This Editor’s Note was sent out on Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.
The Biden administration has apparently concluded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lost control of his coalition, or at the very least “is not alone” in the driver’s seat.
In fact, despite promising that his hands would be on the wheel, Netanyahu relinquished significant control of his coalition to incendiary forces from the very start of his negotiations on the government’s composition, key ministerial posts and core agenda. And the consequences — for Netanyahu and, rather more importantly, for the State of Israel — are worsening by the day.
He appointed Yariv Levin as his justice minister, and thus set in motion a legislative program to politicize and neuter the judiciary that is tearing this country apart — threatening the cohesion of the military, exacerbating Ashkenazi-Sephardi divides, undermining international confidence in the economy, prompting concern about Israel’s direction from its most important allies, and delighting our enemies.
Levin has embarrassingly acknowledged that the legislation that almost became law in late March would have been unacceptable in a democracy because it would have given the coalition control over all three branches of government. He now falsely claims to have amended it sufficiently to offset that danger, and insists it must pass in full — asserting it is essential in order to diversify the courts and rein in a purportedly biased state prosecution.
In truth, though, our judges are an increasingly diverse and representative mix, and Levin’s legislative package does not address concerns over the state prosecution; neither does it provide for the additional judges our overwhelmed court system desperately needs. Rather, it primarily aims to enable the coalition to appoint judges, and to deny the High Court the capacity to thwart abuse by the government — shattering the sensitive balance between our only two truly separate branches of government, in an Israel that has no potent legislature, no constitution, no cast-iron protection of our most basic rights, and no other safeguards against abuse by the elected majority.
That Netanyahu apparently believed the Israeli public would watch passively as our beloved, essential country — a vital place of refuge, protection and power for the Jewish nation — was separated from its foundational democratic orientation beggars belief. The fact that, having suspended Levin’s legislative blitz on the eve of its enactment three months ago, the prime minister has now set about reviving it only confirms that this once most astute of politicians has lost touch not only with his previous principled support for our independent judiciary but also with the mood and will of much of the nation.
But Netanyahu, in constructing this benighted government, did not only empower Levin to challenge our democracy. He also placed anti-democratic Jewish supremacists and theocrats at the heart of his ministerial team, normalizing them and their agendas, and he continues to bolster their power.
It was completely predictable that Itamar Ben Gvir would encourage his supporters in the settlement movement to “run for the hilltops” and seize control wherever possible in the West Bank, with the assurance of his ministerial support. The Netanyahu of two years ago knew full well that Ben Gvir, convicted in his youth of incitement and support for a terrorist organization, was not fit to serve in his coalition; now Netanyahu seems to be just about the only person surprised that the provocateur he shamefully appointed as national security minister has no interest or competence in that job, is deaf to any notion of coalition discipline, and leads a much-emboldened movement far beyond prime ministerial control.
Evidently terrified that the tiger he unleashed may turn on him, and quite certain that his own imperative to retain power is a vital Israeli interest, Netanyahu meanwhile continues to further cede authority to the anti-Arab theocrat Bezalel Smotrich, who after a terror attack in February called to “wipe out” the Palestinian village of Huwara (before repeatedly apologizing).
Last week, he transferred from Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to Smotrich the right to oversee the expansion of existing settlements. In the coalition agreements, clauses promising the Religious Zionism party leader considerable clout as a second minister in the Defense Ministry came with the careful caveat that Smotrich would act only in consultation with the prime minister or with the prime minister’s consent. Last week’s dramatic cabinet decision, expediting the process for approval of settlement home construction and giving Smotrich the controlling role, was approved without even that safeguard.
For the extremists to whom Ben Gvir and Smotrich are figureheads, for the generation of “hilltop youth” anarchists, entreaties from the security establishment not to take the law into their own hands carry no weight. As far as they are concerned, they are the law, especially in Judea and Samaria. Hence the five consecutive days of violent rampages, targeting Palestinian towns and villages, homes and fields, including with live fire, in response to the killing by Palestinian terrorists of four Israelis at the settlement of Eli last week. (While these vigilantes certainly constitute a small minority of the settlement populace, they are not tiny in number; hundreds have participated in the attacks.)
No matter that their violence hampers the IDF’s efforts to thwart relentless Palestinian terrorism; no matter the harm they do to Israel’s global reputation and cause; no matter that they are indiscriminately targeting civilians; no matter that in some cases they broke Shabbat to drive to the scenes of their crimes. Their supremacism knows no constraints — not even those of the divine power in whose name they claim to be acting.
And when the country’s security chiefs accuse them of behavior no different from that of Palestinian terrorists, Minister of Settlements and National Missions Orit Strock — another of the radicals Netanyahu unconscionably placed in ministerial office — rises up to liken the IDF chief of staff and the head of the Shin Bet and the police commissioner to the mercenaries of the Wagner Group (before repeatedly apologizing), as though the violent anarchists are the legitimate national authority and the IDF, Shin Bet and police are the obstructive mutineers. Small wonder, a day later, that a senior officer paying a condolence call to the family of one of the terror victims was chased off by friends of the victim with cries of “murderer” and “traitor” ringing in his ears. (Ben Gvir and Smotrich both condemned this incident.)
Dismally, Netanyahu has to date failed even to publicly denounce the settler rampagers in isolation, instead issuing critical declarations combining their behavior with that of Druze rioters in the Golan Heights and, inevitably, with those of the anti-overhaul protesters who frequently block Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway. For his part, Ben Gvir on Tuesday reportedly refused a plea from Defense Minister Gallant to condemn the rampagers and referred to them as “sweet kids.”
(This is the place to stress that breaching the law and democratic framework in the ostensible defense of democracy, as the former Meretz MK and deputy chief of staff Yair Golan urged Israelis to do on Tuesday — “I am calling here, within a reasonable framework, without resorting to violence, to also commit illegal acts,” he said — is not just irresponsible, divisive and utterly counterproductive; it should be unthinkable.)
In the prime minister’s narrative, the volunteer, long-serving military reservists at the forefront of the anti-overhaul protests are anarchists, illicitly challenging an elected majority — even as that elected majority is readying to exempt the entire ultra-Orthodox community from any and all military or national service. The way Netanyahu sees things, he had no choice but to ride the extremist tiger to power, and keep feeding it, because nobody else would partner him in government. And if the White House objects to his coalition and the overhaul legislation and chooses not to invite him to visit, then he’ll show Israel’s essential ally that he has other options and plan a trip to China instead, and never mind that Beijing maintains an alliance with the ayatollahs who are bent on Israel’s destruction.
Netanyahu looks at his political rivals and sees fools and weaklings. He is certain that he and only he can lead Israel. But the cost is escalating. The country is rending. And, as he really ought to know, the radicals to whom he continues to cede power are merely waiting for their moment to cast him aside.