Will Israel's government crash and burn due to haredi draft issue?

INSIDE POLITICS: Benjamin Netanyahu is the pilot who hasn't engaged the emergency breaks as his government plunges from one crisis to the next. Could the hared draft issue be its fatal disaster?

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu sits with the pilots on the flight deck en route to Britain.  (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu sits with the pilots on the flight deck en route to Britain.
(photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has garnered considerable respect and pride over the years for his ability to successfully navigate and emerge from crises – especially economic crises.

“The economy can be compared to a plane in a nosedive. First, we need to prevent it from falling, and then we need to help it thrust upward,” Netanyahu said in a press conference he convened in April 2009, shortly after commencing his second term as prime minister. It was at that moment that he presented his economic plan titled Restraint and Momentum.

Now in his third comeback 14 years later, it appears that Netanyahu’s flying and navigation skills are a bit rusty. For over eight months now, Israel has been descending into the most critical social, economic, and security crisis in its history, and our chief pilot is either unwilling or incapable of averting the impending crash.

In the past, on more than one occasion, Netanyahu boasted about his ability to preemptively identify threats and crises. In his speeches about the Iranian nuclear threat, global terrorism, and the COVID epidemic, he would often reference his father, Benzion Netanyahu’s Darwinian outlook about the existential need of all living creatures to promptly identify any potential threats that lie ahead.

In his sixth term, the prime minister disregarded this principle as well. He did not foresee the colossal strategic damage that Yariv Levin’s judicial reform would cause, and even after he did acknowledge it, he chose to deny, dismiss, and ignore the economic, security and political dangers it posed.

 MK Simcha Rothman with Justice Minister Yariv Levin seen during a discussion and a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on March 22, 2023. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
MK Simcha Rothman with Justice Minister Yariv Levin seen during a discussion and a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on March 22, 2023. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Even now, after the coalition achieved its initial victory of successfully repealing the reasonableness standard, Netanyahu has yet to put his airplane metaphor into action, and has chosen not to engage the emergency brake. Meanwhile, his government is plunging further from one crisis into the next.

A MONTH has passed since the coalition approved the first part of the judicial reform, and the crisis within the IDF is far from over. Netanyahu’s close associates believed that if they simply ignored the wave of protests, which the army reservists joined, they would disappear “within a day or two” after the legislation was passed. Whether it was wishful thinking or a deliberate political strategy aimed at minimizing this phenomenon, it became evident that this assessment was disconnected from reality and completely inaccurate: Hundreds of pilots and reservists in elite and intelligence units announced that they would quit or suspend their volunteer reserve duty, and the IDF chief of staff and senior leadership forewarned that the IDF’s readiness would be seriously affected, which could jeopardize Israel’s national security.

Not only did the prime minister fail to identify or handle this threat in a timely manner, but he did everything in his power to silence anyone else who attempted to raise awareness of the threat.

In the first round of judicial reform this past March, when Defense Minister Yoav Gallant delivered a speech to the nation in which he sharply warned that there was a “clear and tangible threat” to Israel’s security, Netanyahu fired him. Although Gallant was reinstated, his status was weakened, and when the second round of legislation arrived, he chose not to jeopardize his position again, and voted along party lines.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi endeavored to set up an urgent meeting with the prime minister before the vote to explain the serious implications such legislation would have on the IDF, and even dispatched two of the most senior IDF commanders to the Knesset to impress upon the ministers the dangers at hand. Of the 31 ministers, only three bothered to show up. Moreover, for months Netanyahu has consistently refused to convene the security cabinet so that it could be briefed on the ramifications of the judicial reform and the expanding IDF crisis. Over the last eight months since this government was formed, it has not held even one official discussion about Justice Minister Levin’s plan.

The IDF crisis is worsening

However, contrary to Netanyahu’s assessment, the crisis within the IDF is worsening, and for weeks the defense minister and the IDF’s top leadership have been begging the prime minister to pull up the hand brake and prevent the situation from deteriorating even more. They have asked him to declare a substantial freeze on the judicial reform and make a commitment that only legislative changes backed by broad consensus will be put forth.

According to sources in the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu had planned to make a statement on the evening after the reasonableness standard was repealed, announcing that no more unilateral legislation would be put forth. Due to pressure from Levin, however, Netanyahu announced that there would only be a short-term freeze that would last only until the end of the Knesset’s summer recess period.

Furthermore, Netanyahu embarked on an interview tour of the US during which he pledged only to advocate for alterations within the Judicial Selection Committee. He steadfastly declined to commit that his government would adhere to a Supreme Court ruling should it invalidate its actions.

Netanyahu could have taken the one-sided and threatening approach toward the judicial overhaul crisis off the table and collaborated with the defense minister and the IDF top leadership to address the task of rehabilitation. Instead, he chose to respond to media reports of a crisis with scolding, shouting, and silencing, and to consciously engage in actions that only aggravated the conflict between the government and the IDF leadership. Last week, Netanyahu’s son Yair shared a Facebook post that said that Halevi “will be remembered as the most failed and destructive chief of staff in the history of the IDF.” The post was deleted a short time later, presumably under instructions from above.

While the prime minister condemned the provocations posted by his son and coalition members against the security establishment, his own media mouthpieces’ messages were not all that different. Last week, Shimon Riklin, a Netanyahu supporter, said the following on Channel 14, which is associated with the coalition: “The Israel Defense Forces is a sick army with a corrupted ethos that prefers a group of Ashkenazi pilots with a privileged Christian ethos that harms the entire State of Israel.”

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi, who was interviewed on that channel, stated that “history will judge the defense minister and the chief of staff, who are responsible for bringing us to the point where insubordination has become a legitimate tool.”

In private conversations, close associates of Netanyahu go even further, claiming that “Gallant and the chief of staff have joined forces to overthrow the prime minister,” which in effect is just an example of shooting the messenger. Thus, not only is he not implementing his approach of showing restraint, but he is exacerbating the conflict and intensifying the nosedive of the “airplane,” which is quickly losing altitude.

THE CRISIS with the army is pushing Netanyahu toward another catastrophe: a crisis within his coalition, which is arguably the most severe he has experienced during his current tenure as prime minister.

The ultra-Orthodox factions are demanding that he follow through with the promise he made, before the coalition was formed, to advance the draft law that would exempt yeshiva students, immediately upon returning from the summer. This issue was delayed so that the coalition could focus on the judicial reform.

There’s considerable distress within the Likud due to threats by the ultra-Orthodox parties that they will withdraw from the government, even though the Likud members are even more concerned about the public and political damage caused by focusing on draft exemptions at this time, when all eyes are anxiously watching what’s happening with the IDF and the secular-liberal camp, which is intensifying its protests over this matter.

“The draft issue is extremely important to our electorate, so the ultra-Orthodox parties will have to understand they need to compromise,” a senior Likud member stated this week. Gallant also told the ultra-Orthodox faction leaders that the blanket exemption from military service could exacerbate the crisis within the IDF and begin affecting new recruits, as well.

In the coming weeks, until the Knesset returns from recess, the two crises – within the IDF, on one end, and with the ultra-Orthodox factions on the other – will exert intense pressure on Netanyahu, until they unavoidably collide.

MEANWHILE, AS one crisis follows another, Netanyahu’s right-wing government is entangled in another dangerous and lethal security crisis. The number of terror-related fatalities in Israel this year has reached 35, following the two deadly attacks in Samaria and the South Hebron Hills, making 2023 the bloodiest year in nearly two decades, since the Second Intifada.

Crime within the Arab sector is rampant and breaking records, with over 150 casualties since the beginning of the year. Netanyahu and his partners National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich blamed and incited against the Bennett-Lapid government amid the wave of terrorism that began during its tenure, and promised their constituents that if elected, they would handle the security situation with authority, resoluteness, and an iron fist. Now that this is also happening on their watch, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are desperately seeking someone else to point an accusing finger at.

In the past few weeks, the defense minister, chief of staff, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head, as well as other senior security officials, have all been targeted by the coalition’s extremists as being responsible for the escalation, while Jewish extremists in the West Bank, who engage in unlawful activity that IDF soldiers need to contend with, receive vocal support.

The relentless attacks on senior security figures only serve to intensify the crisis of trust between the government and the IDF, which in turn also weakens the country’s deterrence. At a security cabinet meeting this week, Gallant told Ben-Gvir and Smotrich that harassment of IDF soldiers carried out by their party members “undermines our strength in the eyes of our enemies” and cautioned that “this poses a serious security risk.”

In an attempt to escape their glaring failure in the realm of security, far-right leaders in the coalition are investing heavily in construction within settler communities, which is complicating Netanyahu’s relationship with the White House. Smotrich is pushing for the immediate approval of an ambitious plan that would cost hundreds of millions of shekels for the development of settlements, infrastructure, and the promotion of migration to Judea and Samaria.

The finance minister is already blocking economic plans earmarked for strengthening the Palestinian Authority, which Netanyahu had promised the Biden administration to implement. Now, by pushing more plans for the settlements, Smotrich is only intensifying tensions even more and could stymie the prospects of the prime minister’s long-awaited invitation to Washington.

Netanyahu is known as a pathological procrastinator who waits until the last moment to make any decisions. For the time being, he is maintaining involvement across all fronts. So far, he has postponed fulfilling his promise vis-à-vis the draft law, which is part of the judicial reform, and now he is using the draft law as a pretext to delay further advancement of the reform, and is taking advantage of the protests to pressure the ultra-Orthodox to compromise. People close to Netanyahu believe that he’s already willing to abandon the reform and declare a ceasefire due to the IDF crisis, but he’s searching for a way to accomplish this without having to pay a political price and destabilizing his coalition from within.

At Netanyahu’s headquarters, for weeks already, intensive discussions with President Isaac Herzog have been taking place regarding a deal that would include freezing the draft law, but Levin, the architect of the reform, insists on changes in the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee, which is preventing any chance for real progress.

Netanyahu is the chief pilot who either can’t or doesn’t want to curb the serious crises his government is causing. Or, as one of his close associates expressed with concern, “In the past, he would continue almost all the way to the end, but then stop at the last moment. Nowadays, even after that last moment has arrived and gone, he still can’t stop.”

Translated by Hannah Hochner. •