Has Netanyahu shattered his legacy?

MIDDLE ISRAEL: It’s not too late to replace his lieutenants' divisiveness with genuine constitutional dialogue.

 RIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu takes a look at the terrain below as he travels by helicopter to the Salem Crossing near Jenin during this week’s IDF operation. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
RIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu takes a look at the terrain below as he travels by helicopter to the Salem Crossing near Jenin during this week’s IDF operation.
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

Talk about irony. Determined to display resolve and bellicosity, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engineered a photo op that showed him outside Jenin surrounded by generals poring over a map, as the anti-terrorist assault he ordered approached its end.

Alas, the stern statement he made in that setting – “we will continue as much as necessary to cut off terrorism” – was delivered with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at the prime minister’s side.

That’s the same man whom Netanyahu fired only three months ago, two days before he sheepishly undid that dismissal in response to massive protests.

The military side of that photo op was simple. Netanyahu launched an operation that reflected the consensus. The political side, however, was not plausible, and in fact, is part of the broader confusion in which Netanyahu’s legacy seems ready to drown.

Squinting as they try to see through the smoke in which he now lives, people ask: Has Netanyahu returned to trust the man he so recently shed like a rotten tomato? If he hasn’t, how can this duo even hold a normal conversation, let alone jointly lead Israel’s defense, as basic governance demands that they do?

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receiving a security assessment on July 4, 2023 (credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receiving a security assessment on July 4, 2023 (credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE)

More broadly, people wonder: Where does Netanyahu now stand concerning his judicial reform? Is he where he was when he fired Gallant or where he landed after reinstating him? Is the prime minister in the sane realms from which he just tried to speak to the Wall Street Journal, or is he in the zealous realms from which his partners yelp at us daily in the Knesset, the cabinet, and the press?

Bibi's ruse failed

Well, the bad news is that the radicalized Bibi’s effort to present a gentler Bibi is a ruse. The good news is that no one is fooled, and the even better news is that Netanyahu still has time to reboot his situation, and ours.

The ruse is to say – to foreigners, in English – “I threw out the idea of the override clause” that would let the Knesset sidestep the judiciary, and also to say that the judges’ selection process will not be the one that appeared in his government’s original blueprint.

The idea is to sedate the world this way into thinking that the judiciary’s emasculation will never happen and to disown the original plan’s most notorious parts. Then, when all are asleep, Netanyahu’s henchmen will encroach on the judiciary piecemeal, one little measure at a time.

That is how the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee approved on Tuesday a bill that would limit the “reasonableness standard” with which courts scrutinize executive decisions.

In line with Netanyahu’s new salami strategy, this measure in itself can be dismissed as plausible and unpretentious, because it sustains the judicial right to question executive decisions’ legality, and only takes away the judgment of such decisions’ wisdom.

Political wisdom, says this rationale, is to be judged not by judges, but by the voters. Such judicial minimalism is not exclusive to right-wing radicals and was shared by major jurists, from Amnon Rubinstein, the foremost expert on Israel’s constitutional law, to former Supreme Court president Moshe Landau (1912-2011).

Now, if a bill about limiting the court’s clout had been cooked with such luminaries on board, and tabled before, rather than after, Justice Minister Yariv Levin presented his totalitarian manifesto – it would have been greeted by broad public agreement. However, this reform is designed not to improve the system, but to subdue it, if not in one fell swoop, then incrementally.

This is the ploy, and as the Knesset’s spring session approaches its conclusion, it is clear that it will fail. The new strategy’s targets have lost none of their alertness or resolve. They know Netanyahu and smell his shticks from afar. Everyone knows this. Everyone, that is, except Bibi himself.

IN HIS growing passivity, Netanyahu is abandoning his legacy to the devices of the political lowlifes who squall and peck about him like crows around a scarecrow.

One, a convicted briber, manipulates in broad daylight his brother’s installment as Israel’s next chief rabbi; another, the “minister of heritage” who never spent one day in a university, says the governor of the Bank of Israel is “a savage” who should be “rolled down the stairs”; and a third, a Knesset faction chairman, says the gay community threatens us more than Hamas and Hezbollah.

As of now, such people are drowning Netanyahu’s heritage in a cesspool of ignorance, schism, and civic dereliction. 

Realizing this, Netanyahu rolls his eyes and claims he tried to reach judicial reform by consensus, but the opposition did not cooperate. Wow.

The fact is he tried nothing. Constitutional legislation cannot be done with the political fringes on board, let alone at the helm. Constitutions, by definition, must reflect the broad consensus and foster it.

Yes, hammering such consensus is a daunting task, one worthy of great leaders like Levi Eshkol, Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres, and Ariel Sharon, who overcame huge national challenges by harnessing the opposition. Netanyahu, by contrast, spends his days bickering with, fingering at, and libeling the opposition.

Even so, Netanyahu’s time has not run out. He can still change course.

He can emerge one evening on TV, flanked by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, and announce a consensual formula for a new judicial selection committee.

The following morning, the Knesset will turn that formula into law, and by noon the three of them will introduce a public panel of jurists, academics, rabbis, literati, and retired politicians, and task it with redefining the Supreme Court’s mandate and clout.

This way, by outsourcing the judicial debate to responsible people, Netanyahu can undo the spirit of schism his politicians have fomented, repair the judiciary which clearly needs change, and salvage the heritage of a statesman who – as things currently stand – is galloping into the abyss.


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.