For decades, his supporters have hailed Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister for over a fifth of this country’s lifespan, as “Bibi, king of Israel.”
The title has never been more apt than today. Back on the national political throne after a brief interregnum, Netanyahu holds extraordinary power as the head of a largely like-minded far-right coalition, and he is intent on widening his hold still further by neutering the only defense against his or any government’s excesses, the High Court of Justice. If he proves able to strip the court of its independence and capabilities, Israel will indeed be his kingdom.
As with monarchs down through the millennia, however, the accumulation of absolute power has coincided with an inability by our ruler to separate his own personal interests from those of the state, a growing certainty that he and only he can effectively lead Israel, the elimination of dissenting voices, the cultivation of a surrounding chorus of “yes” men (and very few women), and the consequent conviction that any and all means are legitimate and necessary in order to maintain his reign.
The tragedy, for the kingdom, is that Netanyahu has placed it on the path to destruction. To quote from Tuesday’s reluctant summation by our ordinarily understated president, Isaac Herzog, the judicial revolution Netanyahu is intent on blitzing through parliament threatens “to consume us all.”
Why would “King Bibi” be acting in so patently dangerous a fashion — not just demolishing the judiciary, but also empowering, at his cabinet table, criminals and homophobes and messianists and theocrats?
In large part, because prime self-interest requires that he extricate himself from his trial, and in so doing defeat the ostensible leftist Ashkenazi elites — in the police, the state prosecution, the media and politics — that combined their energies to have him investigated, indicted and placed in the dock for crimes he is adamant he did not commit and actions that he is insistent were not criminal.
The way he sees it, the successors to those same elites that conspired against his father in academia sought to sabotage him in what he has often termed a political coup. They even briefly succeeded. But now he is restored to power, intent on having the last word, and has persuaded himself — with no little input from his own closest family — that his success will be Israel’s success.
A staged plan
His initial emissary is the geeky obsessive he sidelined for years, now unleashed as his justice minister, Yariv Levin. Just six days after the coalition had taken office, Levin was sent out to present his long-formulated, laughably misnamed “reform” proposals — a four-point plan to ensure that our justices cannot protect Israelis from abuse by the governing coalition. Far from being a good-faith, legitimate effort to carefully and consensually adjust the sensitive balance between executive and judiciary, it constitutes an imposed, rapidly enacted revolution in the way Israel is governed, giving almost unlimited power to the political majority.
As Levin noted, however, those proposals are only the “first stage” of the remaking of Israel’s governance. Subsequent phases, it is readily acknowledged, will include the oft-discussed splitting of the two roles of Israel’s attorney general — as chief adviser to the government and as head of the state prosecution.
While Levin’s first-stage overhaul is devastating in its consequences for Israeli democracy, the idea of splitting the attorney general’s responsibilities between two officials is not without merit. But for Netanyahu, bent on escaping his trial, it offers the perfect exit route. For a carefully chosen chief prosecutor would be entitled to reexamine the charges against the prime minister and reliably expected by his appointers to conclude that Netanyahu has no reasonable case to answer. An independent, capable High Court might well have other ideas; but Levin’s “first stage,” if implemented, will have ensured that there is no independent, capable High Court.
Younger, energetic, disingenuous allies
Likud’s partners in government have every interest in assisting Netanyahu — because he empowers them, because he serves their interests and because they have their own beefs with those interfering justices. The court won’t let the ultra-Orthodox parties fully codify in law their discriminatory broad exemption from military service; it won’t let the far-right legalize settlements built on private Palestinian land; it protects against anti-Arab racism and anti-LGBTQ discrimination; it bars recidivist criminals from ministerial office.
Netanyahu is no military adventurer. He is no theocrat. He recognizes the importance of close ties with the United States, and that they hinge on the intimacy that only two democracies can share. He served for years within the clear chain of command in the IDF and knows the life-and-death significance of that clarity. He does not subscribe to a supremacist Judaism. A secular Jew, he is not contemptuous of non-Orthodox Judaism and does not seek to gratuitously alienate the Diaspora. He has taken immense and justified pride in the fact that Israel is able to serve as a dependable refuge for all who are persecuted as Jews, no matter whether they meet the halachic designation of Jewishness. He nurtured Israel’s astounding tech sector and understands better than almost anyone how crucial it is to the economy, and by extension to Israel’s very capacity to protect itself from its enemies. And he appreciates the value of an independent High Court — for protecting rights within Israel, and as a bulwark against Israel’s powerful external critics, especially as regards Israeli policies on the Palestinians.
In one way or another, to some degree or other, his various coalition allies hold to entirely different positions on one or more of these issues. They are not all tolerant in their Judaism. They are certainly not all democrats. They are not all Zionists.
But he needs them to defenestrate the judicial system, “re-balance” the branches of governance in his favor, and put an end to his trial.
And ultimately — even as he funds the ultra-Orthodox school and yeshiva networks that undermine the workforce; even as pro-theocracy decisions and bills proliferate, on everything from limiting vital infrastructure work on Shabbat to funding gender-separated public events to barring hametz (leavened goods) from hospitals on Passover; even as his coalition deals provide for anti-Arab and anti-LGBTQ discrimination — he claims he can constrain their more outrageous proclivities. He’s King Bibi, after all.
And yet you can be certain that the Aryeh Deris, Bezalel Smotrichs and Itamar Ben Gvirs — energized, relentless, younger — believe, even as they disingenuously kiss his metaphorical ring, that they will have the last word.
A less complacent, arrogant and ineffectual opposition might have prevented the November 1 election result that gave Netanyahu and these allies so decisive a majority when the popular vote was a near 50-50 split.
An earlier iteration of his own Likud would have resisted the betrayal of the liberal, democratic principles championed by the leader who first brought the party to power, Menachem Begin. But the Begins, father and son, are gone, and so too the Meridors and even the Steinitzes, leaving only the Dichters and Barkats, who should know better, and a collection of fresher ambitious faces often indistinguishable from their allies further to the right, with any internal dissent easily quietened by the promise of a meaningless ministry or marginal committee chairmanship.
What to do
And so it falls to the Israeli public majority — those who voted against these coalition parties, and those who backed them but have come to oppose major aspects of their agenda — to try to thwart the monarchy, to utilize any and all legal means to avert this unfolding tragedy. To protect the High Court, which so far shows no signs of a willingness to pack up and go home. To demonstrate not in the tens of thousands, but in the hundreds of thousands.
The effort is already in full swing. The lawyers are sending their warning letters, likewise the university heads and the bankers and the economists. The techies are protesting, warning of a brain drain.
Diaspora Jewish leaders, often commendably reluctant to intervene in Israeli affairs, must internalize that, again to quote Herzog, the destiny of our remarkable country, the global Jewish people’s homeland, is at stake. And they should use such leverage as they can muster to effectively convey their concerns.
And so, too, our international allies, led by the United States, who need to demonstrate their friendship and protect their interests by highlighting the consequences for our intimate reciprocal alliance if the underpinning values are no longer shared.
“The democratic foundations of Israel, including the justice system, and human rights and freedoms, are sacred, and we must protect them and the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence,” urged our president, who was elected in 2021 by an unprecedented consensus of 87 of the 120 Knesset members, precisely the kind of consensus that should guide any responsible effort to genuinely “reform” the core components of our democracy.
“I fear that we are on the brink of an internal struggle that could consume us all,” warned Herzog on Tuesday. “The absence of dialogue is tearing us apart from within, and I’m telling you loud and clear: This powder keg is about to explode. This is an emergency.”
“During the reigns of the House of David and the Hasmoneans,” Herzog went on, “Jewish states were established in the land of Israel, and twice they collapsed before reaching their 80th anniversary.”
This must not be allowed to happen in the age of King Bibi.