The only person who can force talks or a compromise regarding the government’s planned judicial overhaul is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plans were just hit from a very unusual place – some of his closest advisers – including four former national security council chiefs.
The 12 former NSC chiefs sent out a public letter on Saturday night requesting that Netanyahu slow the judicial overhaul train and allow for more open national negotiations with the opposition to reach a grand compromise.
Some, like Giora Eiland and Eyal Hulata, who did not work for him and have criticized his national security policies in the past, were not surprising.
Uzi Arad, who was Netanyahu’s NSC chief both from 1997-1999 and from 2009-2011, is not a surprising critic because he turned on Netanyahu when Case 3000, the Submarine Affair, broke into the public sphere.
But Yaakov Amidror (NSC chief 2011-2013) and Jacob Nagel (NSC chief 2016-2017) both defended Netanyahu even from the Case 3000 charges and, in general, have stayed loyal to him and been some of the loudest public expert-level defenders of his policies up until Saturday.
And they are not the most painful “defectors” for Netanyahu
That honor would go to Yossi Cohen, who was not only Netanyahu’s NSC chief from 2013-2015 but also his Mossad chief from 2016-2021 (in fact, his only former NSC chief not to join the letter curiously was Meir Ben-Shabbat, who avoids nearly all public attention.)
Moreover, Netanyahu has publicly declared Cohen and Ron Dermer as the two most worthy to succeed him in leading the Likud and being prime minister, hoisting these advisers/non-politicians above politicians who have served in the Likud for decades.
Cohen unabashedly has supported and helped realize some of Netanyahu’s trademark policies, including his war on Iran, and convincing the Trump administration to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, offering cyber weapons and other perks to nondemocratic Sunni countries to facilitate the Abraham Accords, the policy of using Qatar to pay off Hamas to maintain quiet and others.
And none of these men is known for much public support of the legal establishment, being firmly entrenched in security issues.
Of course, the defection was not complete.
They did not call Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul the potential end of democracy as his former cabinet secretary and attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit did this past weekend.
All they asked for was to slow things down and to be more open-minded about making serious compromises with the opposition and the legal establishment over the issues in dispute.
But Netanyahu has made the judicial overhaul one of his main priorities, showing a readiness to ignore near universal opposition from the legal establishment, including from most conservative justices.
Yaakov Turkel, one of the few former Supreme Court justices who has given sympathetic arguments for Netanyahu during his public corruption trial, even joined a letter this weekend of top jurists against the overhaul. Netanyahu did not seem to notice. He has also seemed ready to ignore economists and businesspeople predicting – rightly or wrongly – harm to the economy.
Will Netanyahu’s commitment to pushing the issue through without any significant compromises continue even after his top national security supporters are deserting him?
One thing that Netanyahu – and also Donald Trump – has shown in recent years is that the general public has become so polarized into tribes and rival camps, that even top heroic generals no longer move very many people to switch their allegiances or views.
If anything, the main impact of the letter is likely to be a counterattack on Cohen.
Many viewed Cohen as ready to jump in to lead the Likud before the next election, given that his cooling-off period as a former Mossad chief will have ended by mid-2024.
Now he may be added to Netanyahu’s blacklist. His only entry into politics may be if Netanyahu ever retires or to join a different party despite his clear preference previously for joining and trying to lead the Likud.
Still, for anyone who takes a broad view of seismic changes that may lead to the reordering of many aspects of society in the coming months and years – seeing Cohen, Amidror and Nagel turn on Netanyahu is a rare moment that can still surprise and stand out.