The Three Faces of Benjamin Netanyahu (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- January 9, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Are you implying that Bibi Netanyahu has a split personality?

A. A split political personality. After less than two weeks in office, the new Netanyahu coalition can be characterized with reference to three key ministers, their first steps in power, and their CVs. They are Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir, Minister of Justice Yariv Levin, and Minister of Strategic Affairs (in the Prime Minister’s Office) Ron Dermer.

The three are so different that they appear to reflect three distinct political directions that Netanyahu, in his sixth term as prime minister, plans to pursue. Or perhaps, that he feels obliged to pursue in order to achieve three primary objectives: avoiding prosecution on corruption charges, expanding the Abraham Accords to include Saudi Arabia, and holding on to US support despite his government’s extreme-right policies.

Q. Start with Minister of National Security Ben Gvir. Presumably you are referring to his 13-minute walk last week on the Temple Mount esplanade.

A. That walk had nothing to do with Ben Gvir’s national security portfolio. It had everything to do with the flamboyant but empty messianic-nationalist gestures that characterize the far-right wing of this coalition and that Netanyahu has abetted in return for messianic-nationalist support.

Ben Gvir was fulfilling one of his best-known campaign promises. In doing so, he was compelled by the security establishment to take his walk early in the morning when no Muslim worshippers were present. Nor did he attempt to pray while on the Mount. After his visit he bragged that he had sent a resounding message of defiance to Hamas--as if Hamas controls the Muslim Waqf authority on the Mount (it does not) and as if a wide variety of Israelis do not visit the Mount daily (they do).

Yet, precisely because the issue here was Ben Gvir and his empty but inflammatory rhetoric, the visit to the Mount produced angry Arab, European and American condemnations. The UAE postponed a scheduled Netanyahu visit. The Saudis took a step back from Netanyahu’s efforts to warm up relations. The Jordanians gave Israel’s ambassador a dressing down.

At least Ben Gvir did not start a war on this, the single most volatile spot in the Middle East. But stay tuned . . .

Q. Turning to Minister of Justice Yariv Levin, last Wednesday he presented his far-reaching plan to legislate the dwarfing and muffling of Israel’s judicial branch of government. In the past, Netanyahu had spoken out forcefully against precisely these draconian ideas.

A. In the past, Netanyahu championed the judicial branch and objected to Levin’s proposals. Until the prime minister himself was indicted on corruption charges. Now he is firmly behind Levin’s dramatic initiative, which he seems to believe will eventuate in cancellation of his corruption trial.

Levin’s revolutionary scheme to change the entire judicial system was presented on the eve of the High Court of Justice hearing on the legitimacy of Aryeh Deri’s appointment to head two ministries. Levin’s timing appeared to many to be a mafia-style threat by him against the High Court. Remember how Netanyahu gathered his loyal ministers for an intimidating photo-op at the entrance to a lower court at the beginning of his trial on corruption charges?

Levin’s proposed legislation would, quite simply, politicize justice in Israel. A simple Knesset majority would be able to override High Court of Justice decisions. Ministerial legal advisers would be political rather than professional appointees. Judges would be appointed by a committee dominated by members of Knesset, i.e., politicians. The High Court would be prohibited from reaching decisions based on the principle of ‘reasonableness’ in the eyes of the average citizen, thereby preventing High Court intervention when a citizen protests an outlandish government act or decision.

Levin, as Netanyahu’s right-hand man, handled the recent coalition negotiations in which the Likud made far-reaching concessions to the ultra-Orthodox and messianist-Kahanist parties. By weakening his fellow Likud ministers, fragmenting their ministries and pushing some ministerial hopefuls completely to the sidelines, Levin appears to have positioned himself as a potential successor to Netanyahu. At age 53 he has plenty of time (Netanyahu is 73).

Here is a sample from the unprecedented coalition guidelines Levin had a hand in drafting: “The Jewish people has an exclusive and unassailable right to the entire territory of the Land of Israel. The government will advance and develop settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel, in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan and Judea and Samaria.”

Apropos Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, one of the key ironies of Levin’s judicial ‘reform’ program is that the High Court that he believes has disproportionate power is precisely the body that has legitimized the West Bank settlement movement and shielded Israel for more than 50 years from heavy international condemnation and sanctions. And in the past 30 years it has intervened only 22 times to bar legislation as unconstitutional. But Levin, the ultimate populist, wants Israel’s legislators to take over these responsibilities. This is a formula for the decimation of Israel’s justice system and the dismantling of the checks and balances governing relations among Israel’s legislative, executive and judicial authorities.

A second irony--and this is merely my personal impression--is that, by and large, Israel’s High Court judges are smart people. Indeed, they are a lot smarter than most of Israel’s legislators, some of them truly populist dopes, to whom Levin wants to give the judges’ authority. Given the general deterioration of governance in Israel in recent years, if I have to choose whom to listen to on a controversial constitutional issue, there is no contest.

Until recently Levin was Netanyahu’s grey eminence--totally anti-charismatic, a bit creepy, a lawyer with a Strangelovian obsession against the judicial branch. Now he has burst upon the national political and constitutional scene with a vengeance. He claims his reforms enjoy overwhelming popular support when in fact Channel 12’s instant opinion poll last Friday showed unequivocally that only about one-third of Israelis support Levin’s reforms.

Of all the Likudniks, Yariv Levin frightens me.

Q. Ron Dermer is neither a Likudnik nor a member of Knesset. Why is he on your short-list of Bibi’s ‘faces’?

A. Minister of Strategic Affairs Dermer, formerly Netanyahu’s ambassador to the United States, is reportedly being charged by Netanyahu with expanding Israel’s relations with the Arab world and particularly Saudi Arabia, and maintaining relations with the United States on an even keel. That he will have to perform these functions in the face of international provocations (Temple Mount, settlements) by the likes of Ben Gvir and anti-democratic legislation by the likes of Yariv Levin, merely underlines Netanyahu’s faith in him.

Dermer is an American-born and bred Orthodox Jew. Sound familiar? He was preceded at Netanyahu’s side by Dore Gold (foreign policy adviser to the PM, UN ambassador, foreign ministry director) and Michael Oren (ambassador to the US, minister in the PM’s office), who fit the same mold: American-born, academically accomplished, strategic thinker, not politically active, conservative. Netanyahu speaks with them all in English (in some cases their Hebrew is shaky).

When it comes to discussing diplomatic strategy, these are apparently the men (no women) Netanyahu is most comfortable with. That Dermer’s job takes authority away from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not bother Netanyahu, a former diplomat who has over the years torn a wide variety of functions (Diaspora affairs, strategic planning, combatting BDS) from the ministry.

Q. Bottom line?

A. There are two bottom lines. First, Dermer’s appointment appears to reflect strong apprehension on Netanyahu’s part regarding the Biden administration’s prospective response to the provocations of Ben Gvir, Levin and the rest of this government’s extremists. Undoubtedly, President Biden is preoccupied with other heavy international issues--Ukraine, Russia, China, Iran. But note: nearly all of them actually have some sort of Israeli connection (in the case of Iran, an existential connection).

The new Israeli government is almost certain to draw growing international attention, and particularly American attention, to its provocative policies toward the Palestinians. It has already begun by diverting taxes and duties collected on their behalf under the Oslo Accords, thereby further impoverishing an already unstable Palestinian Authority.

Supporters of a democratic Israel that no longer occupies its neighbor should make every effort to publicize this Israeli government’s dangerous follies and point out how they undermine US and American Jewish interests. Netanyahu visits Washington next month. National Security Adviser Sullivan and Secretary of State Blinken will be in Israel this month. Now is a good time to sound the alarm.

In this vein, the contrast between Dermer on the one hand and Levin, Ben Gvir et al on the other, is strikingly reflected in Netanyahu’s soothing reassurances in English to the foreign press. Shades of Yasser Arafat in his heyday, promising Israel’s destruction in Arabic and a compromise non-violent two-state political process in English. The global community should call Netanyahu’s bluff.

Second, in view of initial negative polling results, it is fair to conclude that this Netanyahu government is vulnerable to Israeli public protest. If only the Knesset opposition, which lest we forget lost the November 1 Knesset election by a mere 30,000 votes, could get its act together under firm leadership!