Editor’s Note: Anshel Pfeffer (@anshelpfeffer) is a writer for Ha’aretz and the Israel correspondent of The Economist. He is the author of “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.” The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
I had never heard a word of criticism from this particular Likud minister on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For years, in all our conversations, just fulsome praise, even when their party leader had been exposed in some of his worst moments. But no more.
“I can’t believe how Netanyahu made such a critical mistake,” sighed the minister, who preferred not to be named. “How could he roll out such a series of radical policies and not have prepared any public-relations plan to go along with it? No thought whatsoever for the presentation. And now we’re getting crucified in the media and many of our own voters are believing it.”
Should there be even the slightest doubt, the minister assured me they were in total agreement with the policies themselves — which amounts to a series of laws aimed at weakening Israel’s Supreme Court and removing its powers to hold the government to account.
But not like this, with a blitzkrieg of legislation, four laws at once, and without any attempt to convince the public of their necessity. Just a lackluster press conference in early January by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a man whose dogmatic hatred of the Supreme Court is matched by a total lack of charisma, to present the “judicial reform.”
Our conversation took place six weeks ago, half-way through the Knesset, Israel parliament’s winter session. Levin had promised to pass the four laws by the end of the session. By then it was already clear to the minister and other senior figures that they were in deep trouble.
The plan, according to the polls, was deeply unpopular with a majority of the Israeli public. Hundreds of thousands were gathering on the streets in protests. Senior economists were predicting it would severely damage Israel’s knowledge-based and export-driven economy. Senior security chiefs warned it would create deep discord within the armed forces. A few level-headed figures in Likud tried to warn Netanyahu but he swatted them away.
In pictures: Protests erupt in Israel over judicial reform
Finally, this week, as Israel began to descend into chaos with Netanyahu’s own defense minister publicly breaking with him on the legal policy (he was fired for that) and the trade unions and employers jointly announcing a general strike, Netanyahu announced a “timeout” for “true dialogue.”
The winter session is ending and none of the laws have been passed. Netanyahu’s new government has wasted its first three months in office on a policy which it now appears to be abandoning.
Netanyahu now has to extricate himself from a lose-lose situation in which parts of his radical coalition of far-right and ultra-religious parties are still threatening to break away if he fails to suppress the Supreme Court. But by now he knows that if he tries once again to pass the legislation in the next Knesset session, he will be inviting even more chaos.
How did Netanyahu, a master manipulator of public opinion, the only Israeli politician to ever win six elections and come back twice from the wilderness of opposition, the second time just last November, get it so wrong? Why did he fail to foresee the furious backlash from wide swathes of the Israeli public, including the normally non-political tech sector and reserve officers? What lead him to assume that legislation which would have stripped the checks and balances from Israel’s fragile democracy would be meekly accepted?
His staunchest supporters are struggling to explain. One senior Likud politician tried to excuse the prime minister’s short-sightedness through his strengths. “Netanyahu sees his mission as prime minister as taking care of Israel’s big issues. He has always focused on security, diplomacy and economics. Constitutional affairs never seemed important to him,” the politician told me. So goes the explanation.
“If he had to sell to the public a financial program or a peace-plan, he would be able to do so with passion and in great detail. But a judicial reform isn’t something he’s truly interested in. He assumed that passing it through the Knesset would be a technicality,” they added.
All that makes sense, but why then invest so much political capital in the plan?
“Netanyahu for most of his career respected the judiciary and didn’t feel a need to confront them, even when the rest of the right-wing increasingly became anti-Supreme Court,” a coalition Knesset member told me. “That changed only recently when he was indicted himself and then as a result, failed to win four consecutive elections and was ultimately forced out of office. Now he’s back with a vengeance and he’s allowed his allies who in the past he reined-in, to go all-out against the Supreme Court,” they added.
“I’m in favor of the reforms, but Netanyahu didn’t think this through before he gave the green-light. His personal anger at the judiciary caused him to abandon his normal caution and pre-planning for every eventuality,” the coalition member said.
I think there’s some truth to what these two politicians, both still supporters of Netanyahu and his policies, are saying. But there’s another element that they cannot contemplate and that is Netanyahu has become a victim of his own hubris.
Having just delivered a sixth election victory, returning to office just 18 months after losing power when so many said he was finished, he is no longer prepared to listen to the few relatively pragmatic voices who have remained in his inner circle.
He was elected Likud leader for the first time 30 years ago. His time as prime minister totals 15 and a half years, more even than Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion. He takes credit for Israel’s phenomenal economic growth, its burgeoning foreign relations, including the recent diplomatic agreements with Arab countries and for Israel’s swift recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
He is convinced that everything good that happened to Israel in the last few decades was down to his stewardship and that every time the experts disagreed with him, he was right. So who is anyone to tell him now that he’s making a big mistake?
“Netanyahu’s greatest quality as a leader over the years was that behind his tough rhetoric, he was pragmatic and risk-averse,” a former senior aide told me. “He seems to have lost that now. His last election victory was just one too many and his sixth term as prime minister is the one in which he is destroying his legacy.”