’t be a parliamentary majority for replacing him with anyone else.

And so Ben Gvir’s influence over him collapses and the Haredi influence over him collapses. And Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionism Party’s influence over him collapses. And so every one of these partners that has enjoyed the last four months of squeezing anything they want out of Netanyahu, ultimately they’re only going to get those things if it’s in the budget.

Netanyahu needs to pass that budget. So some of those things are in there, but Netanyahu has also informed them. Why did he respond to Ben Gvir by saying, Yes, I’m publicly saying you’re not in the decision-making forums, you don’t like it, leave. He knows Ben Gvir can’t leave. There’s not going to be a better coalition for Ben Gvir ever. And he knows that on May 30, on the morning of May 30, he’s free and Ben Gvir does what he says, and if he doesn’t, he leaves and Netanyahu has some legislative trouble, but Netanyahu runs the country and he runs defense policy. And by the way, the further Ben Gvir gets from him, the more comfortable that is for Netanyahu, certainly on the global stage.

Let’s take this, I don’t know, prediction to another level. It’s June 1. Netanyahu wants to pass another bill, but Ben Gvir is opposed to it. United Torah Judaism is opposed to it. How can it pass?

Let’s imagine it’s about core curriculum, which the Haredim are opposed to in the Haredi education system, but it doesn’t specifically concern the Haredi education system. I don’t think Netanyahu will go to war with the Haredi community. That’s politically, it’s not tenable. Even if he believes in things like core curriculum in all schools. So he gets Yesh Atid on a specific issue, narrow issue.

The Knesset always throughout its history has been able to cross lines. There’s been legislation passed by very unpopular Arab parties, Arab parties that are anti-Zionist but have been able over the years to pass very significant consumer protection bills, for example, with the support of the right and the left and everybody. In other words, when the Knesset gets into the substantive work, there are coalitions for specific issues.

Right to left: United Torah Judaism chairman Yitzhak Goldknopf and party MKs Meir Porush and Ya’akov Tessler at a High Court of Justice hearing, in Jerusalem, July 28, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ben Gvir leaving the coalition positions Ben Gvir probably well because he has no base of his own. His entire campaign is that he’s a far-right critic of the right urging the right to be more right. So it’s not even a terrible thing for Ben Gvir. It might even happen. But Netanyahu then just leads a Knesset where no one can replace him, even if he doesn’t actually have the ability to pass legislation. You want to pass serious legislation, you need to reach across the aisle. I’m not sure that’s a disaster for the country.

It actually sounds like a utopian situation that we’re not seeing right now, this reaching across the aisle. Very rarely are we hearing of cooperation like this. What makes you think that the opposition or anyone else would actually cooperate politically?

Politically it would be unwise. The public wants to see a civil war. I mean, that a little facetiously. The public doesn’t literally want a civil war, but every camp, every political camp does want to see its side standing its ground and defending its values and its identity.

But on the substance, the Israeli mainstream. I mean, 80% of Israelis, Jews and Arabs don’t disagree on most issues that the Knesset actually has to deal with. Issues of cost of living, issues of housing, issues of everything on the agenda except the big famous things that journalists make famous because they’re touchstones on identity or wars or the conflict or anything like that.

On the vast, vast majority of issues, most Israelis agree. We had government now under Bennett and Lapid where Yesh Atid controlled the Economy Ministry. That’s the major economic regulator. And they were big, big fans of streamlining import rules. Israel has the most labyrinthian and disastrous and formerly communist, basically socialist rules for importing things. And it’s one of the reasons everything in Israel costs 30% more than in Europe and streamlining that will reduce the cost of living tremendously and quickly. And Orna Barbivai the former Economy Minister [from Yesh Atid], was a big fan of it and helped advance this legislation. And now Nir Barkat is the Economy Minister for Likud and is a big fan of it and is helping to advance this legislation.

The legislation itself is actually weakening and not advancing the way it should because of lobbyists and because of infighting and because everybody’s attention is elsewhere. But a government that comes into power, able to function, will discover that there is no disagreement on the economy between Yesh Atid and Likud. Netanyahu isn’t handling this conflict with Islamic Jihad any differently than Lapid handled his conflict with Islamic Jihad what was it, five months ago?

Yesh Atid’s delegation to compromise talks on judicial overhaul at the President’s Residence on March 28, 2023. (Courtesy)

And so on policy, one of the fascinating things is — the whole world is polarizing. America is polarizing, everybody’s polarizing. And there are all kinds of interesting mechanisms causing it. The echo chambers of social media and the way people are sorting themselves out by moving to places where people agree with them and all kinds of interesting phenomena all over the free world. It’s not unique to Israel. What’s special about Israel is that we’re polarizing even though we agree on everything. That’s different from America. And so there is, I think, a baseline for making real substantive changes that help everybody. That will be something possible, I hope.

But you’re talking about politicians as if they are reasonable people. And we’re not seeing that so far. Definitely not under this government. And even when Netanyahu was head of the opposition, nothing that was done — or not done — was done with a reasonable way. Netanyahu voted against bills that his governments, his previous governments, brought, even. Where are you getting this idea that people will be reasonable this time?

Netanyahu put party victory over the public good in every situation in the last five years. Every single one. I mean, Netanyahu supporters are going to hear that and get angry at me, but find me a place where he crossed the aisle and voted the way the other side wanted him to vote.

He did that out of a deep belief, first of all, that you win. You win and apologize later. First, you win, but also out of a deep belief that his winning is the best thing for the country. By far better than any economic initiative that might help working-class Israelis pay their bills. Because he’ll then fix the economy completely and you can’t trust the other side to do that. So he has this, by the way, that’s not unique to Netanyahu. That’s very common among politicians. I can save the world. The other side is a catastrophe. They believe it genuinely after a few years. But they will have to pay a public price for failing.

We’ve seen so much division and so much real sense of civil war over the last four months that I feel, I think, I can’t really prove it yet. We’re going to try and sift through polling and learn polling over the next few months. I think there’s a real public hunger for the opposite.

One of the ways that Netanyahu can try and rebuild the narrative of his government, which so far has been Ben Gvir runs the show, Smotrich runs the show. The Haredim are going to get flushed with somebody else’s money. They don’t work productively enough or work enough to pay for their own society and their own lifestyle. And so everyone else is paying for it. That is deep anger. That is a deep and real and by the way, completely appropriate anger. Don’t build a society based on someone else paying for it.

Netanyahu wants to change the narrative of his government that has been set as that. It’s one reason why he’s lost something like in different polling, he’s lost somewhere between five and 15 seats to Likud voters. Likud voters have grown disgusted with this government because of those things. He wants a new narrative. And why isn’t the new narrative going to be, no, we’re all in this together. Ben Gvir kicked himself out of the coalition. I’m not going to go cry over him and chase after him.

Let’s do this, let’s pass these things together. I was a terrible person four years ago when I didn’t vote with you on it. Fine, great. But right now let’s do this Yair Lapid. It is a chance to rebuild that.

From right to left: Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas, Labor leader Merav Michaeli, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, National Unity leader MK Benny Gant and Yisrael Beyteneu leader Avigdor Liberman hold a joint press conference in Tel Aviv, on March 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

I feel like the elephant that is charging through the room right now is the judicial overhaul. Right now it’s frozen, as you said, and so people can perhaps calm down. But what will happen if, when, if, when it becomes unfrozen, when it’s on defrost and then everything is just cycled back up again?

That’s a great question. One of the terrible costs Netanyahu will pay for suddenly being in control again, for being in a position where his own coalition partners can’t topple him and demand from him everything they want and embarrass him and shatter his popularity and just destroy everything for him, is that the buck stops with him. He’ll be responsible. There’s been a debate in Israel until now about this judicial reform and the debate is essentially over the government’s intent.

What does the government actually want? This radical, extreme version that was first suggested by [Justice Minister] Yariv Levin, which Yariv Levin has then said, yes, there are elements of it that are actually anti-democratic. He says three months later and thinks that that exonerates him because that means it was just a negotiating position, obviously.

But if you don’t trust him, if you’re not the sort of person who would vote for him, he just literally presented a judicial reform that’s anti-democratic, and he now admits it three months later as a kind of what? Mea culpa? But then he says, we’re going to push this forward again as soon as we can. And so the question becomes, what does the government actually want?

This is something that I have disagreed with our boss, David Horovitz on, where David said, look, people say something — excuse me for paraphrasing David. I’ll let David explain his position. But as I understand it, if someone tells me I’m doing something, I believe them. And the government has shown me, told me that this is doing this for illiberal reasons, and it has declared its illiberal reasons with a thousand different bills and statements, I believe them.

And the debate has been, what is the government’s intent? Now, the judicial reform, moving forward after the budget passes, after Netanyahu is secure, after the constructive, no-confidence demand, means you really can’t topple him. And therefore his own coalition partners are much weakened in respect to him, is his.

Whatever that is, that’s what Netanyahu wanted and wants. And now we’re going to see if he is a reformer, if he wants the 60% of the reform, 70% of reform that 70% of Israelis want. Israeli public opinion is more complex than that. But just to throw out a basic concept, most Israelis want some reform, right? Does he support that and everything else was a just terribly mismanaged negotiating strategy? Or does he want to gut the judiciary and allow his executive branch which basically controls the parliament to do whatever the heck he wants? And we’re going to find out.

Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

You’re painting a picture of Netanyahu as a master chess player and a 3-D, 4-D even 5-D version of chess that most people can’t conceive of. And you know what? I buy that, okay? But it also sounds to me like you’re suggesting, perhaps you’re not, that this whole period of unrest over the judicial reform was just a way of buying time, treading water until his budget is pushed through and he secures his power.

Well, so I think if there was such a thing as three-dimensional chess, he’d be very good at it. He is not that good at it. Nobody is that good at it. The judicial reform was real. Yariv Levin is honest and believes in it passionately. Does he believe in the specific version, or does he believe in 20% less of it, but basically believes in it, and Netanyahu wants a judicial reform. I do think he ideologically supports the idea, and everything after that statement essentially has been a disastrous mistake.

In other words, no, I think Netanyahu massively mismanaged it. He didn’t mean to get this far without a budget. He wanted the budget prepared, passed through the legislative process very, very early. A lot of things had to be taken out of this budget. The import reforms are gone from this budget almost entirely gutted. And not because Netanyahu doesn’t support the import reforms. He literally promised in the campaign on television that he was going to actually dismantle the Israel Standards Authority, which creates these unique standards for products. That means that importing them takes a whole big project. And many foreign manufacturers won’t send to Israel. Because to import a washing machine from France to America — America and France have equalized their standards. They’re the same legal standards for what a washing machine is and safety standards and all that. So you just literally bring the washing machine over and you’re done. Israel has a special washing machine standard. I don’t know specifically about washing machines, but for example, it has a standard for what a backpack is. You can’t import a backpack to Israel unless your backpack manufacturing process in China matches Israel’s standard. Israel is the only country on Earth with a special standard for backpacks. Backpacks are not a thing that needs safety standards anywhere else.

We have stiff necks, we need special backpacks.

And these are protectionist measures that nobody knows about because they’re super boring. But in the end, this super boring thing raises massively the cost of producing anything and shipping it to Israel. And Netanyahu in the campaign said, I’m closing the standards authority. The very bureaucracy that does this, that handles this, I’m shutting it down. Not only is the standards authority not being closed down, most of the equalizing of standards  — just join the EU standards! If something is safe enough for a child in Belgium, it’s safe enough for a child in Israel. And the idea of having a separate standard is only a protectionist measure that raises costs for everybody. So just equalize the standards with the EU standards like America did, right? That’s gone.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich announces plans to reduce the cost of living, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on January 11, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Now, that is the single most useful way to lower the costs of living in Israel, allowing competitive imports from Europe, and it’s gone from this budget, which is a disaster. But Netanyahu thinks to himself, I have to get the budget passed. I don’t have time to make this fancy, complex budget because the judicial reform was just frozen in the end of March, early April. We don’t have time to do a serious, thoughtful budget that actually passes these reforms.

You know what? I pass the budget, stabilize the government, and then I can pass any reform I want. Who’s going to stop me?

So that’s where things stand right now. I don’t think he was cleverly delaying till the budget. I think it was a catastrophe, and now he’s playing catch-up.

Obviously, this whole conversation is pointing to the inevitability, or the hope at least that the budget will pass. Do you see any kind of situation in which it won’t?

I don’t. Not only that, I read the extreme anxiety and tension and anger among the coalition partners — Ben Gvir’s antics, Goldknoff and Porush and others, screaming and shouting — Shas! Netanyahu’s single most loyal partner for decades. Shas said if the Deri Law doesn’t pass allowing Aryeh Deri to serve in the cabinet despite having corruption convictions, we’re not voting for the budget. Shas said that openly, publicly. A spokesman of the party said it in the party’s own newspaper, which means he couldn’t have said it without approval from above.

All of that I read as a desperate attempt to try and squeeze Netanyahu at the last minute before there’s no squeezing on Netanyahu anymore.

And so I think that everybody understands the budget is going to pass or they wouldn’t be so desperate right now.

Fascinating stuff. Haviv, thank you so much for joining me.

Thanks, Amanda. It was fun.

What Matters Now podcasts are available for download on iTunes, TuneIn, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, PlayerFM or wherever you get your podcasts.

Check out last week’s What Matters Now:

Most Popular
read more: