UPDATE: Middle East Eye published my latest piece: Netanyahu has taken Israel to the abyss. What is his exit strategy? I also did an interview yesterday with ABC Australian radio’s Late Night Live program on the judicial coup. My interview for Arab Voices with Said Fattouh of KPFT-Houston, will air tomorrow night.
After firing his defense minister, and hearing repeated warnings from Pres. Biden, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu announced a month-long “pause” in implementing his fascist coup via Knesset legislation. The NY Times recounts the unprecedented lobbying campaign mounted by the president himself and the US ambassador, Tom Nides, warning Netanyahu that his agenda would damage relations with the US, not to mention tearing at the fabric of Israeli society as well.
Biden, normally a stout pro-Israel politician who boasts of his long and strong relationship with Netanyahu, was himself reading the political tea leaves. Precisely amidst this crisis in Israel-US relations, Gallup released a poll concerning the comparative American support for Israel and Palestine. It offered the shocking news that for the first time ever, more Democrats sympathized with Palestine than Israel.
Despite Biden’s ironclad commitment to the Israel Lobby agenda over many decades, he understood the political ground is shifting. If he didn’t adapt to this change, it would put him out of touch with the rest of the Party. In fact, progressive Congressional Democrats just released a letter (full text here) denouncing the Israeli coup:
“It was heartening to see President Biden state that ‘They [the Israeli government] cannot continue down this road.’ I believe these two threats are deeply connected: as long as the violation of Palestinian rights is permitted, the democratic and human rights of everyone in the region will remain in danger…
We call on your administration to ensure that all future foreign assistance to Israel, including weapons and equipment, is not used in support of gross violations of human rights, including by strengthening end-use monitoring and financial tracking. We ask that you respond with a detailed plan as to how the administration plans to achieve that goal…
[We are] “deeply concerned by Israeli government moves that demonstrate that illegal de facto and de jure annexation of the occupied West Bank is well underway…This Israeli government’s anti-democratic mission to dismantle the rule of law is a threat to Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
We know your administration has met repeatedly with Israeli officials to reiterate U.S. support for ‘equal measures of freedom, dignity, security and prosperity’ for both Israelis and Palestinians. Unfortunately, these good faith entreaties have had no effect….
The planned judicial overhaul will fail to “lessen the systemic violence against Palestinians, including annexation of Palestinian land. The Israeli government’s actions are in clear violation of international law and commitments made to the U.S.; its agenda will further devastate Palestinian communities and heighten tension with violent consequences for both Palestinians and Israelis. Only clear steps to change political conditions will pave the way for peace.””
The lions are awakening from slumber and they are hungry.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out in terms of future Democratic presidential primaries and in Congressional legislation concerning Israel. Military appropriation bills for Israel have become a hotbed of contention between the progressive and moderate wings of the Party. The new Israeli extremist reality will only strengthen the hand of those who favor restricting US military aid.
I have known President Biden for over 40 years, and I appreciate his longstanding commitment to Israel. The alliance between Israel and the United States is unbreakable and always overcomes the occasional disagreements between us
— Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) March 28, 2023
Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.
— Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) March 28, 2023
The Israeli leader responded with several tweets which, on the one hand, ignored the scolding he’d endured; and on the other hand were defiant, telling Biden mind his ow business. As Haaretz noted, Netanyahu offered one tweet to the American audience and another to his far-right audience. The tweets, in effect, contradicted each other. But he assumed that each party would read the tweet they wanted and ignore the other. It seems a strange way of doing politics. But there is much in Israeli politics that follows such a strange trajectory.
The army mutinies
The other factor which compelled Netanyahu to pull back from his legislative blitzkrieg was the firing of his defense minister, Yoav Gallant. After Gallant made a televised address asking his boss to initiate a pause in the proceedings, the prime minister fired him (though there is some confusion over whether he’s done so formally). The pro-democracy movement, which had organized ever-larger protests over the past 12 weeks, erupted in fury and 600,000 Israelis convened in 150 cities and towns to vent their anger. Tens of thousands shut down Tel Aviv’s main highway to bring business as usual to a halt. This made it inevitable that he had to climb down from his previous intractable position.
One of the reasons Gallant delivered that address was what he was hearing from his generals and staff officers. Not only were senior personnel, including most critically pilots, refusing reserve duty–but active duty officers, the backbone of the force, planned to do so. Even more disturbing, Haaretz reports:
Among both current and former senior I.D.F. officers, the discussion Sunday night focused on whether a mass resignation of major generals and brigadier generals was necessary to stop the madness.”
It took the threat of mass mutiny to get the defense minister to break with the prime minister; and for the latter to recognize he’d reached a (temporary) dead-end.
While some in the media reporting on the pause, presented it as a welcome development boding well for resolving the conflict with political compromise, wiser pundits were far more skeptical. Haaretz called the announcement a ruse: a tactical retreat meant to test the staying power of the pro-democracy movement; while rallying his forces for a return to the fray after the end of the truce.
Anyone who knows Netanyahu knows that he is an inveterate liar. When he hits a political roadblock he backs off temporarily, playing for time. As soon as decides the time is right, he jumps right back into the fray. He is an expert tactician (though a miserable strategist) who most often prevails despite retreats along the way.
Without question, after the Passover and Independence Day holidays, Netanyahu will return his anti-democratic bills to the Knesset, where they will be rammed through. The Supreme Court, which itself is right-wing (though not right-wing enough for the orchestrators of the judicial coup) will review the legislation and almost certainly disqualify portions or all of the legislation.
This, in turn, will set up a major confrontation between the legislative and judicial branches. Since the Knesset has no way of overriding the Court (one of the new bills would offer the legislature this power), its ruling will prevail. However, two justices will be retiring this year, one of whom is the relatively liberal president of the Court. An independent committee reviews candidates and appoints them to their posts. It is a diverse body which comprises sitting justices and legal authorities. New legislation would “reform” the committee, ensuring the ruling coalition would dominate it, thereby ensuring a Court majority that would do its bidding. The latter would, in turn, render rulings favorable to the anti-democracy forces, satisfying the goal of neutering an independent judiciary.
When the time comes for the independent committee to meet and begin deliberations, Netanyahu will mount fierce pressure to reconstitute it according to the new “reforms.” How will this play out? Will the committee defy him or bow to pressure? If it does, then the anti-democracy forces will have won a major battle. If it defies him, it will pose a major defeat.
If convicted and disqualified, will Netanyahu resign?
Another critical juncture will be the corruption trial Netanyahu faces. Though he was first indicted years ago and the judicial process has been moving at a snail’s pace (probably deliberately), it seems possible, or even likely, he will be convicted of at least one of the three charges, if not all. This would allow the attorney general to declare him unfit for office. Under normal circumstances, a prime minister would have no recourse but to obey. But Netanyahu is already defying a directive not to involve himself in the judicial reform per a settlement agreement he signed promising not to do so. If she does disqualify him, will he obey or defy her? If he defies her, will his coalition MKs break ranks and demand his resignation; or stand by him in order to preserve their own political skins?
Israel’s enemies stand back
One of the most potent arguments raised by both sides of the debate concerns national security. The pro-democracy camp argues that opposition within the ranks of the IDF to the right-wing coup is damaging Israel’s security posture, offering an opportunity to its enemies may take advantage of such disarray to attack it. The anti-democracy camp hits out at opponents blaming them for creating the vulnerability and any damage to Israel’s security that results.
Curiously, Israel’s main enemies, Hezbollah and Iran, have remained silent in the face of this domestic crisis. There have been virtually no bellicose threats issued and no major military moves exploiting any perceived Israeli weakness. There is a dictum in politics: if your opponent is mired in scandal, stay silent and watch as s/he self-destructs. No need to help the process along, or to appear to be exploiting it for advantage.
Both the Lebanese militant and Iranian Revolutionary Guards may be following this approach. If they were to attack, it would only rally Israelis to the government, thus distracting from the internal dissension wracking the country. Far better to let that play out, before examining the security-political terrain and determining a course of action that takes advantage of it.
In the past, when Netanyahu has faced an internal political crisis he turns to a military operation to distract Israelis from scandal or political dissension. Gaza always serves as a suitable punching bag for such diversions. Some media analysts have warned of this possibility. Tom Friedman, normally a loyal pro-Israel journalist, even urged Pres. Biden to demand that Netanyahu obtain US approval for any such attack against Iran. But such a possibility seems not only extremely unlikely, but impossible given the strong opposition among the ranks to the judicial coup. You can’t get an army to fight a war when it refuses to trust the leaders sending it into battle.
In an interview I did yesterday for Australian radio, the interviewer asked me to project the political outcome of all this drama. Would Netanyahu succeed or fail? Would his government survive or fall? I responded that though I’d been following Israeli politics for many decades, it was almost impossible to know the answer. It seems likely that the current coalition composed of an amalgam of moderate right-wing parties along with avowed Judeo-fascist parties, which are often at odds, will fail. Whether this happens sooner or later is unclear.