Photo illustration by John Lyman

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Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The Knesset’s summer session began this week, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself facing a number of seemingly unresolvable dilemmas. The biggest one is the fate of his proposed judicial overhaul, which he put on pause while Israel got through Passover and its spate of national civic holidays but whose ultimate disposition now needs to be decided. But Netanyahu also needs to arbitrate coming fights over the budget, which needs to be passed by the end of the month or the Knesset will automatically dissolve, and in a related challenge, he has to make a decision on how to handle the expiration of the Haredi exemption from the IDF draft, set to occur at the end of July.

None of these questions have good answers when viewed from the angle of Netanyahu’s political interests, and they raise questions about the durability of his government, which took office four months ago as one of the most ideologically cohesive in recent Israeli history and with a comfortable Knesset buffer.

The widespread assumption is that the government’s original vision for judicial overhaul is dead, and that if Netanyahu and his allies want something to pass, they have no choice but to pivot to a pared-down version of what they had proposed. Netanyahu, generally respected by all sides for his superior political instincts and acknowledged by all sides as a historically cautious prime minister, made a series of disastrous miscalculations with his proposals to remake Israel’s judiciary and reconfigure the balance of power between the Knesset and the courts.

One mistake was assuming that since a majority of Israelis favor some sort of judicial reform, the government would be able to push through any version that it wanted with minimal opposition. The proposals that were released were the most extreme versions for each issue, and while there were mixed signals as to whether this was a negotiating tactic or reflected the sincere wishes of the government on substance, it easily engendered mass opposition by creating a perception that they were driven by revolutionary zealotry rather than a desire to sensibly rebalance the powers of different branches.

A second mistake was the speed at which Netanyahu and his allies moved. Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced the overhaul package less than a week into the government’s tenure, and Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee Chair Simcha Rothman then advanced the package at unprecedented speed. The stated intention was to have the entire thing wrapped up and passed into law by Passover, which by design meant no role for debate, introspection, compromise, or negotiations, let alone sufficient time to explain to the Israeli public what was at stake and to acclimate them to what would be enormous shifts in how Israeli governing institutions operate. The tactics made it seem as if the government was trying to create a fait accompli before anyone could object, which itself seemed suspicious irrespective of the proposals’ substance.

A third mistake, and the one that most leaves Netanyahu in his present precarious position, was empowering the most extreme voices on the judicial overhaul issue, which not only associated the entire enterprise with a radical bent but ceded power to the people least willing to now back down or provide Netanyahu with any political breathing room. Netanyahu handed the reins to Levin, who is popular enough in his own right in Likud to push back on Netanyahu after having come in first in the most recent party primary, and to Rothman and Bezalel Smotrich, who hail not only from the coalition’s most ideological and far-right fringe but who are least susceptible to Netanyahu’s power or entreaties.

These factors combined to take an issue that was not at the top of Israeli voters’ concerns or at the top of Likud supporters’ concerns and turn it into a new lightning rod that managed to divide not the coalition from the opposition, but the coalition internally. And Netanyahu is now left, having placed his bets on a deeply unpopular set of proposals, watching his coalition’s poll numbers, his party’s poll numbers, and his personal poll numbers compared to Benny Gantz and to a lesser extent Yair Lapid drop like a lead balloon. It is hard to envision Netanyahu contemplating pushing things forward at full speed in such a political environment, particularly when factoring in the inevitable subsequent resumption of general strikes, reservist resignations and absences, and diplomatic and economic pressure from overseas.

Yet despite this, Netanyahu remains under pressure not only from those outside his camp, but from those inside it. And this is directly related to the third mistake highlighted above. Smotrich and Rothman are not concerned with Likud’s poll numbers, Netanyahu’s poll numbers, and not even with the right-wing camp’s poll numbers as much as they should be. Smotrich did not join the government just to be in the government, but to accomplish a specific set of objectives, many of which require the judicial overhaul to first be in place.

The 200,000 protesters who converged outside the Knesset on Thursday—and who were regaled with speeches from Levin, Smotrich, and Rothman—were there to put pressure on the government to keep up the charge, and many of them appeared to come from Religious Zionism’s pool of voters. The factors that are impacting Netanyahu’s internal calculus do not translate to the same calculus for everyone in his coalition, and that is particularly true for the group that has raised the banner of judicial overhaul the highest.

The conventional wisdom is that because the poll numbers for the parties that make up the coalition are currently so dismal, there is no chance of anyone bolting and risking early elections until things begin to stabilize. After all, if this government were to collapse any time soon, the right would be wiped out in a historic fall, going from its current 64 seats to as few as 48, if polling is to be believed. I do not, however, share this conventional wisdom. The political incentives for Smotrich should the judicial overhaul be stopped or weakened to the point of unrecognition are not to stick around, but to abandon ship.

His voters are not satisfied with a uniformly right-wing government that does not implement the uniformly right-wing policies that they want to see, and Smotrich can only be placated for so long. Both his ideological convictions and his political calculations will soon dictate that he leave this government behind and become a strident critic from the right if Netanyahu does not follow through on his maximalist judicial overhaul pledges. Smotrich’s argument will be that in the next election, the only way to truly ensure that right-wing voters get the right-wing policies they voted for is to hand Religious Zionism an even bigger share of the right-wing national camp. And while Smotrich should be Netanyahu’s biggest internal political concern, he will also have to keep an eye on Levin and his potentially harnessing a group of Likudniks to challenge Netanyahu’s hold on the party if the judicial overhaul is made to wither and die on the vine.

Netanyahu and much of Likud may be afraid of elections because of the political danger, and the Haredim may be afraid of what an alternative government will mean for their policy priorities. But that does not mean that everyone in the coalition prioritizes holding things together at any cost. Israeli politics and Israeli parties—particularly on the right—have changed over the past decade, becoming far more ideological and organizing themselves around a different axis than in the past. Netanyahu now has to maneuver between a majority of Israeli voters who find his program too extreme, and a minority of coalition partners and Israeli voters who find his wavering not extreme enough. That does not point to a government whose unpopularity makes it uncommonly stable, but to a government that may be gone by the start of next year’s Knesset summer session.

This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.