Netanyahu lost control of Israel to Levin, Ben-Gvir

INSIDE POLITICS: Even if Levin and Ben-Gvir are the de facto prime ministers, the overwhelming responsibility for the deep abyss into which Israeli society is plunging rests with Netanyahu alone.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu is flanked by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset on Monday, before the vote on the reasonableness bill. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu is flanked by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset on Monday, before the vote on the reasonableness bill.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s picture of the week, which he chose to depict on Monday evening at the beginning of his speech to the nation after the approval of the law to abolish the reasonableness standard, was from a video taken by journalist Haim Rivlin that went viral on Sunday.

Simultaneously, two huge demonstrations were taking place: the supporters of the judicial reform gathered in Tel Aviv to demonstrate in favor of the government, while the opponents of the legal coup gathered in Jerusalem to demonstrate against it.

There was lively movement on the escalators at the Yitzhak Navon train station in Jerusalem: on one side the opponents of the government went up and on the other side its supporters came down, and all of them carried flags in their hands.

“And then, despite the differences of opinion, each man reached out to his friend,” Netanyahu said, recognizing the viral moment that gave many, on both sides, a rare moment of camaraderie and hope. What a shame that he himself forgot this spirit of unity and statehood in the 24 hours preceding the speech, and closed the door on any attempt at compromise and agreement.

A few hours before the speech, the coalition headed by him, approved the most extreme and aggressive version of the law to abolish the reasonableness standard, completing the first step in the legal coup that is breaking apart the country, and leading it to the worst crisis in its history.

 JUSTICE MINISTER Yariv Levin speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the voting in the Knesset plenum on Monday. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
JUSTICE MINISTER Yariv Levin speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the voting in the Knesset plenum on Monday. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“[They shook hands]…as brothers. This is the nation of Israel, this is what we must aspire to,” Netanyahu said. What a shame that the main preoccupation of his sixth government is an act by a tyranny of the majority that is tearing Israeli society apart.

For about 30 weeks, more than two million people in total have taken to the streets: delivering speeches, shouting, disrupting, marching, setting up tents, publishing letters, signing petitions, warning that they will stop showing up to reserve service and volunteering in the IDF and other security forces, and begging the government to stop.

The security, economic, and political consequences of the legal coup are about to impose a disaster upon every citizen in the country. Prime Minister Netanyahu realized this already in March, in the first round of the legal coup, and therefore he stopped the judicial selection committee law just before it went up for a vote and went to the President’s Residence to hold negotiations. Four months later, he returned to the exact same spot, only this time, he didn’t stop.

Shortly after Netanyahu’s speech, a driver ran over protesters on Highway 531, the police used water cannons and skunk water in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, dozens of protesters and police officers needed medical treatment, and a kibbutznik in Hatzerim shot in the air toward right-wing demonstrators.

Netanyahu has lost control

ON THE eve of Tisha Be’av, the Israeli unity that Netanyahu spoke of in his speech soon faded away. Indeed, all of Israel are brothers: in chaos and violence. The damage to Israel’s social fabric and social cohesion is deepening, to the delight of our enemies. As Hassan Nasrallah diagnosed this week, it seems that Israel is on the way to collapse.

The real picture of the week, the one that Netanyahu did not mention in his speech, was from the drama that unfolded before the cameras during the long votes on the reasonableness standard law in the plenum. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant tried many minutes to convince Justice Minister Yariv Levin to agree to the softening or postponement of the legislation, in order to reach out to the opposition to try to reach an agreement, and to stop the worsening reservist crisis in the IDF.

Gallant, with the help of Netanyahu’s close associate, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, ran amok in an attempt to bring compromise proposals. Levin strongly opposed all of them. And between the two sat the prime minister, as a kind of present-absent person: off, gray, and irrelevant. Even for some of his supporters, it was a heart-wrenching sight, which accurately reflected the dynamics in the government and who actually makes the decisions and controls matters.

On the outskirts of the table, outside the central frame, Levin was cheered on by the chairman of Otzma Yehudit, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who constantly reinforced the justice minister’s stubbornness. Levin and Ben-Gvir together thwarted the talks at the President’s Residence last month, when they pushed Netanyahu not to abide by the agreement and to push off the election of the coalition representative to the judicial selection committee.

When opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz announced in response the suspension of the talks, Levin and Ben-Gvir were the ones who pushed him to renew the unilateral legislation. And this week, they jointly thwarted the efforts of President Isaac Herzog and other important mediators and senior officials to reach a last-minute compromise: Netanyahu was right to announce a significant freeze on the continuation of the reform and a softened wording of the reasonableness standard that would win the support of the opposition, but Levin did not agree to a suspension of more than a few months, and Ben-Gvir backed him with his opposition to the compromise when he threatened to dissolve the government.

Until the very last moment, they put up a fortified front against Gallant’s campaign of supplication and prevented even the slightest change that would build some trust in the future and help calm the protest. And the stormy debate between the defense minister and the justice minister, which took place literally over the prime minister’s head, proved with certainty who the real bosses are in the right-wing government. It was a picture worth a thousand words.

Netanyahu tried to minimize the damage of the day in his prime ministerial statement in the evening, which he convened without journalists as is the custom, this time in order not to answer the difficult questions surrounding the concealment of his medical information from his recent cardiovascular incidents.

He proposed, after the act, to reopen talks with the opposition and set a deadline of November – a timetable that would allow the coalition to renew the legislation and unilaterally change the composition of the judicial selection committee in the next session, and once again no agreement would be reached. 

The opposition rejected the proposal impolitely. “As everyone who was involved in the attempts to reach broad agreements found out, Benjamin Netanyahu is not really the prime minister of Israel. He is a prisoner of Levin and Rothman and Ben-Gvir. They decide, he does what they say,” said Lapid.

Some of Netanyahu’s associates say that the reasonableness standard law was just lip service to Levin, which would calm down the threat of a resounding resignation and give a legal achievement to the deep “Bibist” base who is disappointed that the 64th government fails to implement its policies.

Netanyahu even assured Likud members that from here on, Levin’s original reform was actually buried and would be promoted only with broad agreement. But given the chain of events so far, that’s a statement worth questioning. In every negotiation he and his emissaries conducted in the last months, Levin was the one in the end who made the decision, and Netanyahu was unable to impose his will. And with the food of the reform supporters, the appetite will also open, like Ben-Gvir’s salad bar, and for them – this is just the beginning.

THE MORNING after the approval of the reasonableness standard law, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi decided to move forward with his comprehensive reform of the media market, which politicizes the regulation of channels and broadcasters and grants exceptional government benefits to Channel 14, the right-wing media body free of any criticism of the government.

At the same time, United Torah Judaism decided that this is the right time to promote the Basic Law – Torah Study, which will regulate the blanket exemption from military service given to haredi youth, and will grant yeshiva students the same benefits that soldiers and officers who are discharged from the military receive. Netanyahu was quick to disavow the law and issued a statement that it was not on the agenda. What a shame that he pledged to promote it in black and white in the coalition agreements.

Those around Netanyahu once again underestimate the value of the large protest against the government, and believe that after the approval of the reasonableness standard law, it will fade into the heat and the summer vacations within a few weeks. But the conduct of the members of his government keeps the protest alive and well.

In the meantime, the reasonableness standard law is already on its way to the High Court of Justice, and perhaps to a constitutional crisis if the judges decide to intervene and disqualify it – a scenario that is expected to further fuel the flames of protest, as are the dreams of the coalition to use the expanded reasonableness standard law to fire Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara. 

On Thursday, Netanyahu issued a special notice in which it was stated that her dismissal is not on the agenda, but the real bosses, Levin and Ben-Gvir, have been building the case against her for months, and Netanyahu, as mentioned, is not necessarily in control.

Nevertheless, even if Levin and Ben-Gvir are the de facto prime ministers, the overwhelming responsibility for the deep abyss into which Israeli society is plunging rests with Netanyahu alone. The prime minister avoided meeting the chief of staff before the decisive vote, and agreed to meet him only after the political drama was over, but the map of threats and the expected damage to the IDF’s competence as a result of the pilots’ and service members’ protest was made clear to him.

All the senior officials of the defense system, the heads of hi-tech, the market, and the economy, and the senior officials of the healthcare system warned him of the enormous damage that the legal coup is causing, the governor of the Bank of Israel warned of damage to credit ratings, the rating companies issued more warning lights, and US President Joe Biden called on him repeatedly to stop – without success.

Netanyahu assured all of them in March that he “took over” and was leading a measured and responsible process with broad consensus. In the end, he succumbed to the pressures from Levin and Ben-Gvir at every decisive point and approved an extreme and corrupt law without any broad consensus.

He is also the main generator of the event, as a defendant who authorized and established and appointed the most extreme coalition the country has ever known, and gave Levin the green light to fight the justice system, despite, and probably also because of, the clear conflict of interest he is in.

In 2012, Netanyahu was proud of the strength and independence of the Supreme Court, and said that he would not lend a hand to an initiative that would harm its position. 10 years later, he appointed Levin as justice minister, making him the de facto prime minister. He can’t claim that he didn’t know. •