Op-edPremier 'no longer acting independently,' former aide says

With unbridled attack on security chiefs, Netanyahu shows he’s at point of no return

Those who know the prime minister well say he likes to take conflicts to the precipice before backing off; when it comes to the judicial overhaul, they’re no longer optimistic

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem Sunday, March 19, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem Sunday, March 19, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was edgy and irritable. After a long weekend spent with the family, sans the soothing views of the Villa Borghese garden afforded by his luxury suite in Rome the previous weekend, he kicked off Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting in gusty fashion.

His hands trembling and his face furious, Netanyahu equated the threat to Israel from protesters (“anarchists”) against the judicial overhaul that his government is advancing to the danger posed by Palestinian terrorism and Iran’s nuclear program. Then he unprecedentedly railed at the heads of almost all the branches of Israel’s defense establishment.

“I expect the commissioner and the police to uphold the law and prevent violence and the blocking of roads,” he said, chastising Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai over the force’s supposedly lax response to nationwide protests against the overhaul.

Then Netanyahu thundered at Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar and Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara: “I expect the Shin Bet and the State Attorney’s Office to act with determination against people who instigate the murder of ministers and Knesset members, and the murder of the prime minister and his family, without looking the other way, without cutting corners or cutting slack.

“I expect the chief of staff and the heads of the security services to vigorously fight against refusal to serve,” he continued, adding Herzi Halevi, the IDF chief he didn’t want to appoint, to his blacklist.

When Netanyahu says he “expects” something, the implication is that the people whose job it is to keep this country secure have not been doing what he wants of them. That the police chief is too soft on the demonstrators and hasn’t prevented them from blocking roads. That the Shin Bet and the State Attorney’s Office haven’t been apprehending people who incite against Netanyahu’s family and members of his cabinet. And that the IDF chief of staff hasn’t come out against members of the military who are refusing to serve in protest of the overhaul.

Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai speaks with IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi (left) at the Police headquarters in Jerusalem on January 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The subtext is clear: He believes the IDF chief of staff, police commissioner, Shin Bet head and attorney general all support the protests. Days after accusing President Isaac Herzog of aligning himself with leftist protesters by publishing an alternate proposal that “perpetuates the existing situation,” Netanyahu didn’t shy away from lobbing similar allegations at the heads of the defense establishment (save for the Mossad chief, at least for the time being).

The reasoning for the assault on Herzog, mere minutes after the latter announced his alternate proposal last week, was transparent. Netanyahu lumped him alongside Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Labor’s Merav Michaeli, telegraphing to right-wingers who are still undecided on the overhaul that they can trust no one – not even the traditionally nonpartisan office of the president.

The entire world is against us, he signaled. It’s time to come back home, to the warm bosom of Netanyahu’s judicial reform.

He is surrounded by people who hate the judiciary even more than he does – despite the ongoing trial against him. They’re all out for revenge; perhaps Netanyahu is as well

As harsh as his tone was, Netanyahu’s admonishments of the security chiefs were short on substance. Had the prime minister genuinely sought to influence the actions of the heads of the military, police and Shin Bet, he would have summoned them to his office, one by one, imparted to them his reservations over their conduct, and sent them off with clear instructions for the future.

That is generally how things are done, and it is far more effective than a public, political upbraiding that only serves to further erode Israelis’ trust in their democratic institutions.

President Isaac Herzog attends a Honorary Citizenship Ceremony in Tel Aviv, March 13, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu has surely been dismayed by the warnings of former chiefs of the military, police and security services against the overhaul in its current form. Perhaps he has convinced himself that their successors are of similar mind.

Halevi, Bar and Shabtai were likely enraged by Netanyahu’s display of anger, but the prime minister no longer cares. He is living on the edge, surrounded by people who hate the judiciary even more than he does – despite the ongoing trial against him. They’re all out for revenge; perhaps Netanyahu is as well.

Those who know the prime minister well say that he likes to drag conflicts to the precipice, and only then take a step back, as he did in the infamous episode of the metal detectors on the Temple Mount in 2017.

There were those who hoped Sunday night’s lengthy meeting of coalition party heads would produce just such a compromise and pending legislation on the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee would be revised in a way that makes sense. But in practice – though a tweaked proposal presented Sunday by Constitution Committee Chair Simcha Rothman put up an impressive smokescreen of words and numbers – the coalition is barreling ahead with plans to hand control over the selection of Supreme Court justices to the prime minister.

Netanyahu experts were not optimistic on Monday. “He’s no longer acting independently,” one former longtime aide to the premier told The Times of Israel. “He’s surrounded by a conclave of ruthless managers who won’t give an inch.”

This piece first appeared on The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language site, Zman Yisrael.

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