Will Netanyahu’s darwinian survival instinct kick in?

Inside Politics: The prime minister still has a window to retreat from the judicial reform his coalition is intent on passing.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu appears in the Knesset on Wednesday. (photo credit: YONATHAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu appears in the Knesset on Wednesday.
(photo credit: YONATHAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

One of the enduring characteristics in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s writings and speeches highlights the ability to identify imminent danger in time as a prerequisite for the survival of any living organism.

Over the years, Netanyahu has incorporated this simple biological premise, attributed to his father, Benzion, into his grave warnings about the lurking danger of a nuclear Iran. He has also used the aphorism to flatter himself for supposedly foreseeing the future and confronting perils before others, as in the swift rollout of the first COVID vaccines.

Less than three months into his sixth government, however, Netanyahu’s Darwinian instincts appear to have faded. The controversial judicial overhaul crafted by Justice Minister Yariv Levin has dragged Israel into unprecedented political, social, economic and security crises, which endanger the very foundations of the state.

Taken by surprise

The prime minister and his allies were taken by surprise by the power and determination of the liberal camp’s democratic dissent, and then underestimated its appeal and resilience. Not only did Netanyahu not see it coming, but even after the risks and dangers started stacking up on his table, he didn’t act to preempt or neutralize the threats. Moreover, the overpowering and domineering political creature Netanyahu claims to be – and is by reputation – was nowhere to be seen.

Due to the attorney-general’s directive barring the defendant prime minister from dealing with the judicial reform because of his own legal conflict of interest, Netanyahu left it in the hands of its fervent architects, Levin and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee head Simcha Rothman.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu looks toward MK Simcha Rothman as they confer with Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset last week. Levin and Rothman have been emphasizing the larger public welfare, says the writer (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu looks toward MK Simcha Rothman as they confer with Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset last week. Levin and Rothman have been emphasizing the larger public welfare, says the writer (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Behind the scenes, Netanyahu tried to slow down the lightning-fast judicial legislation blitz. But every time he suggested tactical concessions, Levin flatly said no. Netanyahu’s coalition rejected countless appeals, letters and petitions calling to suspend the process, and blatantly shunned President Isaac Herzog’s efforts to mediate a compromise that would produce consensual constitutional changes.

Netanyahu’s traditional defense methods also deemed incompatible for the unparalleled liberal resistance the aggressive reform has awakened. Attempts to dab the protesters as leftists and anarchists produced a backlash with thousands of blue-and-white flags at demonstrations that have expanded to over 100 points across the country.

His old-school “divide and conquer” practice failed to split the opposition or discourage the leaders of the civilian dissent. Thus, as the dramatic judicial reform reached its final hour, Levin and Rothman had no one to compromise with but themselves, leaving only unilateral concessions on the table.

On Sunday evening, after 12 weeks of widening protests, Netanyahu convened his allies to draft a “softened” version of the reform, including a postponement of most of its elements until after the Knesset Passover break, as a supposed sign of goodwill aimed at calming down the protests, insisting only on its core element: the Judicial Selection Committee.

The original version of the bill granted the coalition automatic control over the appointment of all of the judges, and Netanyahu hoped a new iteration, which reduced the governmental control to the two first Supreme Court vacancies, would appease some of the reform’s opponents and calm down the streets.

Thus, it was too little, too late: The opposition politicians and prominent activists called the softened proposal a scam. Once again, Netanyahu and Levin underestimated their adversaries, and the amended judicial framework only boomeranged back at them and stirred up their own internal divisions. Right-wing hardliners in the Likud and the coalition lashed out at the “softened” version and expressed disappointment with the delay, while other ruling party members, such as Yuli Edelstein and Nir Barkat, expressed growing discontent with the speedy and forceful process and the growing national schism.

Concerns and questions

Behind the scenes, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant privately conveyed deep concerns about the mounting IDF reservists’ revolt against the judicial reform and was also pushing for a pause, and former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Avi Dichter, under pressure from his former comrades, spoke up for the first time and questioned the reform’s democratic nature.

Eventually, an overwhelming majority of the Likud faction voted in support of the framework, but only after Netanyahu and Levin assured the hardliners they would conclude the postponed elements after the Knesset recess.

In an attempt to ease the criticism and concern in the right-wing base, on Monday evening Levin gave an interview to the most popular show on the pro-Netanyahu Channel 14. He vowed to complete the rest of his ideological package, and went so far as to proclaim that if the Supreme Court tries to strike down the legislation, the government “certainly won’t accept it.”

If the goal of the skewed framework was to reduce the escalating public pressure against the judicial overhaul, Levin’s PR stunt was counterproductive. His statements were perceived as a direct threat to the High Court and as a preface for the looming constitutional crisis that could occur after the legislation is finalized and submitted for judicial review.

Various anti-reform petitions, addressing the alterations to Israel’s separation of powers and democratic foundations, are already in the making, waiting for the final vote in order to be submitted. The justice minister’s belligerence fed into fears that if the court decides to interfere, he just won’t accept it.

The very idea that the government might not comply with the court’s decision and is dashing blindly into a dangerous full-scale constitutional clash is now fueling the protests, which are entering a new peak as the Judicial Selection Committee legislation is slated to be approved next week.

Netanyahu, according to his close confidants, is especially irritated by the growing dissent among IDF pilots, officers and reservists, who announced they will stop volunteering if the judicial changes are finalized. Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi have both been warning Netanyahu about dangerous fallout that could spill into the active forces and pose several potential threats to Israel’s operational capabilities.

According to well-informed sources, Netanyahu’s own internal opinion polls, conducted on a regular basis, have also indicated that the danger of the IDF disintegrating is one of the Likud’s soft spots.

In an apparent attempt to change the narrative, he made a surprise visit with Gallant to the IDF Tel Hashomer recruitment center this week, and has publicly tried to throw the responsibility for the insubordination on Halevi’s shoulders. But behind closed doors, he has heard the clear warning and knows that without stopping the judicial overhaul, the military crisis won’t end.

NETANYAHU’S OLD-TIME existential wisdom determines that “when a living organism faces a mortal danger, it can do two things: it can run, or it can fight,” as he told the Mosaic magazine in a 2021 interview. So far, his government has been fighting for the reform to pass, but as it advances to its final stages, the premier still has a small window of opportunity to retreat.

On Wednesday night, the Knesset approved the bill that bars the recusal of a prime minister by a court order, which was personally designed for Netanyahu’s own needs, and could shield him from the risks of defying the attorney-general’s conflict of interest orders and intervening in the judicial proceedings.

Several moderate Likud members, such as Barkat, Dichter, Edelstein and David Bitan, are pushing to postpone the amended judicial selection bill and calm down the national chaos until after Independence Day.

Levin, on the other hand, is likely to strongly oppose a complete delay, and has threatened to resign if Netanyahu aborts his mission. So far, the premier has followed his justice minister’s lead, which is leading him, and the whole country, directly into an unprecedented constitutional crisis.

If and when the first part of the judicial overhaul is completed, all eyes will be on the Supreme Court. Despite Levin’s militant approach, which was echoed by an official Likud statement, Netanyahu will not necessarily rush to defy the court, if it chooses to interfere.

Ironically enough, one of his confidants admitted this week, “He might be waiting for the Supreme Court to save him and get him out of all of this mess.”

This article was written prior to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements to the media on Thursday evening.