Opinion: The fall of Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu may not realize it yet, but his dare against the political odds is over. Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who was reelected in November despite an ongoing corruption trial and whom even rivals acknowledged was a political magician, is out of tricks. This fall won’t happen imminently, but his coalition of ultra-nationalists, religious fundamentalists and the merely corrupt is losing its moral legitimacy, even among growing numbers of its voters.
Netanyahu’s fatal mistake was his firing Sunday of his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, for calling on the government to halt its judicial revolution — legislation that would erode the independence of Israel’s Supreme Court and destroy the nation’s fragile system of checks and balances, effectively concentrating governance in the hands of the prime minister. Gallant noted the deepening rift within the army over the plan, and the growing protest movement among army reservists refusing to serve, and warned that the nation’s security was at risk.
In firing Gallant and ignoring his warning, Netanyahu placed loyalty to himself above loyalty to country. With Iran approaching the nuclear threshold, possibly in a matter of weeks, even as Palestinian terror attacks increase and Hezbollah probes weaknesses in Israel’s northern border defenses, perhaps in preparation for the next war, Netanyahu is presiding over the erosion of the military’s cohesion. The man who’d convinced Israelis that only he was tough and shrewd enough to keep Israel safe in the Middle East has betrayed Israeli security.
Immediately after Netanyahu announced Gallant’s firing, tens of thousands of young people gathered in the streets, blocking traffic and lighting bonfires through the night. Their ranks, and a general strike, continue to grow as I write today. Meanwhile, several members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party in the Knesset declared their support for suspending his judicial legislation and negotiating with the opposition on reform instead. For the first time, Netanyahu’s grip on his party had faltered.
In a national speech Monday night in Israel, the prime minister announced a temporary halt to the legislation.
Netanyahu’s miscalculation was to assume that the Israeli public would acquiesce in his transparent attempt to extricate himself from his legal troubles — he faces multiple charges — by initiating the most far-reaching judicial transformation in the nation’s history. Instead, since January, an astonishing protest movement spontaneously emerged, initially drawing tens of thousands and now hundreds of thousands to weekly demonstrations around the country.
By simultaneously assaulting liberal Israelis on multiple fronts — from diminishing democracy to augmenting ultra-Orthodox power to indulging political corruption to tolerating growing settler violence — this government left large numbers of Israelis feeling disenfranchised and desperate.
Resorting to the divisive political strategy that has served him in the past, Netanyahu tried to delegitimize the protesters, denouncing them as anarchists and leftists, by which he meant, not patriots. His son Yair went one step further, calling the protesters Nazis. Meanwhile, some Netanyahu supporters began physically attacking demonstrators, with no rebuke from the prime minister.
But this time the usual tactics didn’t work. There is no more patriotic protest movement anywhere than this movement for Israeli democracy, which is led by veterans of the country’s toughest combat units and whose symbol is the Israeli flag. Even more than rage at Netanyahu, the strongest emotion one senses among the protesters is an overwhelming love for Israel and fear for its future.
The man who rose to power as the guardian of Israeli patriotism has been defeated by a movement of patriots.
Netanyahu’s tragedy is that, at the end of his long political career, he now endangers his own most precious legacies. The leader who presided over Israel’s high-tech revolution jeopardizes the Israeli economy with his judicial recklessness, as the tech companies contemplate relocating abroad and leading economists warn of impending disaster.
Thanks to the Abraham Accords, which the Trump administration initiated and Netanyahu endorsed, Israel established relations with four Arab countries, in effect ending the Arab world’s siege against the Jewish state. Yet by including extreme anti-Arab parties in his coalition, he is endangering the durability of those agreements.
No world leader did more to focus international attention on the danger of a nuclearizing Iran. Netanyahu’s solemn vow was that the Jewish state would never allow a regime promoting Holocaust denial and that was committed to Israel’s destruction to acquire nuclear weapons. Yet Netanyahu’s judicial plan has left Israel and its army distracted and divided. If Iran acquires the bomb, that too will be Netanyahu’s legacy.
There is something biblical in the tragedy of Benjamin Netanyahu. Followers often greet him with an old Hebrew song celebrating King David but substituting Netanyahu’s nickname: “Bibi, King of Israel!”
No doubt Bibi has been tempted to compare himself to David, ancient Israel’s greatest king. But in an interview with journalist Bari Weiss shortly after he was elected last fall to his fifth term, Netanyahu inadvertently revealed a darker foreboding about his place in history. Asked to name his favorite biblical character, Netanyahu replied, “King Saul. He was tragic.”
Saul, the first king of Israel, ended his reign in defeat, half-mad and disgraced, replaced by the upstart David. Netanyahu, the most talented and ambitious leader of his generation of Israeli politicians, might have been another David. Instead, as more and more sectors of Israeli society turn against him, and his hero story is transformed from savior to destroyer, it is the specter of Saul that torments his end.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and author of “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.