Benjamin Netanyahu may not realize it yet, but his gamble against political odds is over. Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who was re-elected in November despite an ongoing corruption case and who even his rivals labeled a political wizard, is out of tricks. That overthrow may not be imminent, but his coalition of ultranationalists, religious fundamentalists and just the corrupt is losing its moral legitimacy, even with a growing number of its voters.
Netanyahu’s fatal mistake was the dismissal of his Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday for urging the government to stop its judicial revolution — a law that would undermine the independence of Israel’s Supreme Court and destroy the nation’s fragile system of check and balance and governance would effectively focus in the hands of the prime minister. Noting the deepening rift within the Army over the plan and the growing protest movement among Army reservists who are refusing to serve, Gallant warned that the nation’s security was at risk.
By firing Gallant and ignoring his warning, Netanyahu put loyalty to himself above loyalty to the country. As Iran nears nuclear threshold, possibly within weeks, even as Palestinian terror attacks ramp up and Hezbollah probes weaknesses in Israel’s northern border defenses, perhaps in preparation for the next war, Netanyahu is leading the erosion of military cohesion. The man who convinced the Israelis that only he was tough and smart enough to protect Israel in the Middle East has betrayed Israeli security.
Immediately after Netanyahu announced Gallant’s sacking, tens of thousands of young people gathered in the streets, blocking traffic and lighting bonfires throughout the night. Their ranks and a general strike continue to grow as I write today. Meanwhile, several members of Netanyahu’s Likud party in the Knesset declared their support for suspending his judicial legislation and instead negotiating reforms with the opposition. For the first time, Netanyahu’s grip on his party had faltered.
In a national speech Monday night in Israel, the prime minister announced a temporary halt to legislation.
Netanyahu’s miscalculation was to assume that the Israeli public would acquiesce in his transparent attempt to extricate himself from his legal woes – he faces multiple charges – by embarking on the most far-reaching legal transformation in the nation’s history. Instead, a stunning protest movement has sprung up spontaneously since January, initially attracting tens of thousands and now hundreds of thousands in weekly demonstrations across the country.
By simultaneously attacking liberal Israelis on multiple fronts – from weakening democracy to bolstering ultra-Orthodox power to indulgence in political corruption and condoning growing settler violence – this administration left large numbers of Israelis disenfranchised and disenfranchised felt desperate.
Netanyahu resorted to the divisive political strategy that has served him in the past and sought to delegitimize the protesters, denouncing them as anarchists and leftists, by which he meant not patriots. His son Yair went a step further and called the demonstrators Nazis. Meanwhile, some Netanyahu supporters began physically attacking protesters without being reprimanded by the prime minister.
But this time the usual tactics didn’t work. There is no more patriotic protest movement than this pro-Israel democracy movement, led by veterans of the country’s toughest combat units and whose symbol is the Israeli flag. Even more than anger at Netanyahu, the strongest emotion felt among the protesters is an overwhelming love for Israel and fear for its future.
The man who came to power as the guardian of Israeli patriotism was defeated by a patriot movement.
Netanyahu’s tragedy is that, at the end of his long political career, he is now jeopardizing his own most precious legacy. The leader who presided over Israel’s high-tech revolution is endangering Israel’s economy with his judicial ruthlessness as tech companies consider relocating abroad and leading economists warn of looming catastrophe.
Thanks to the Abraham Accords, initiated by the Trump administration and endorsed by Netanyahu, Israel established ties with four Arab countries, effectively ending the Arab world’s siege of the Jewish state. But by including extreme anti-Arab parties in his coalition, he is jeopardizing the durability of these agreements.
No world leader has done more to draw international attention to the threat of Iran’s nuclearization. Netanyahu’s solemn vow was that the Jewish state would never allow a regime that promotes Holocaust denial and is dedicated to the destruction of Israel to acquire nuclear weapons. Yet Netanyahu’s justice plan has left Israel and its army distracted and divided. If Iran acquires the bomb, so will Netanyahu’s legacy.
There is something Biblical about Benjamin Netanyahu’s tragedy. Followers often greet him with an ancient Hebrew song that celebrates King David but replaces Netanyahu’s nickname: “Bibi, King of Israel!”
No doubt Bibi was tempted to compare himself to David, the greatest king of ancient Israel. But in an interview with journalist Bari Weiss shortly after being elected to his fifth term last fall, Netanyahu inadvertently revealed a darker foreboding about his place in history. When asked about his favorite biblical character, Netanyahu replied, “King Saul. He was tragic.”
Saul, the first king of Israel, ended his reign in defeat, half insane and in disgrace, replaced by the upstart David. Netanyahu, the most talented and ambitious leader of his generation of Israeli politicians, could have been another David. Instead, as more and more sections of Israeli society turn against him and his heroic story turns from savior to destroyer, it is the specter of Saul that haunts his end.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and the author of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2023-03-27/israel-protests-benjamin-netanyahu-judicial-legislation Opinion: The fall of Benjamin Netanyahu