Netanyahu’s Political Touch Eludes Him as Israel Spirals into Chaos

Debbie Hill/Pool via REUTERS
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony for fallen soldiers of Israel’s wars at the Yad Lebanim House on the eve of Memorial Day, in Jerusalem, April 13, 2021.

JERUSALEM – Few figures have stood astride the Israeli public arena like Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history.

Over a record six terms, the leader known as “Bibi” has honed an image that is more puppet-master than politician, so often has he eluded scandal, bounced back from defeat and outwitted opponents (and more than a few allies).

But his government’s move to overhaul the judicial system has created a paralyzing political crisis – setting off mass protests, sending the currency plummeting and sparking warnings of “civil war” from Israel’s president.

On Sunday, the chaos began to corrode his own government. Netanyahu fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, one day after Gallant called for a halt to the judicial remake, saying objections to the changes within the military threatened Israel’s security.

As the upheaval enters its fourth month with no sign of easing, the prime minister seems unable, or unwilling, to apply his vaunted touch.

“Where is he in all this? That’s what we’ve all been talking about,” said a former senior member of Netanyahu’s government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could talk candidly about his old boss.

Little about the new government’s sudden push to dramatically remake the courts, or its response to the enormous international backlash, bears the hallmark of a Netanyahu production, according to political observers.

“It really is a mystery,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a Jerusalem-based columnist and author of a Netanyahu biography. “It seems almost impossible that this guy who is Israel’s master tactician, political strategist, the maestro of presentation, how did he misread this so badly?”

Netanyahu did not campaign on overhauling the courts in last fall’s election, which resulted in a four-seat parliamentary majority for his coalition of conservative, ultra-Orthodox and nationalist parties. He did not mention judicial changes in his inaugural address, which focused on pledges to counter Iran, befriend Saudi Arabia and modernize infrastructure.

But days later, Yariv Levin, the new justice minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party, introduced a surprise package of Knesset bills that would give the ruling parties more power to override Supreme Court decisions and select judges. Also, under the package, courts could no longer bar politicians convicted of crimes from serving in top government jobs.

Supporters see the changes 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.

Judicial reform had never seemed to be a priority for Netanyahu, a politician who rose on his command of geopolitics and economics. But it has been a longtime ambition for Levin and other members of Netanyahu’s far-right coalition, whom he depends on to keep his slim parliamentary majority.

As the backlash has intensified, Netanyahu has made four trips to European capitals, trying to keep the focus on Iran in his familiar role as a globe-trotting statesman.

But he has not been able to leave his troubles at home: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz expressed “grave concerns” about the judicial overhaul. French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly warned that the moves were counter to “the common conception of democracy.” And British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Friday “stressed the importance of upholding . . . democratic values.”

These rebukes, and the protests waiting for him by Israeli expats, are painful for a prime minister who has compared himself to Winston Churchill, according to Aviv Bushinsky, chief of staff for Netanyahu when he was minister of finance.

“My view is that he lost control,” Bushinsky said. “He didn’t perceive that there would be such objection in the streets and the world.”

Netanyahu spent more than a year relegated to the opposition before surging back to power in last November’s election, the country’s fifth national vote in four years. So how did a strategist known for risk avoidance and careful planning allow his triumphant restoration to be engulfed in chaos?

One of the most repeated theories raging across social media and television chat panels is that he cares less about healing the country than avoiding prosecution, and hopes the prospect of handpicked judges will help him turn aside the corruption charges that have dogged him for years – and that he is still fighting in a Jerusalem court.

Others believe the 73-year-old Netanyahu has lost a step, making him less effective in countering hard-liners in the coalition. And more than one commentator has suggested he is in the thrall of his vocal wife, Sara, and famously combative son Yair, who recently compared Israelis protesting the judicial remake to Nazi brownshirts.

“The Benjamin Netanyahu of today is not the Benjamin Netanyahu that I knew when he appointed me head of Mossad,” his former spy chief, Efraim Halevy, recently said on CNN.

None of that is right, said Ron Dermer, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States who is one of Netanyahu’s closest allies in the Likud party and now his minister of strategic affairs.

The main problem, Dermer said, is that Netanyahu’s hands have been tied by a ruling from Israel’s attorney general that the prime minister must recuse himself from the judicial controversy because he is a defendant in the justice system.

“They won’t let him lead the process,” Dermer said in an interview, asserting that Netanyahu has routinely left meetings where the issue is being discussed. “If the gag order was lifted, the chances of a compromise would go way up.”

Netanyahu would support a negotiated deal, Dermer said, perhaps one that would give the government more say in the selection of judges – if less than some coalition partners want – but also formalize some level of judicial review of Knesset activity.

“It’s not the main reason he came to office. His main focus is on Iran,” Dermer said. “But he sees judicial reform as a serious problem that needs to be resolved, and so do millions of his supporters. Still, there’s no question he’d like to see compromise.”

Netanyahu’s grip has only grown more shaky. On Thursday, hours after the parliament passed a law making it more difficult to remove him from office, Netanyahu made a prime-time address to the nation. Speculation swelled that he was ready to make a move, perhaps to pause the legislation or launch talks with the opposition.

He had just met with Gallant, who has warned that the number of reservists pledging to boycott training missions could undermine military readiness. Israel’s Finance Ministry, meanwhile, said that downgraded credit ratings and spooked investors could cost the economy more than $8 billion a year.

Undeterred, Netanyahu said that the judicial overhaul would continue, and that key parts of the package would be put to a vote in the coming days. He vowed to personally take the lead on the legislation despite the “gag order,” leading Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara to brand his involvement as “illegal and tainted by a conflict of interest.”

Hours later, he was on a plane to London, where protesters greeted him upon arrival at Downing Street.

On Saturday night in Israel, with Netanyahu still abroad and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv again packed with protesters, Gallant went public with his concerns. The turmoil was threatening Israel’s security and the legislative push should be stopped, he said in a televised statement.

Soon after Netanyahu returned on Sunday, he fired Gallant. The throngs filled the street yet again and the government itself was in turmoil.

Other Likud members signaled their discomfort with the chaos. It would only take four defectors to vote no or abstain and sink the legislation, in spite of Netanyahu’s pledge to ram it through.

“It’s hard to understand – he knows the damage that’s being done,” said Dan Ben-David, president of the Shoresh Institution and an economist at Tel Aviv University. “As the longest-serving prime minister in our history, he should be concerned with his legacy, which right now is burning down the house.”