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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit
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The folly of hubris: Bibi, Levin, Rotman – and Putin

Had Israel's right been less prideful and more strategic, they might have averted the current uproar altogether
Protesters estimated by organizers to number 145,000 rally in central Tel Aviv, on February 11, 2023, against controversial legal reforms being touted by the country's far-right government. (Screenshot of drone footage; used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)
Protesters estimated by organizers to number 145,000 rally in central Tel Aviv, on February 11, 2023, against controversial legal reforms being touted by the country's far-right government. (Screenshot of drone footage; used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

As the title above could lead to misunderstanding, let me be clear up front: there is no (I repeat: no!) moral equivalence between the Israeli triumvirate and Vladimir Putin. Yet there is a political psychology parallel between these four leaders: hubris.

“Hubris” is best understood as excessive self-confidence or pride. The former trait leads people into doing things without the necessary forethought; the latter, prevents them from admitting their mistake until it’s too late (or never).

Putin had both. Given his close-to-totalitarian regime (certainly uber-authoritarian), information flow from bottom-to-top was (and seemingly continues to be) seriously deficient. No one is willing to tell the emperor that his country (or at least, military) has no clothes –figuratively, and according to some reports, literally too! Given a serious lack of information, or worse – lots of misinformation – it is easy to become overly self-confident about one’s own capabilities, in this case Russian military prowess. Invading the Ukraine was and continues to be a military debacle, a geo-political disaster, and a moral travesty all rolled into one. Nevertheless, Putin’s hubristic pride has not let him concede his “misadventure” and cut his country’s staggering losses: military, economic, and geo-strategic.

Israel’s ruling trio pushing Judicial Reform (or “Revolution,” if you wish) also have a large dose of hubris. Given the Right’s electoral victory, their self-confidence has blinded them to the forcefulness of public pushback. Indeed, had they been a lot more “strategic” in their strategy, the current uproar might never have occurred – and certainly not with the widespread outrage that it has elicited. Normal policymaking entails “salami tactics” (what in Israel is called “parah, parah” – one cow at a time), in this case first working on the judicial court appointments law, and only after successfully passing that, then moving to the next law e.g., denying the Court veto, and continuing with one further legislative step at a time. But their hubris was such that they thought they could ram through the entire package in one go (actually, they have hinted that there’s even more coming up the pike).

Whether that will succeed is doubtful. At this moment the trio is caught in a vise – between their own hubristic “pride” (can’t back down now!) and the massive pressure coming from every conceivable direction: huge, weekly protest demonstrations around the country, including many right-wing supporters (kippah-wearing and secular);  the shekel is tanking; Israeli high-tech companies are considering moving some of their cash overseas and many high tech workers have begun looking at the possibility of “relocation” overseas; hundreds of IDF volunteer reservists have stated that they will not continue to serve if these laws are passed; virtually every leading world and Israeli economist (many strong right-wing supporters in the past) has warned about the legislation’s dire economic consequences; ditto the world’s leading constitutional law professors, including such strong Bibi advocates as Prof. Alan Dershowitz; the present governor of the Bank of Israel (a personal Bibi appointment) has issued a similar warning, as have a few others from the past; and perhaps most damning of all: former Israeli attorney generals (here too, most of whom were appointed by Netanyahu) have come out strongly against such “judicial reform” – with the most recent, Avichai Mandelblit, even calling for the Supreme Court to veto such legislation should it pass!

Actually, the hubris of Israel’s trio leadership can be divided into two stages. Levin and Rotman have for the first time tasted real power and feel that anything goes. Levin continues to argue that, with 64 democratically elected members of Knesset, they can legitimately pass anything they see fit, but this week he went a step further, claiming that the majority of the country supports this legislation – patently untrue for anyone following Israel’s frequent polls on the subject, showing an outright majority against these laws, a bit more than a quarter in favor, and the rest undecided. As with Putin, hubris can also create leadership blind spots even in democracies.

PM Netanyahu’s hubris occurred much earlier – in the middle of the past decade when he allegedly (no court conviction yet) committed several crimes, almost surely due to his feeling that as a long-running PM he was “above the law,” or at least “won’t be found out,” or “they wouldn’t dare indict me.” That earlier hubristic self-confidence is the cause for the present political brouhaha. How do we know that? In 2012, Bibi actually stated publicly that he would not allow any clipping of the Supreme Court’s authority (even back then Levin was pushing for such a policy), because “rights cannot be protected without strong, independent courts.” The difference (180-degree turnaround) between 2012 and 2022-23? Bibi’s desperate desire to escape judicial conviction.

The Greeks in ancient times considered hubris to be a fatal flaw that brought tragedy upon heroes, and in most cases death. In Putin’s case, human death is all around; Bibi, Levin, and Rotman are leading either to the demise of their government or the death of Israeli democracy – unless they can give up their hubristic pride and listen to the dire warnings of everyone around them: the Israeli public at large as well as experts around the world in every relevant field. Putin at least never got the correct information he needed before invading the Ukraine; that cannot be said for the current Israeli troika, rendering their decision-making even more spectacularly mistaken.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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