Number 3 Kaplan Street in Jerusalem is a deeply unimpressive structure: drab, architecturally uninteresting, and surrounded by seemingly perpetual construction.
It is also arguably the most important building in Israel, in which the most consequential decisions affecting the country and its people are made every day.
The prime minister and his most senior aides are ensconced in a wing of the building known affectionately as “the aquarium” due to the glass wall that separates it from the rest of the building.
Benjamin Netanyahu has inhabited the aquarium for more than fifteen years – a fifth of Israel’s entire existence, and longer than any prime minister in the country’s history.
Earlier this week, my colleague Lahav Harkov and I sat down with Netanyahu a few floors below the aquarium to discuss a range of issues, including his ongoing efforts to reform the judicial system, his relationship with US President Joe Biden, and his campaign against the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran.
The interview was his first with a mainstream Israeli media outlet, and with any newspaper, since returning to the Prime Minister’s Office in late December.
What emerged was a very clear theme: work with others, seek agreement, but prepare to go it alone if you must.
Call it the Netanyahu Doctrine.
Finding measured ground but preparing to go it alone: The Netanyahu Doctrine for judicial reform, Biden, Iran
“I think everybody understands that we should proceed in a measured way,” Netanyahu told us about the government’s proposed judicial reform. “You need a middle ground… I think we should take the lessons of the last few months. We tried to have a consensus in the talks. We saw that we couldn’t get any minimal understanding. Rather than be stymied by that, I think we should just move in a more measured way.”
This is a somewhat selective reading of the events of recent months. The government started passing parts of the judicial reform, rapidly and unilaterally, back in January, before a groundswell of public protest and cautionary signs from credit rating agencies forced it to stop the legislation and agree to President Isaac Herzog’s offer to host talks over the reform at his residence in late March. Those talks proceeded haltingly before breaking down last week over representation on the Judicial Selection Committee, and both the coalition and the opposition are now blaming each other for pulling out of the negotiations.
Like Netanyahu, Herzog said this week that the sides were unable to reach understandings on any of the issues under discussion. Unlike Netanyahu, however, he called on the parties to return to the negotiating table and seek to reach an agreement. “I believe a large majority of the public wants that,” the president said.
Netanyahu, for his part, seems to feel that the talks have run their course. This week, he announced that his government would move forward with parts of the judicial reform, starting with changes to the so-called “reasonableness clause,” an effort to curtail the Supreme Court’s ability to intervene in government decisions.
“Last week it was proven that [Opposition Leader] Lapid and [National Unity Party leader] Gantz played a game,” he said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, one day before our interview. “It was a smokescreen of pretend-dialogue. We gave a month and then another, and their representatives did not agree to minimal understanding. Their intention was to waste time and delay every amendment, while a large majority of the public believes that there needs to be changes in the judicial system. Therefore, this week we will convene and begin practical steps in a balanced and responsible manner, but according to the mandate that we received, to change the judicial system.”
Having tried, in his telling, to reach consensus, Netanyahu is now determined for his government to proceed alone.
The Netanyahu Doctrine is most evident, however, in his approach to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and how it has evolved over the years.
In his first-ever address to a joint session of Congress, less than a month after first entering office in 1996, Netanyahu cautioned his audience against allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, which would, he said, “presage catastrophic consequences, not only for my country, and not only for the Middle East, but for all mankind.”
“Only the United States,” he continued, “can lead this vital international effort to stop the nuclearization of terrorist states… We are confident that America, once again, will not fail to take the lead in protecting our free civilization from this ultimate horror.”
Netanyahu's vow to stop Iran from going nuclear, with or without the US
At the time, Netanyahu was content to let America lead the charge and rally the international community against the prospect of a nuclear Iran.
But as the years went by, as Iranian centrifuges multiplied, and as America and the world seemed unable or unwilling to stop Iran’s advance toward the bomb, Netanyahu’s tone shifted.
His 2015 address to Congress – courageous to some, devious to others – embodied that shift. As he appealed to America not to sign an Iran deal he viewed as hopelessly flawed, he conveyed an awareness that the world may not always have Israel’s back.
“The days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies – those days are over,” he told his audience then. “We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves… For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves. This is why, as a prime minister of Israel, I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.”
“But I know that Israel does not stand alone,” Netanyahu swiftly added. “I know that America stands with Israel.”
In our conversation this week, he no longer sounded so sure.
“We tell each other what our positions are very clearly,” he said about the US administration, and about the previous Israeli government’s agreement to a “no surprises” policy with the Americans – a commitment not to act in ways that catch one another unawares.
“As far as ‘no surprises,’ I never agreed to this,” he said. “And the reason is because I want to maintain Israel’s freedom of action. In fact, when I met Secretary of Defense [Lloyd] Austin, he asked me about that. I said, ‘look, on this question of what Israel will do or will not do vis-à-vis Iran, you know, we will tell you sometimes and we won’t tell you other times.’ I’m being completely transparent about the fact that we’re not going to be transparent completely on this… Israel will maintain its freedom of action against Iran, as it sees fit.”
On reports of an impending “mini-deal” with Iran, Netanyahu sounded even more defiant.
“Under a big deal, a mini deal, or no deal, Israel will retain the freedom of action to defend itself by itself, regardless of any such arrangement,” he said. “Because my first responsibility as the prime minister of Israel is to protect Israel and defend it against Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, which is openly declared by them to be used against us. We’re not going to accept that.”
In other words, if Israel has to go it alone, it will – and it may not even tell its closest ally before it does.
Netanyahu has been called the loneliest man in Israel. He has been described by his detractors as paranoid. He is almost certainly the most polarizing figure in the country today, beset by challenges and threats on numerous fronts.
But loneliness is not a bug, rather a feature of the Netanyahu Doctrine. It reflects his awareness that he, like the country he leads and the people into which he was born, may eventually find himself alone, with no one at his side. It is his burden to bear, as an individual and as a leader. Everything he does should be seen through that prism, as part of his effort to prepare himself for when that day inevitably comes.