Gallant Rebels, Israel Toys with National Suicide and . . . Benjamin Netanyahu? (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- March 27, 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.

(updated to 4 p.m. Israel time, Monday March 27)

Q. A few weeks ago, you wrote that Israel is in the throes of a revolutionary situation--not a revolution but rather a dynamic in which it is impossible to predict what happens next. Did that revolutionary situation reach a climax on Sunday night and Monday morning?

A. At the time of writing on Monday, we cannot tell whether the climax is behind us or ahead of us. In the last few weeks we have witnessed a ‘perfect storm’ of greedy political dysfunction that has hobbled Israel’s security and invited attack by its enemies. You have to go back 2000 years to the fall of the Second Temple to find such a suicidal drive within the leadership of the Jewish people, such folly.

We are looking at a catastrophic progression of events and egos played out over recent months, that goes as follows:

- Prime Minister Netanyahu, once a champion of Israel’s independent judiciary, reverses course after being indicted on corruption charges.

- Netanyahu joins forces with Likud politicians influenced by libertarian and neo-con thinking, along with Kahanist and fascist rightists, all dedicated to exploiting a right-religious Knesset majority in order to politicize Israeli justice: ‘judicial reform’.

- A significant majority of Israeli public opinion sees judicial reform as an anti-democratic takeover of the High Court of Justice. A major public protest campaign ensues. The hundreds of thousands of demonstrators against the reform are backed by educators, economists, health specialists and other sectors of public life.

- The high-tech sector, engine of the economy, warns that without an independent judiciary it is losing investments and manpower. The banking sector concurs.

- President Isaac Herzog calls on Netanyahu to freeze the legislative process and discuss alternatives, including his own proposals, with the opposition.

- Reserve pilots in the Israel Air Force warn that without an independent judicial sector they will not be protected from prosecution by international courts for civilian casualties caused in combat, for example in virtually every round of fighting with Hamas in Gaza. The reserve pilots begin to strike, followed by reservists in intelligence, cyber and other branches of the military who are apprehensive about serving a compromised democracy.

- Israel’s enemies take note of what appears to be a weakening of the societal fabric. Israel’s Intelligence heads warn that Hezbollah in Lebanon, along with Hamas and others in the West Bank and Gaza, all backed by Iran, are planning acts of aggression during Ramadan, which began last week and lasts a month. Two weeks ago a daring ambush attack 60 km. south of the Lebanon border was apparently launched by Hezbollah in an indication of weakened Israel deterrence.

- Meanwhile, Iran’s military nuclear program is reportedly now only months from producing a weapon. The Syrian arena heats up: Iranian proxies are attacking US units in Syria and the US retaliates against Iranian targets. The close American military collaboration envisioned by the IAF to support an Israeli operation against Iran seems inconceivable in view of US and other international concern and criticism over Israel’s anti-democratic turn.

- Unrest in the military spreads from reservists to the standing army. IDF Chief of Staff Halevi and Defense Minister Gallant, along with head of Shin Bet Ronen Bar, warn the prime minister of looming security dangers, including a multi-front war the likes of which Israel has not seen since 1973. The security establishment, they warn, is in danger of crumbling at a time when the order of the day is to prepare both the IDF and the civilian rear for a multi-front war. Commanders of IDF elite units like 8200 appeal to their troops and officers to ‘hold the line’, continue to serve, and keep the security establishment out of the national crisis.

- Netanyahu persists last Thursday in backing legislation to politicize selection of High Court judges. Gallant goes public Saturday night with a warning and vows “not to raise my hand” in a vote expected this week, thereby breaking Likud solidarity and inviting other relatively liberal Likud members of Knesset to join him in calling for a freeze in judicial-reform legislation. “What is happening in Israeli society affects the IDF,” Gallant states. “From every direction I encounter feelings of anger, pain and disappointment such that I have never met before. I watch as the source of our strength is eroded.”

- Attorney-General Baharav-Miara declares Netanyahu to be in violation of his undertaking before the High Court, as a condition for taking office while under indictment, not to deal with related judicial issues. He is liable to be cited for contempt of court.

- Netanyahu on Sunday evening fires Gallant. Spontaneously, a hundred thousand Israelis demonstrate all night, closing a major traffic artery for 12 hours. A few Likud MKs join the protesters and Gallant in their call to stop the judicial reform. On Monday the Histadrut, together with the banks, leading industrialists and Likud mayors and activists, declare a general strike. Universities and local councils close. Ben Gurion airport closes. The country is seized by a sense of national emergency.

- In a very unusual act, Netanyahu’s own lawyer in his corruption trial refuses to represent him further unless he cancels the judicial reform.

- The ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) parties, adept at sensing which way the political wind is blowing, pressure Netanyahu to freeze judicial-protest legislation. Shas leader Aryeh Deri, whose legal problems forced him out of government, calls for a stop to efforts to legislate his way back to a ministerial position.

- At the time of writing, the country awaits a pronouncement from Netanyahu, who reportedly will announce a pause in judicial-reform legislation and will call for dialogue and consensus. So low is Netanyahu’s credibility that, for the time being, massive demonstrations against him continue, particularly in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Pro-Netanyahu forces are planning to demonstrate too. Violent clashes between demonstrators look likely Monday evening.

Q. Had the Knesset on Monday passed the law politicizing selection of High Court judges, what was likely to follow domestically at the strategic level?

A. The constitutional legality of the takeover measure would immediately have been appealed to the High Court. With mass demonstrations continuing and disruptions to the security and economic sectors escalating, the High Court was likely to disallow the takeover legislation. Some in the ruling coalition, led by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, had threatened to disobey the Court, convene the newly-legislated coalition-dominated committee to appoint judges, and appoint the Court’s next two judges and the next president of the Court, all representative of the coalition’s right-libertarian views and all to assume their positions in November this year.

This would have changed the course of justice and democracy in Israel and placed Israel in constitutional crisis. In the weeks and months ahead, the coalition was planning to pass more than a hundred additional corrupt and opportunistic measures: everything from political appointment of legal advisers to the government and to ministries, via total immunity for security forces while engaged in operational duties, to a jail sentence for assisting ultra-Orthodox minors looking for advice and assistance in order to adopt a more secular lifestyle. All would be appealed to the High Court and presumably disallowed by the Court unless and until the coalition’s politically-appointed judges take office.

Q. And internationally?

A. The Biden administration has made clear its disapproval of Netanyahu’s attempt at a judicial takeover. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been consistently snubbed or rebuked by European leaders he insists on meeting to discuss Iran on successive weekend junkets.

The public movement opposing the corrupt ‘judicial reform’ would pursue its cause in Washington, London and elsewhere, and among Diaspora Jewry. Israel would become increasingly isolated, its economy slowly crippled, its military riven by dissent and refusal to obey orders. Israel’s Islamist enemies in Iran, southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip were already celebrating.

Q. And now that Netanyahu has backed off?

A. At the time of writing, the country was still awaiting definitive word from Netanyahu. He was reportedly trying to freeze (not cancel!) judicial reform while still holding his coalition together--particularly Kahanist messianists Smotrich and Ben Gvir and Justice Minister Levin, who has staked his political future on politicization of the High Court and subordinating it to a populist Knesset.

If and when Netanyahu officially backs down, it remains to be seen for how long and under what conditions. Will the coalition and the opposition now enter into dialogue? Will President Herzog play a key mediatory role? Will Israel be able to broadcast stability and business-as-usual to the international commercial, high-tech and diplomatic communities? Will Israel’s own high-tech, banking and security communities go back to business-as-usual?

Will Gallant be reinstated as defense minister on behalf of the Likud? Will Netanyahu’s fragmented coalition hold? If not, will we witness new elections or the formation of a more moderate government? One thing is for sure: Netanyahu’s standing as a prime minister and a political tactician has suffered a serious blow. Likudniks know it, and the political opposition--in which Benny Gantz has exploited the months of instability to outshine Yair Lapid as leader--knows it.

In the best case (Netanyahu backing down), it is too early to answer all these questions. The messianists, fascists, Kahanists, libertarians, Haredim and neo-cons will have lost this round. But they won’t give up. They represent elements that demographically and politically are growing and gathering strength within Israeli society.

Meanwhile, for at least a fleeting moment and hopefully much more, and even though the dust has not settled, something has changed for the better. It looks like democracy has won the day in Israel.