Broken Bibi is powerless as Israel tears itself apart

Part of the judicial reform bill passed into law this week, but the prime minister has never looked more beleaguered


Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and minister of Defense Yoav Galant attend a vote on the reasonableness bill at the assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on July 24, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** כנסת מליאה נאום הצבעה יריב לוין חוק יסוד השפיטה הצבעה קריאה ראשונה יואב גלנט ראש הממשלה בנימין נתניהו ביבי

July 27, 2023 12:00

The most revealing photograph of the week in Israel showed Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Justice Minister Yariv Levin locked in angry argument just before the third reading of the bill to eliminate the “Reasonableness Standard”, the law at the heart of the protests that rocked the country.

Between them sits a silent, sad-looking prime minister.

It may yet come to be seen as a defining image, one that captured the twilight of Benjamin Netanyahu’s long political career.

One Likud MK admitted that it was “an awful picture”. He said: “Bibi should have never allowed the argument to take place in the open, with the entire nation watching on television. Yariv and Yoav should have worked things out in advance. They are all to blame.”

From next week, none of the three will have to go back to the Knesset for two-and-a-half months, unless there’s an emergency session. But none have much of a summer holiday to look forward to.

Levin, who emerged victorious from this round — the law he backed passed, despite the last-minute delaying efforts by the two men sitting beside him — is planning the next round of legislation. Anxiously counting up the coalition MKs, he still hopes they will continue supporting his “legal reform”, which aims to limit the power of the judiciary.

Levin knows that it will be much harder to muster a majority for the next round. Gallant is not the only one counselling caution. In recent days, the strictly-Orthodox parties have all published calls to reconsider the rest of the legislation.

Netanyahu, when he’s not receiving reports on the international financial institutions threatening to downgrade Israel’s economy, will be engaged in frustrating talks with the White House, in the hope of finally getting some face-time with President Joe Biden.

Even if he doesn’t get an actual invitation to Washington, he hopes — at least — for a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. He will be kept waiting for an answer and may even cancel his trip to New York, rather than be humiliated.

All that comes after he underwent emergency surgery to fit a pacemaker last weekend, amid a belated admission from his doctors that he has been suffering cardiac irregularities for years now.

Gallant will spend long days and nights in the Defence Ministry tower in Tel Aviv, overlooking both Kaplan Street and Ayalon Highway while protesters grapple with police, trying to work out whether he needs to scale back IDF operations because of a lack of reservist officers.

I asked one former general about the decision by thousands of reservists to suspend voluntary service over the judicial reforms.

He said: “As a staunch supporter of the protest against the government, I want to talk about how brave and principled those reservists are. As a former member of the IDF General Staff, who knows the situation right now in some of the army’s most vital organs, I can’t say just what an impact it has had.”

He was torn. As a civilian, he has been in protesting on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street and Ayalon Highway. But he is still a frequent visitor to the twin tower block housing the Defence Ministry and IDF General Staff headquarters, looming over those streets where protesters — many of them until recently soldiers and officers in the IDF’s most elite units — fought the police.

He sits on discreet committees and his advice is sought by the current generals, many of whom once served under him.

If you had told him eight months ago that he and many of his former comrades would have come out in support of the widest wave of departures from reserve service in the history of the IDF, there’s a good chance you would have discovered that a man in his late sixties can still cause you grievous bodily harm.

But nothing is inconceivable anymore. Whatever one thinks of their actions, the reservists now refusing to serve are the true backbone of Israeli security.

Changing from civilian clothes to their well-worn uniforms and heading off to base was a core part of their lives. Which is why in all its official statements, the IDF has been scrupulous in addressing them in the most courteous of tones.

“It’s an impossible situation,” said a veteran air-force officer of his commanders’ dilemma.

“On the one hand, they can’t legitimise what is happening [suspension of service]. On the other, they know exactly how much we rely on these guys and we can’t risk burning bridges with them.”

It’s impossible to assess from the numbers of those who have signed the open letters and petitions what impact it will exactly have on the IDF’s readiness. It isn’t clear how many of them will actually follow through with their threat not to turn up, and when.

How many are already not showing up? Who will wait for more laws to pass? What about those who haven’t signed a letter but are considering ending their service? And, of course, every reservist has a different role.

Pilots with active flight status fly on training and operational missions once a week. Most ground-force reservists only serve once a year for a few weeks. In some cases, just a dozen or so officers discontinuing their service can paralyse an entire squadron or special unit.

If it’s more widespread, the army and air force could ride it out for a while, but the accumulation could be disastrous in the medium term. For now, the IDF’s official line is that it is ready to carry out any mission. There is no other line it could take. But the generals are anxiously monitoring the situation.

Channel 12 had intriguing poll on Tuesday night. Thirty-three per cent said the government’s judicial legislation should be cancelled altogether. Another 29 per cent said it should only be passed in agreement with the opposition. Only 22 per cent were in favour of pressing ahead unilaterally. Sixteen per cent were in the “don’t know” column.
That’s 62 per cent of Israelis against the coalition going ahead unilaterally.

The ratio of 62-22 is very similar to the surveys taken 18 years ago, on the eve of the disengagement from Gaza, when just over 60 per cent supported the plan and just over 20 per cent were dead against.

Many on both sides of the debate feel that the coalition’s campaign to weaken the Supreme Court is “revenge” for the eviction of the 8,000 Israeli settlers from Gaza.

There’s another way to read the Channel 12 poll. Fifty-one per cent of Israelis would still like to see constitutional change, even though most of them want it to be only through broad consensus. Those 29 per cent of Israelis who want both change and consensus will decide the next election, when it happens.

They are the reason Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party is on 30 seats in some polls and could go higher. And why Netanyahu will do all he can to hold on to his coalition and prevent an early election.

July 27, 2023 12:00

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive