Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is double-tongued in the deepest sense of the term. For years, he has been speaking in fluent Hebrew as well as fluent English, tailoring his messages to each audience’s preferences.
For example, in 2015, just before the election, he was interviewed in Hebrew by Makor Rishon, a newspaper that caters to the national-religious public, and emphatically declared that no Palestinian state would be created on his watch. However, in English, he sounded quite different.
Since the speech he gave at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, and in almost every speech he has given at the UN General Assembly since then, he has stated that he is committed to the idea of two states for two peoples.
Even in the context of former president Donald Trump’s peace plan, the ultimate goal of which was the creation of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu agreed to a map that allocated 70% of the West Bank to the Palestinians. In Hebrew, however, he made a point of explaining that he didn’t really mean what he had said.
Moreover, last December, just before he formed his sixth government, in an interview in English with Canadian media commentator Jordan Peterson, Netanyahu proudly discussed the economic policy he had espoused as finance minister, which had included the slashing of stipends to the haredi community. At the same time, however, he signed coalition agreements that acquiesced to all the demands of the haredim, including the doubling of yeshiva students’ stipends, which would lead to poverty and dependence on these stipends. In Hebrew.
In the same round of interviews, Netanyahu told a commentator from Al Arabiya, again in English, that he had not transferred authority over Judea and Samaria to his coalition partners. Shortly afterward, the Likud published a clarification stating that authority over the Civil Administration would indeed be transferred to the leader of the Religious Zionist Party, Bezalel Smotrich, in accordance with the coalition agreements. Yes, this too was in Hebrew.
Netanyahu's classic strategy
Netanyahu has been playing this double-tongued game even more frequently since he formed the most right-wing and haredi government in Israel’s history. Speaking in English to international audiences, he promises that he would lead and navigate responsibly with his extremist political partners. In Hebrew, he once again surrenders to all their demands and wishes.
In English, Netanyahu pledges to the US administration that he would block Smotrich’s plans regarding settlements, while, in Hebrew, he celebrates with Smotrich the approval of settlement outposts and mass construction in Judea and Samaria.
In English, he praised the anti-government protests as an indicator of the strength and vitality of Israel’s democracy. In Hebrew, the Likud leader referred to the judicial reform protesters as extremists and anarchists. In his conversations with international credit rating agencies, in English of course, Netanyahu assured them that judicial reform would only proceed with a broad consensus. In Hebrew, he succumbed to pressure from the architects of the reform and once again agreed to push it through unilaterally.
Similarly, last Thursday, when Netanyahu was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, he proclaimed in English that he had decided to withdraw the override clause that would enable the Knesset to reinstate laws invalidated by the court. “I threw it out,” Netanyahu said, “It’s off the table.” A few days later, during the weekly coalition leaders’ meeting held every Sunday, the message in Hebrew had already changed again.
Netanyahu’s partners – in particular the heads of the haredi parties, who had initially demanded approval of the override clause so they could resolve the issue of recurring annulments of IDF draft laws approved by the High Court – were angered by the interview, and demanded clarifications.
In Hebrew, Netanyahu clarified that he was referring only to the comprehensive override clause in a simple majority, and that he was committed to finding a solution to the draft issue, which would shield haredi youth from the Supreme Court. In other words, a law with an override clause that only touched upon specific points.
Moshe Gafni, leader of the United Torah Judaism Party, seems to have already learned the trick. In Yated Ne’eman, the newspaper affiliated with United Torah Judaism, Gafni clarified: “The override clause is still on the agenda, period. Netanyahu understood and explained himself, saying that his statements do not contradict the agreement he signed with us.”
NETANYAHU’S mastery of both Hebrew and English has enabled him for years to navigate between the two worlds – Israel’s right-wing and the Americans – and to convey conflicting messages that always leave open a lingering question: What does he truly want?
The usual answer is that he hasn’t decided yet or that he wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, he decided in late March to freeze the judicial revolution and instead opt for behind-the-scenes talks with Israel’s president, a subject he remarked upon extensively during interviews in English that aimed at calming tensions and alleviating concerns in Washington, as well as paving his way to the White House.
On the other hand, Netanyahu succumbed to pressure from Justice Minister Yariv Levin and his coalition partners, giving the green light for the one-sided legislation that jeopardizes Netanyahu’s ticket to Washington. At the same time, he didn’t grant Levin everything he requested; he agreed for the meantime to advance only the law to abolish the reasonableness standard, postponing all other parts of the judicial reform to the next Knesset session.
In an effort to soften the American reaction, he announced that the override clause would be discarded; in the same interview, in an effort to soften the disappointment among reform supporters, Netanyahu also committed to altering the composition of the committee for selecting judges, at some point in the future.
This way, each side gets to hear what they want to hear, and yet, considering his skillful double-tongued nature, no one is quick to believe him either. Netanyahu is trying to maintain a balance between the two extremes, so that he can get his foot in the door of the Oval Office without destabilizing the foundations of his coalition.
“This is not just a right-wing government, but a right-wing government that’s full of radical and far-right elements. Levin, Smotrich, and Ben-Gvir take him much further right than he would truly want to go, and if he clashes with them, he will lose control of the government,” purports a source close to Netanyahu, who knows him well.
“Therefore, from his perspective, any maneuver is logical,” the source continued. “To reach Washington, he needs to deceive the coalition in Israel, and to remain prime minister of Israel, he needs to deceive the Americans. The only question is: Who is he deceiving this time – the people he is speaking to in Hebrew or in English?”
Netanyahu’s two-sided messages enable him to avoid making a decision regarding the judicial revolution, to proceed with a “trial and error” approach, and stay in step with the growing protests against judicial reform taking place in the streets.
Sources close to Netanyahu say they believe that the law to reduce the “reasonableness” threshold, which is expected to be approved by the Knesset by the end of July, will not generate the same level of fierce opposition that the Judicial Selection Committee faced in the first round.
However, it is likely that they will again underestimate the protesters’ determination. Just like what happened the first time around, once again the coalition is promoting an extreme and highly corrupt version of legislation that will allow the government to appoint anyone of their choice to any position.
According to senior jurists, this will severely harm the rule of law. Although they plan to soften the wording later on, the protest is already deeply embedded in the campaign, and the assurances that Netanyahu is offering Levin and his supporters only serve to reinforce suspicions that the current government is simply forging ahead with the systemic changes using the salami method.
Netanyahu is a political conservative at his core, and throughout his career he has been cautious and wary of major changes and revolutions, and is known as a great adherent of the status quo. In the last 14 years of his tenure as prime minister, he did not establish a Palestinian state nor promote a two-state solution, despite the numerous speeches he gave on the subject in English. Nor did he annex any part of Judea and Samaria, as he promised his right-wing supporters.
Instead, he has taken the middle road and led a policy of unhurried annexation, of gradual strengthening and expansion of settlements, and quietly undermining the two-state solution by establishing facts on the ground.
The same applies to the judicial reform issue. Netanyahu has been making great strides in his efforts to adopt the same policy, and prefers not to fully unveil Levin’s revolution over Israeli democracy, while also not surrendering to the dictates of the opposition camp and completely shelving it away.
It’s just that, unlike with the Palestinian issue, in which case the liberal camp has been pushed to the margins for years, the proposed changes in the justice system have sparked an unprecedented burst of civic activism in the center-left. This time, it is uncertain whether Netanyahu’s creeping style of annexation will prevail.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.