Netanyahu’s failure to grasp anger over Israel judicial overhaul exposes  weaknesses

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  March 28, 2023

Israeli prime minister looks out of touch in his handling of response to the country’s latest political crisis.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, kept the country waiting all day, but in the end, when he finally announced a suspension to the government’s proposed judicial overhaul, it was a theatrical speech. The 73-year-old compared the unprecedented rift dividing Israel to the tale of Solomon, who commanded an infant be cut in half to decide which of two women was its real mother, thus displaying his wisdom. Try as he might, however, in this story Netanyahu is not playing the role of the king.

Rather, Israel’s latest political crisis is once again completely his own doing. Bibi, as he is widely known, has for now bought some time by delaying implementing the controversial legislation weakening the power of the supreme court to the Knesset’s summer session, but the issue is far from resolved.

The prime minister’s inability to grasp the scale of the public hostility to the anti-democratic plans, coupled with his struggle to cajole belligerent elements of his coalition pushing for the changes, has also exposed a weakness that wasn’t there before.

“This would never have happened to the old Bibi; he would never have let it get to this point, where he’s out of control,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a Netanyahu biographer and columnist at Haaretz, Israel’s newspaper of record.

“I always think about Bibi as someone who knows how to read the audience and public opinion and how to manipulate it. It’s a flabbergasting failure at things he is usually good at.”

Part of Netanyahu’s unwillingness to engage with either domestic or international opposition to the judicial overhaul is because it’s not a burning issue for him: the changes are being spearheaded by his Likud colleague Yariv Levin, the justice minister, and the religious Zionist MK Simcha Rothman, who chairs the Knesset’s law and justice committee, both of whom have a longstanding, ideological hatred of Israel’s highest court, which they believe is too powerful and biased against the right.

While it is true that the proposals could help Bibi evade a conviction in his ongoing corruption trial – in which he denies all charges – the sweeping proposals are not a hill he is willing to die on. He has a personal grudge against the justice system, and is afraid of going to jail, but the longtime politician knows better than most that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Since returning to office in late December for his sixth stint as prime minister, Netanyahu has been on no less than four state visits to European capitals, viewed by many as a way of escaping the drama at home: that the radical members of his coalition and the protest movement are taking up so much of the political and news agenda clearly irritates him.

But after betraying friends and colleagues in the past, the skilled deal-maker is out of allies to turn to. It has been widely reported that Bibi spent several weeks trying to reach a compromise with the opposition, but ditching his unruly far-right partners and forming a new government without the need for elections is not an option at the moment. Nobody trusts him, and the public has a rekindled passion for the democratic process: Bibi is unlikely to fare well if Israel goes to the polls again soon.

Instead, it looks like the prime minister will have to continue muddling through, keeping his coalition intact despite the contradictory demands from inside and outside the Knesset. In just three months, his motley crew of racists and criminals has already damaged Israel’s economy, sullied its international reputation, and inflamed tensions with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world.

If he is eventually found guilty of corruption, Netanyahu wouldn’t be the first Israeli leader convicted of a criminal offence. At this point, however, his legacy is already tainted either way.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian