Will Netanyahu torpedo national reconciliation?

MIDDLE ISRAEL: Throughout his career the Prime Minister did not appreciate the consensus as a national aim, and sometimes actively derailed it.

 A PROTESTER holds an anti-Netanyahu placard at a mass rally against the judicial reform outside the Knesset on Monday (photo credit: GILI YAARI/FLASH90)
A PROTESTER holds an anti-Netanyahu placard at a mass rally against the judicial reform outside the Knesset on Monday
(photo credit: GILI YAARI/FLASH90)

The volcano erupted at midnight, and by dawn, catharsis felt at hand.

The spontaneity, intensity and sweep of the upheaval triggered by one man’s dismissal caught Benjamin Netanyahu so off guard that the prime minister was compelled to do what he wouldn’t do even in the face of countless warnings by jurists, literati, economists, statesmen, generals and spooks: retreat.

When news emerged that Netanyahu was suspending the judicial overhaul’s legislation, it became clear that what Justice Minister Yariv Levin uncorked in one TV address produced one unexpected climax and three improbable heroes.

The first hero was the people. Politicians watching the power suddenly wielded by the centrist multitude were as awed as a scientist who just discovered a new element.

The second hero was Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. A no-nonsense naval commando and field general, Gallant followed events soberly, drew the conclusions they begged, and spoke his mind bravely. The people are being torn asunder, he warned Netanyahu, and then recommended: halt this reform.

 Israel Border Police officers work to prevent protesters from spilling over into the highway amid nationwide judicial reform protests, March 1, 2023. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) Israel Border Police officers work to prevent protesters from spilling over into the highway amid nationwide judicial reform protests, March 1, 2023. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

Gallant’s courage and impartiality thus beamed a ray of light through the darkness that befell us. That is why he was seen, and treated, as a threat, and that is why his dismissal sent thousands to the streets.

An even more improbable hero that this week produced is National Unity leader Benny Gantz who, according to polls, is now sucking about one-fifth of Netanyahu’s electorate and also some of opposition leader Yair Lapid’s. Maybe Gantz’s package of moderation, humbleness and grayness appeals to hawkish voters who have had enough of Netanyahu’s politics of schism, bravado and pizazz.

So yes, our drama’s villains have finally been confronted by some heroes, but that does not mean the drama has reached its catharsis. It hasn’t, and what lies ahead is set to be even more daunting than what we have already endured.

FOR THE next month or so, the saga that until now unfolded between the Knesset and the street will shift to President Isaac Herzog’s abode.

Fortunately, Netanyahu accepts Herzog’s custodianship of the judicial-reform talks between the government and opposition. Even more, fortunately, Herzog arrives at this conclave well equipped, both as a jurist and as a politician, and also patriotically fueled. Unfortunately, the president’s vision and goodwill will not suffice to offset what Netanyahu is bringing to this rendezvous.

Herzog’s vision is based on two elements. First, like most Israelis, he thinks the Supreme Court can be less monolithic and interventionist. Second, and even more importantly, he thinks the current crisis offers an opportunity to grant Israel the beginning of the constitution it sorely needs.

But alas, that won’t happen as long as Netanyahu is part of the scene. Constitutions, as this column has explained, are meant to reflect a broad consensus and foster it. That’s the inverse of where Netanyahu went throughout his career, and the opposite of the ploy over which he has just presided – a narrow majority’s attempted legislative molestation of everyone else.

Yes, the Herzog forum is what the situation begs, and the president’s attitude is what its success demands. Under normal circumstances, whereby all parts of the political mainstream respect each other and share basic values and goals, this would suffice to make them jointly address constitutional dilemmas, like reformulating the Supreme Court’s staffing, authority and tasks.

Sadly, circumstances are not normal. In our situation, there is a major player for whom the consensus and its cultivation are unimportant at best, anathema at worst. As Netanyahu sees things, the Center and Left are all one big enemy territory, a political moonscape that sprawls beyond Likud’s “natural partners,” as he calls them. 

Those natural partners are the ultra-Orthodox voters who, unlike the Middle Israelis he casts out, dodge the draft and discourage economic productivity.

That’s the strategic part of Netanyahu’s problem as Herzog’s forum convenes. Far worse is the emotional part.

Soul searching, humility and a spirit of reconciliation

AS NETANYAHU emerges from the past three months’ social mayhem, his situation demands three things: soul searching, humility, and a spirit of reconciliation. Millions are convinced he lacks all three.

There is no sign that Netanyahu is searching his soul. Had he done so, his TV address on Monday would have opened with a cancellation of Gallant’s dismissal, followed by a frank explanation of that shot from the hip, and an apology for having fired a responsible patriot who did his job and warned of the dangers Netanyahu’s judicial assault caused.

Expecting such conduct from Netanyahu is like asking an amputee to pole vault. Netanyahu does not search his soul and does not know the language of reconciliation because at base he is an arrogant man. Many of us are, some with good reason and some without. Netanyahu actually has reason to be arrogant. He is better schooled, more worldly and smarter than most politicians.

However, in crafting a constitution, one has to hear deeply and truly respect everyone, especially those one disparages, or the constitution will not properly cement society. That’s not what Netanyahu has done over the years.

The man who now calls Middle Israelis “anarchists” is the same man who in 1997 whispered into Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri’s 99-year-old ear, “The Leftists forgot what being Jewish means,” and the same man who in 2015 fired Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni for no reason other than to replace them with ultra-Orthodox anti-patriots. Divisiveness has been an aim, an instinct and an organizing principle for Netanyahu since his political zenith, and that’s not going to change at age 73.

This is all before configuring the personal agenda of a defendant out to reshape, and cast a long shadow, over the court that will decide his fate.

That is why we will not get the constitutional gospel that we deserve, Herzog and his negotiators want, and Benjamin Netanyahu can be counted on to kill.


The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.