Will domestic politics stymie Netanyahu’s diplomatic goals?

INSIDE POLITICS: THERE is a huge dissonance between Netanyahu’s optimist vision for Israel’s foreign relations and his government’s plans to change the country from within.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting last week in Jerusalem. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting last week in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

In almost all of his public addresses since the November 1 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has constantly set two ambitious diplomatic goals: stopping Iran’s nuclear program and expanding the Abraham Accords to achieve what he describes as “the big prize” – peace with Saudi Arabia.

“It’s time to close ranks between Israel and the United States. I think there is more of a meeting of the minds today than there has ever been,” he told AIPAC this week on Iran via videoconference, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s office. On expanding the circle of peace he explained that he is “optimistic” because Arab leaders “now see us as partners, not enemies.”

Dermer lays out government's primary goals on Iran and regional peace

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s No. 1 confidant and diplomat, Ron Dermer, landed in Washington this week for the first time in his new role as strategic affairs minister. Speaking in Miami, Dermer laid out the government’s primary objectives on Iran and regional peace.

“Israel will be the most important ally of the US in the 21st century,” he told his audience.

 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen visiting IDF's Northern Command, on January 10, 2023. (credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen visiting IDF's Northern Command, on January 10, 2023. (credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)

Otherwise known as Netanyahu’s alter ego, Dermer is a longtime key player in the premier’s foreign policy visions and strategies, but he has always advised behind the scenes. This time, he’s been upgraded to the ministerial level, not only as a sign of gratitude for his loyalty and devotion, but also signaling Netanyahu’s diplomatic priorities and grandiose plans for his sixth term.

The prime minister has charged Dermer with the top strategic files – Iran, the Abraham Accords and the US-Israel alliance, making him the de facto foreign minister, while the official foreign minister, Eli Cohen, was handed the leftovers. Netanyahu has also appointed former Likud minister Tzachi Hanegbi as his national security adviser, adding another prominent and relatively moderate voice to his geostrategic team, which, besides Dermer, includes Defense Minister Yoav Gallant as well.

In the security cabinet, the prime minister has surrounded his new, inexperienced and extremist partners Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir with an overwhelming majority of tamed and disciplined Likud ministers, ensuring major policy decisions will be under his exclusive control. His goal apparently is to create an environment in which nobody can stop him from fulfilling his dreams and writing the final chapter of his legacy to add to his memoir.

Large gap between Netanyahu's regional goals and internal policy

HOWEVER, THERE is a huge dissonance between Netanyahu’s optimist vision for Israel’s foreign relations and his government’s plans to change the country from within.

Within two weeks of his inauguration, Justice Minister Yariv Levin is dashing forward with his destructive judicial reform at lightning speed, undaunted by the alarmed warnings and growing protests against his plans to erase the delicate checks and balances of Israeli democracy. Levin circulated the drafts for his revolutionary bills this week, revealing a host of radical changes that will give unprecedented power to the executive and legislative branches, while dismantling any judicial supervision and constitutional protections of civil rights.

Levin claims he is only “rebalancing” the separation of powers. His critics charge that he is leading a regime change.

Last week, over 20,000 demonstrators took to the Tel Aviv streets in protest of the judicial reform. This week, the number of attendees is expected to spike and break records, as Netanyahu’s allies and cronies poured more fuel on the civil awakening.

After igniting the international community with his visit to the Temple Mount last week, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir dedicated most of his time to the anti-government protests, directing the police to treat the demonstrations with a harder hand and to start to arrest road blockers.

A member of Ben-Gvir’s far-right Otzma Yehudit Party, Zvika Fogel, called to lock up the leaders of the opposition, former prime minister Yair Lapid and former defense minister and IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, for “treason against the state” no less, because of their warnings against Levin’s plans and backing to the Tel Aviv protests.

Ben-Gvir has been granted unprecedented authorities over the police, and Fogel is slated to become the chairman of the Knesset’s Public Security Committee, supposedly overseeing the police forces.

Netanyahu doesn’t voluntarily mention Ben-Gvir or Levin’s judicial reform in his diplomatic talking points, and when asked, he assures he is in control of the radical elements in his government and he will be the one steering the country’s positions and policies.

Thus, within two weeks in office, Ben-Gvir and Levin have taken steps that could be counterproductive to Netanyahu’s ambitious foreign policy goals.

Israel’s strong and independent judiciary system serves as its international defense shield, and the doomsday projections about the changes to its democratic nature are likely to resonate at some point in the White House and the rest of the Western world, as well as the liberal protests.

The special relationship with the US, which Dermer praised optimistically, is based on shared values, but a government that cracks down on its judges and demonstrators undermines that basic premise.

The prime minister believes he can juggle them both: lead the most hardline extreme-right government the country has ever known and yet achieve historic strategic breakthroughs with Iran and Saudi Arabia to add to his legacy.

However, the expedited and rapid changes Levin is promoting could pull Israel’s diplomatic agenda to a totally different direction and damage its international standing. So far, Netanyahu has given Levin’s reform his full support and backing, and has rebuked the alarms that it is the end of democracy.

“The attempt to restore the correct balance between the authorities is not the destruction of democracy but the strengthening of democracy,” he said this week.

But as he himself, with his criminal indictments, will eventually be a main benefactor from the judicial overhaul, his reassurances fail to calm the turmoil.

As the legislation proceeds in the Knesset in the upcoming weeks, the internal flames are bound to rise, and might jeopardize, or delay, Netanyahu’s optimistic foreign policy goals.