Benjamin Netanyahu behaving badly?
Hey, everyone wants a "get out of jail card," but this is ridiculous.
Why is Israel descending into political turmoil so far into Netanyahu’s career?
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister.Pool photo by Maya Alleruzzo
‘At fever pitch’
Political leaders who have already been in office for more than 15 years — which is how long Benjamin Netanyahu has been Israel’s prime minister — do not typically upend their country’s politics. Yet that’s what Netanyahu has done in recent weeks.
His government’s proposal to reduce the power of Israel’s Supreme Court has created what our Opinion colleague Thomas Friedman calls the nation’s “biggest internal clash since its founding.” Hundreds of thousands of Israelis — approaching 5 percent of the population — participated in protests last weekend. Ehud Barak, a former prime minister, has encouraged Israelis to engage in civil disobedience if the proposal becomes law. And many military officers have said they would refuse to report for duty.
Bret Stephens, another Times Opinion columnist — who has often been sympathetic to Netanyahu’s policies — has criticized the judicial plan as a threat to Israel’s moral standing. “Hyper-personalized, populist rule achieved by gutting institutional checks and balances is how democracies devolve into mobocracies,” Bret wrote.
In today’s newsletter, we’ll explain why the later stages of Netanyahu’s political career are turning out to be more chaotic than anything that came before.
Netanyahu has always been on Israel’s political right, but he was long able to build alliances with the center. The Israeli left, by contrast, has been marginalized and has not led the government since 2001.
One important cause was the breakdown of peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the early 2000s. The failure of those talks — including the Palestinian leadership’s walking away from the Camp David negotiations in 2000 — led many Israeli voters to give up on the idea of peace and support conservative parties. Netanyahu often led the coalitions that spanned the center and right.
But in 2019, while he was prime minister, Netanyahu was indicted on corruption and bribery charges. Many politicians who agree with his Likud party on substantive issues decided that he needed to resign. “Israel’s centrist parties are willing to serve in a coalition with Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud in charge,” Matti Friedman, a journalist who lives in Israel, wrote for The Free Press. “But they will no longer serve under Netanyahu himself: The prime minister, a master of the political maneuver, has simply lied to too many people too many times.”
This refusal, combined with the continued popularity of the political right, has thrown Israeli politics into turmoil. The country has held five elections since 2019. Likud received the largest share of votes — 23 percent — in the most recent election. Even so, Netanyahu was able to put together a governing coalition only by allying with far-right and religious parties.
Why the Supreme Court?
Israel’s Supreme Court has something in common with the U.S. version: Both are among the most powerful courts in the world. In many other countries, the top court does not overturn major laws and instead tends to make modest, technocratic changes. In Israel and the U.S., the court often has the last word. (In Israel, the underlying reason is the lack of a constitution.)
The proposed changes by Netanyahu’s government would strengthen the authority of the legislature, which in Israel is known as the Knesset. It is already more powerful than the U.S. Congress, because there is no independently elected president; a majority of legislators choose the prime minister. If the judicial changes go through, the Knesset would also gain the power to override Supreme Court decisions and would have few checks on its power.
Yesterday, the Knesset passed an initial version of some of the changes. Lawmakers will have to vote twice more before the policies becomes law.
Some political commentators argue that the changes themselves are reasonable. “What’s at stake here isn’t the death of the nation’s democracy, but straightforward party politics,” Lahav Harkov of The Jerusalem Post wrote. “The discussion is, in fact, about the proper balance between different elements of a democracy.”
Many other analysts disagree, arguing that the reforms would allow a prime minister to dismantle democracy, much as Viktor Orban has done in Hungary. “Theoretically, you could end up with a government that decides that elections are going to take place once every 20 years,” our colleague Isabel Kershner said.
Either way, the changes have inspired intense anger because they would give Netanyahu’s government sweeping power to implement its preferred policies.
“Underlying this technical debate about the judiciary is a much broader conflict about what kind of society Israel should be,” Patrick Kingsley, The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief, told us. “Ultra-Orthodox Jews and settler activists are taking advantage of the fact that they wield unprecedented power in Israeli society and government to try to unravel the influence of the court.”
Netanyahu and his far-right allies have different incentives to neutralize the court.
For Netanyahu, a court that was subservient to Israeli’s legislature would allow him to end his own corruption trial, which is still taking place. Netanyahu has denied he would do so.
For far-right parties, a neutered court would help the Knesset to enact major policy priorities — such as making it easier for settlers to seize land in the West Bank; protecting government subsidies for religious schools; and helping ultra-Orthodox Israelis avoid mandatory military service.
One reason for the intensity of the debate is the polarization between Israelis who are part of Netanyahu’s coalition and who are outside of it. He has appointed ultranationalist figures to major posts, including Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the far-right Jewish Power party, who threatened Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin weeks before his 1995 assassination and publicly thanked a rabbi who justified Rabin’s murder. Ben-Gvir is now the national security minister.
“Israeli society is at fever pitch,” Patrick said.