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A prime minister who takes the public for fools

This Editor’s Note was sent out on Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

On April 2, 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a press conference, broadcast on national TV, at which he announced that Israel had reached an agreement with the UN under which some 16,250 African migrants in Israel, many of them Eritreans and most of them single, would be resettled in developed Western countries. A similar number, most of them part of families, would be allowed to stay for the time being, and would be moved from their current concentration in south Tel Aviv to numerous locations around the country.

Netanyahu hailed the complex, carefully negotiated arrangement as “the best possible” resolution to the migrant issue, culminating his efforts to protect Israel from what he said was a potential influx of up to a million migrants, which would have endangered Israel’s “Jewish and democratic nature,” and which he had already largely blocked by fencing off the porous border with Egypt.

Later that same night, however, Netanyahu froze the very deal he had just announced, amid mounting criticism, notably from anti-migrant activists in south Tel Aviv who objected not to the resettlement of half the migrants in countries such as Canada, Germany and Italy, but to the granting of temporary residency to the other half.

A day later, he canceled the deal altogether. “Every year I make thousands of decisions benefiting the State of Israel and Israeli citizens,” he said at a meeting with the anti-migrant activists. “Occasionally a decision is reached that has to be reconsidered.”

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This Sunday, a day after rival groups of Eritrean migrants rioted violently in Tel Aviv, with dozens injured, including numerous police officers, and dozens of arrests, Netanyahu set up a special ministerial committee to discuss how to grapple, again, with the “real threat to Israel’s character and future as a Jewish and democratic state” posed by the migrants. He promised to seek the “immediate deportation of those who took part” in the riots, and vowed to “get all the rest of the illegal infiltrators out of Israel.”

Eritrean migrants who oppose and support that country’s regime clash in south Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023 (Omer Fichman/Flash90)

Announcing the committee in televised remarks at a cabinet meeting, and elaborating in further comments later in the day, he attempted to rewrite the facts of what had happened in 2018, praising himself for not putting forward a plan that he had in fact protractedly negotiated and enthusiastically announced, and describing the very arrangement he had made and presented then as a potential disaster that he had rejected.

“One thing we didn’t suggest, and it’s good that we didn’t, was the UN plan,” Netanyahu said. “The UN plan would have provided citizenship to 16,000 illegal infiltrators and would have created a huge incentive for hundreds of thousands if not millions of Africans to once again come charging into Israel, so it was a bad solution.”

Speaking at the airport as he left for a visit to Cyprus, he added that Israel over recent years had used various “incentives to oust 12,000. We didn’t do the thing that, in my opinion, would have caused a disaster for us if we had accepted it, and that is the UN proposal that would have given citizenship to 16,000 infiltrators. It would have created a huge magnet for millions of Africans to try to enter the State of Israel.”

What is one to make of a prime minister who wants the Israeli public today to forget what he told them five years earlier? A prime minister who apparently expects them to believe that he didn’t actually say what they had watched him say back then?

Presumably that he takes them for fools, that he’s not overly preoccupied with the truth, and/or that he doesn’t particularly care about his own credibility — assessing that enough of the electorate will ultimately forgive him this and other manipulations, and continue to sustain him in power.

Losing Gantz, again

The problem with this approach — indeed, all of Israel’s problem — is that Netanyahu returned to power after last November’s elections only by cobbling together the most hardline coalition in Israeli history, that he gave central roles in that coalition to Jewish supremacists, anti-Arab racists and homophobes, that he appointed a justice minister bent on neutering Israel’s judiciary, that the extremists he empowered are tearing the country apart. And that even if he is deeply troubled by any of this — and he has shown no definitive sign of being as deeply troubled as he most certainly should be — the opposition politicians who just might help extricate him and Israel from the potentially existential crisis into which he has plunged us know that they simply cannot trust him to honor any promises he might make to them, to respect any agreements, to tell the truth.

Of all those politicians, the party leader most inclined to put aside his well-founded fears regarding Netanyahu’s integrity, to blot out the memory of how Netanyahu wriggled out of their painstakingly formulated 2020 coalition partnership agreement, is National Unity leader Benny Gantz, whose party is polling higher in the polls than Netanyahu’s Likud by claiming to be focusing on putting Israel’s national interests above all else and doing whatever it can to prevent our unfolding disaster and restore national cohesion.

And so when, in recent days, President Isaac Herzog privately conveyed to Gantz another proposal for a path out of the crisis, a path for potential consensual judicial reform, with the assurance that its elements had been coordinated with Netanyahu, Gantz convened his trusted party colleagues and, as he said in a speech on Tuesday night, carefully analyzed the document. They then formulated a potential path to take it forward — by requiring that the Netanyahu coalition first legislate a softened, amended version of the reasonableness law that passed in July, and legislate a second law to freeze all further overhaul legislation for some 15 months.

Benny Gantz gives a speech on September 5, 2023 responding to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plea for talks on the judicial overhaul. (Courtesy)

But before any such progress could be made, news of the proposal was leaked, and Netanyahu’s hardline colleagues began concertedly trashing it — and none more so than Justice Minister Levin, who unsurprisingly rejected it as “impossible” since it does not provide for the politicizing the process by which Israel chooses its judges, which he insists upon, and who asserted that Netanyahu continues to back the current draft legislation, which would give the coalition near-absolute control over judicial appointments.

Pleading with Likud moderates to make their voices heard, and promising that his hand would be “outstretched” in partnership were they to do so, Gantz was forced to conclude, as he said Tuesday night, that “reality has proven that there is no one to talk to at this time,” because “there is no effective prime minister in Israel” and that Netanyahu’s partners had again shown themselves to be “barn-burners who have not laid down their torches.”

The silent Likud ‘moderates’

The arithmetical fact is that even were Gantz to have publicly accepted the new proposal, or even to have accepted the brief video plea for talks that Netanyahu issued minutes before Gantz’s Tuesday night speech, his National Unity party doesn’t have enough votes on its own to outweigh the coalition’s judicial destroyers, and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid is emphatically not going to ride to Netanyahu’s rescue. National Unity might be polling in at least the high 20s, but it holds only 12 seats in the actual Knesset. Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit have 14, and there’s a further sizable component of Likud MKs whose positions are broadly indistinguishable from those of the two far-right parties.

Netanyahu wants a warm meeting with US President Joe Biden. He would like to advance normalization with Saudi Arabia. He knows full well that the process he initiated and enabled to change the way Israel is governed and give almost untrammeled authority to the political majority is fracturing Israeli society, tanking the economy, and causing mounting damage to our essential military preparedness. But — as has been the case not merely from the start of this government’s term, but from the pre-election choices he made to assist and mainstream the likes of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir — he also knows that only his current constellation of allies can keep him in power.

Protesters rally against the coalition’s judicial overhaul legislation, in Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023. (Gitai Palti, via protest organizers)

Netanyahu capitulated to outrageous, unthinkable demands when forming his coalition — in giving central, powerhouse roles to the far-right, in empowering Levin, and in signing coalition agreements that provide for legislation utterly at odds with Israel’s democratic and tolerant Jewish ethos. He has since given still more power to Smotrich, is set to advance the blanket exemption for Haredim from all national service, tolerates coalition MKs who traduce the IDF and the Shin Bet, and has indulged Levin’s refusal to convene the current Judicial Selection Committee. And Levin is not about to be deflected now.

Gantz perceptively appealed Tuesday night to the Likud “moderates” to make their voices heard. Some of these “moderates” have intimated that they might not easily go along with the judicial selection remake, and also that, were the High Court to strike down “reasonableness,” its ruling must be honored — something Netanyahu repeatedly refuses to pledge to do.

Related op-ed: As Israel implodes, does nobody in Netanyahu’s Likud have the guts to defy him?

But they all voted for the “reasonableness” law in July, ensuring its passage by 64 votes to 0 (with the entire opposition boycotting the vote). And the likes of Yoav Gallant, Avi Dichter, Nir Barkat, Yuli Edelstein, Gila Gamliel, David Bitan, Eli Dellal, Ofir Akunis and Danny Danon have yet to form any kind of united front to directly challenge Levin and the far-right. Were four Likud MKs to make clear that they would vote against further overhaul legislation, or eight that they would abstain, the Knesset arithmetic would change. But not otherwise.

The justices’ dilemma

Thus the latest Herzog-floated bid to pull Israel back from the abyss would appear to be stillborn. And the battle for Israeli democracy now moves to the High Court, with this month’s hearings on the Netanyahu recusal law, Levin’s refusal to convene the current Judicial Selection Committee, and the petitions against the “reasonableness” law.

There are those who argue that the justices would act wisely were they not to strike down that law constraining their own authority, and thus to allow the Netanyahu-Levin-far-right their one overhaul victory, in the speculative assessment that the hardliners would be sated, the court would be seen to have been cowed, and Netanyahu would have the momentum to freeze the rest of the overhaul and turn his coalition’s focus to security, diplomacy, economic improvement, and national healing.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and Justice Minister Yariv Levin attend the opening of a new courthouse in Katzrin on June 1, 2023. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

That, however, is to underestimate Levin’s implacability, and the determined agendas of the far-right on the settlement-annexation-Palestinian front and the ultra-Orthodox on exemption from the IDF draft. It is also to ignore Netanyahu’s own publicly declared intention to remake the Judicial Selection Committee — the core element of his coalition’s revolution in Israel’s governance — by November, with or without opposition support.

Sure, that’s just one more thing Netanyahu’s said. But it would be prudent to take it seriously, until or unless he actually does something to disprove it.