Leadership and Consensus in Crisis
It is a common mischaracterization that the draconian judicial legislation currently being bludgeoned through the Knesset at breakneck speed is tearing Israel apart.
Actually, it has been overwhelmingly unifying. Condemnation has poured in from all over the country and around the world, from senior current and former personnel in the police, army and security services, from academics, economists and business leaders, lawyers and rabbis.
The demonstrations in Israel have been growing in size, week on week for 3 months, now numbering over 500,000 people (5% of Israel’s population), completely free of violence other than sporadic attacks by supporters of the legislation, and almost entirely law abiding. The protestors are from the left, center and right. They include Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, the secular and the religious, the “elite” and the “unwashed masses”. One of the most uplifting events of the past few weeks was the welcome given to the protestors in the Haredi city Bnei Barak. The political motivation is unimportant; the experience, even viewed vicariously on Twitter, was cathartic.
Almost nobody in Israel thinks that the current arrangement delimiting power between the Knesset and the Supreme Court is ideal, and almost nobody thinks that the proposed legislation is in any way balanced, including large numbers of its supporters.
What is tearing the nation apart, and has been for many years, is the divide and conquer strategy that has underpinned every single one of Netanyahu’s coalitions. It began with the marginalization and ostracization of each and every talented Likud politician that Netanyahu viewed as a threat to his leadership.
His rhetoric has consistently exploited grievances felt by Israelis of Mizrahi descent against the “Ashkenazi elite”, he denigrates half of the electorate as “leftists”, and his governments have always provided a bulwark against any attempts to integrate the Haredi sector in the spheres of education, employment or national service, in exchange for guaranteed support from their elected representatives.
In his early coalitions he always included at least one center or left wing party in the coalition as balance against the political ambitions of his more right wing partners. But with the onset of his legal troubles and his defiant refusal to step down from the leadership of Likud his strategy has required ever more desperate measures.
In 2020, after failing to achieve a majority in three successive elections, Netanyahu signed a coalition agreement with Benny Gantz in which his only aim was to retain the premiership for 12 more months, after which he deliberately toppled his own coalition by not passing his own budget.
After 18 months out of power he has returned to Balfour Street having assembled the most extreme government Israel has ever known, and is now threatening to dismantle Israel’s pitifully thin system of political checks and balances in brutal fashion. Against this background there have been calls for the opposition parties to display leadership and compromise, for the good of the country. In my view this would be a catastrophic mistake.
Willingness to compromise is generally a positive trait, but there is no middle ground between an independent judiciary (championed passionately by Netanyahu in the past) and one that is subordinate to the executive. “Let’s talk, and build reforms and a constitution through consensus” say the opposition parties. “Wait until we have conquered the Supreme Court”, say the coalition, “and we will then legislate some human rights. Trust us.” Unsurprisingly, that trust is in very short supply.
However, the crux of the matter is that this coup was never likely to succeed. Netanyahu may have underestimated the brazenness with which some of his colleagues have shown their hand, in the form of bills that were so extreme that they were instantly withdrawn. He may have underestimated the extent and force of the public revulsion. He may also have underestimated the likelihood of a successful rebellion from within his own party.
But he can never have been in much doubt that the legislation would have been challenged (and much of it ultimately struck down) by the Supreme Court. He and his coalition have already acted in compliance with Supreme Court decisions, such as firing Aryeh Deri from his positions as Minister of Interior and Health. More telling is that several Likud MKs who have been reluctant to imperil their political careers by criticizing either the substance of the legislation or its unseemly haste have declared that they will act in accordance with Supreme Court rulings.
The police, army, air force and security services have all indicated that in any conflict between parliament and court, the court will hold sway. Sure, Netanyahu would like to be able to evade his legal troubles via legislation, but he never thought that was likely to happen.
So for Netanyahu, the legislation, chaos, conflict, fear and internecine hatred has only ever been about cobbling together a few more months in power, just as they were with Gantz three years ago. Once again the well-being of 10 million Israeli citizens is secondary to his personal satisfaction. It may be that the government is brought down by a rebellion from within Likud. It may be that the fervent proponents of the coup finally realize that Netanyahu’s participation in the program has been largely performative, or that they simply get frustrated because their objectives have not been achieved.
The opposition parties are completely justified in leaving him to stew in his own juice, ratcheting up the pressure on the handful of Likud MKs that may have the desire to resolve the crisis. The fact that there is not a single politician in Israel that trusts Netanyahu, within or without the coalition, is a situation entirely of his own making. Anyone tempted to think, as Gantz did last time around, that for the good of the country someone should ride in to save Netanyahu from his extremist partners is making a profound miscalculation.
If last time he was prepared to let the country struggle for 2½ years without a budget, and this time he is willing to risk constitutional crisis and blood on the streets, what might he do in a similar situation the next time around?