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Some Unsolicited Advice for Bibi, Benny, and Biden

In the wake of his badly miscalculated announcement that he was firing Defense Minister Yoav Galant—an announcement that has not yet even been formally implemented—and the ensuing spontaneous midnight protests, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed away from the edge of the precipice to which he had driven his government and temporarily halted his judicial overhaul process. While the bills to change the judicial selection committee, remove the Supreme Court’s oversight authority over Basic Laws, and limit judicial oversight over legislation writ large have been frozen until after Passover and Israel’s national holidays, the larger issue is far from over.

Netanyahu, the leaders of the opposition, and particularly Benny Gantz, and President Joe Biden all have decisions to make about how best to shape the next few weeks. At the risk of enormous presumption, here is some unsolicited but free advice for all three of these players on how to maneuver in a way that protects their basic interests while also moving toward an outcome that will be best for Israeli democracy and U.S.-Israel relations.

Netanyahu: Reassess where your political interests lie

It is impossible to say with certainty how much of what has transpired over the past three months has been orchestrated by Netanyahu and how much has been Yariv Levin, Simcha Rothman, and Bezalel Smotrich dragging Netanyahu further than he initially intended to go. But it is no coincidence that Netanyahu is at his weakest point politically in nearly two full decades—eclipsed only by his leading Likud to a meager 12 Knesset seats after Ariel Sharon took most of the party with him to Kadima—after forming a coalition with nobody but the Haredim and parties whose extremism in government is unparalleled.

The polls this week that show just how far the coalition has fallen politically during this fiasco also show that the bulk of the drop is in Likud, while Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit, and the Haredim are either treading water or suffering slight losses as their more ideological and more hardline constituencies don’t care quite as much about the rising levels of chaos. Most polls this week have Likud down to 25 seats from its current 32, with some reflecting preferences for both Gantz and Yair Lapid as prime minister over Netanyahu, the first time this has happened in any matchup involving Netanyahu since he reentered the prime minister’s office in 2009.

If Netanyahu’s hands have indeed been on the wheel in relation to his coalition partners since January, then he is in Thelma and Louise territory. If an election were held today, his power relative to Smotrich would be even less than it is now, and there is no conceivable scenario in which continuing along the path that he just temporarily interrupted will end well for him. Leaving aside the crisis he caused in the IDF, the economic warnings, and the general strike on Monday, the downturn in ties with the Biden administration, and the potential systemic meltdown that will occur if the Supreme Court strikes down the legislation designed to bring it under the government’s thumb, there is nothing but political downside for him on the road ahead. His own Likud ministers and MKs are watching the polling numbers with horror, the overhaul proposals are underwater with Likud voters, and he is making the right-wing pie smaller while also reducing Likud’s share of what is left.

Israelis protesting against Netanyahu's judicial reforms
Israelis protesting against Netanyahu’s judicial reforms. (Oren Rozen/Wikimedia)

No matter what happens next, Smotrich benefits. If the legislation passes, his voters will be happiest, and if it is shelved entirely, Smotrich will benefit from his voters’ fury. Netanyahu cannot control that, but he can control what happens in his camp, with Likudniks looking elsewhere or staying home in the first scenario but more of them continuing to trust Netanyahu if he stops things. If Netanyahu agrees to watered-down reforms that the opposition can live with and Smotrich bolts from the government, Netanyahu can either go to new elections from a place where he has recovered some of his strength, or he can jettison Smotrich and form a government with one or more of the opposition parties, which is how he has historically operated. Picking right back up in late April or early May where he left off though will end up being his political downfall. If he is still thinking clearly, he’ll recognize what just happened as an operation that badly failed and is unsalvageable.

Gantz: Don’t be Lucy with the football

After more than three years of closely watching Gantz as a politician, two things jump out. One, he genuinely tries to put Israel above all else, and two, his readings of the political environment are very flawed. He formed a unity government with Netanyahu after the third election because he believed that it was necessary to get Israel through the COVID crisis, and he equally believed that he was actually going to get a rotation as prime minister. He was not alone in the first assessment, but he may have been the only person in the entire country who was confident in the second one. His instincts handed Netanyahu another term as prime minister while fracturing the Blue and White party and costing Gantz his spot as the alternative to Netanyahu, a spot that he has been desperately trying to recover ever since, including during the last election when his campaign materials absurdly billed him as a candidate for prime minister.

Gantz’s National Unity Party (his current political vehicle) has skyrocketed in the latest polls, nearly doubling its current Knesset seats. Combined with the fact that Israel is now going through the worst crisis in its history, it lends itself to another potential Gantz miscalculation where he gives Netanyahu a lifeline in a situation where it isn’t warranted. Gantz has been the main beneficiary of Likud voters fleeing, likely due to some combination of positioning himself as the reasonable interlocutor and being more palatable to right-wing and religious voters than Lapid. But these voters are deeply unhappy with Netanyahu and his current approach, so agreeing to a lopsided deal on the judicial overhaul on the theory that Israelis are simply looking for compromise, irrespective of what that compromise actually entails, would be a mistake.

Netanyahu knows Gantz’s weak spots full well. His citing Gantz positively in his speech on Monday was expressly designed to appeal to Gantz’s ego, drive a wedge between him and Lapid, and ultimately set Gantz up to feel as if he has no alternative but to once again save the country. Netanyahu also knows that Gantz and his fellow party member MK Gadi Eisenkot will do nearly anything to prevent the IDF from crumbling internally, which makes them even more likely to affix their seals of approval to a deal that looks like a compromise but is mere window-dressing. Gantz needs to be on permanent watch for all of this if he does not want to end up under Netanyahu’s rear wheels yet again.

Biden: Don’t really trust, and absolutely verify

The Biden administration’s approach to Netanyahu was not the decisive factor in this temporary reprieve, but it absolutely raised the pressure on Netanyahu in influencing him to shift course. Being frozen out of Washington, having his ambassador summoned to the State Department for what everyone knows was an official reprimand no matter what it was called, and constant statements from both the White House and the State Department cautioning Netanyahu to rethink things exposed any claims he tried to make about everything being business as usual. The worst thing that Biden could do now would be to let up before U.S. concerns get resolved, and those are not limited to the judicial overhaul.

It is easy to forget amidst the high drama of the past week that in the last couple of months, the Netanyahu government has retroactively legalized illegal outposts, made the largest single announcement of settlement units in Israeli history, repealed the disengagement law as it applies to the northern West Bank while claiming that doing so did not actually violate understandings with the U.S., and following both the Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh summits directly repudiated or violated the spirit of understandings brokered by and reached with the U.S.

All of that is on top of American concerns about the nature of Israeli democracy, and without even accounting for the particularly ugly dog whistle in Netanyahu’s Monday night address when he thanked the pro-overhaul protesters who showed up in real numbers for the first time and described them as coming “spontaneously, unorganized and unfinanced.” For those who missed the reference, it was a nod to the fallacious conspiracy theory that the massive Israeli protests over the past 12 weeks have been organized and funded by the Biden administration as a way of carrying out a coup against Netanyahu.

Netanyahu is still completely ignoring U.S. requests on multiple fronts. He has not actually stopped the overhaul—in fact, the final version of the judicial selection committee bill was filed for a second and third reading after Netanyahu spoke, meaning that it can now be passed into law at any time with only 24 hours’ notice—and is unquestionably going to try to use this period to blunt the protests and the reservists’ revolt and pick up where things left off after weeks of putative negotiations that are really a delay tactic. He is going to urge counter-protestors to take to the streets to confront the original protestors, which will result in ugly scenes of violence if their behavior on Sunday and Monday was a preview of coming attractions.

Until Netanyahu actually plays ball rather than saying he will play ball, the administration should not change its approach one iota. Netanyahu’s invite to the White House should remain in deep freeze, Biden should continue to speak out as he did on Tuesday, and nobody should assume that Netanyahu is being responsive to U.S. concerns and entreaties until he proves it with deeds. Netanyahu tweeted in response to Biden that Israel is a sovereign country that does not make its decisions based on pressure from abroad, which is well within Israel’s right.

The corollary, of course, is that the same freedom of decision-making works for the U.S. too, and Biden should continue to wait for Netanyahu to change course—and not only on judicial overhaul issues—before preemptively rewarding him for doing so.

This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.