Netanyahu v. Levin v. Biden v. Democracy Protesters (Hard Questions Tough Answers July 3, 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: PM Netanyahu is promising democracy protesters ‘less for less’: less judicial legislation in return for fewer protests. Justice Minister Levin and other hardliners are promising the full menu of anti-democratic legislation. Compromise talks under Pres. Herzog are dead. Can we now expect a full-fledged return to ‘judicial reform’?

But wait: the IDF just invaded Jenin.

A: Right now, the Knesset has been promised Netanyahu’s revised, more limited menu of anti-democratic judicial revisions. Critics, observers, and the broad anti-Netanyahu movement of several hundred thousand demonstrators are skeptical. After all, Netanyahu has an international reputation as a compulsive liar.

For what it is worth, Netanyahu told the Wall Street Journal last week that he “threw out” the proposal whereby the Knesset could override High Court decisions. (By a simple majority or a weighted majority? The prime minister fudged his answer.). In contrast, he still insists that the Knesset Constitutional Affairs Committee prioritize a proposal to cancel the High Court’s authority to disallow government decisions and appointments based on their lack of “reasonableness.”

Then too, Netanyahu’s government is reportedly proposing a newly revised committee for appointing judges, including High Court judges, in which there is parity between coalition and opposition representatives, but no High Court judges and no representatives of the Bar participate. Is he suggesting to eliminate the role of the judges and the lawyers because they are generally too moderate? Only politicians will appoint judges?

But first things first. It is the “reasonableness” legislation that Netanyahu prioritizes for passage before the Knesset’s summer recess in August-September. This is legislation that Attorney General Baharav-Miara terms “a black hole in democracy”. It would permit appointment of ministers who are criminals and enable ministers to steal and expropriate without any judicial review of their actions. The remainder of the Netanyahu government’s judicial initiatives can, according to the prime minister, wait for autumn.

This new Netanyahu tactic has become known as the “salami method.” It mimics the gradual but ultimately complete success of the anti-liberal revolutions in Hungary and Poland.

Q: And the opposition?

A: Leaders of the opposition demonstrators are aware that even in this theoretical best case, the compromise talks under President Herzog have been scuttled and the selection of new High Court judges postponed by Netanyahu’s maneuvering. Accordingly, the opposition is going all out to escalate demonstrations to the very edge of legality. It is beginning this week with a blockade of Haifa port and an effort to paralyze Ben Gurion airport. Demonstrations outside the homes of key ‘judicial reform’ leaders like Attorney General Levin are becoming more aggressive, including the burning of tires in crowded neighborhoods.

Leaders of the opposition to Netanyahu’s initiatives insist they all must end: no compromises, no nuances. Meanwhile, they reject Netanyahu’s ‘less for less’ hint that they tone down the demonstrations.

But do the masses of demonstrators agree? On the one hand, after exactly half a year of protesting en masse, their numbers are beginning to decrease. At work here are ‘demonstration fatigue’ along, perhaps, with a naïve willingness on the part of some to meet the prime minister halfway (and summer vacations; this is, after all, primarily a middle-class protest).

On the other hand, the numbers and categories of IDF reservists threatening not to serve are growing to include reserve physicians and Special Operations personnel. Here we recall that it was precisely the threat of reserve pilots not to serve, and Defense Minister Galant’s consequent appeal to freeze anti-judicial legislation (leading to his pseudo-firing by the prime minister), that led last March to Netanyahu’s decision to “pause” ‘judicial reform’ legislation until now.

The pilots and additional elite reservists accuse the government, not without logic, of sabotaging Israel’s capacity, in wartime, to respond to war crimes accusations. The ‘judicial reforms’ are weakening the perception that Israel’s judiciary is capable on its own of probing alleged Israeli war crimes. These most activist of the opposition demonstrators know precisely how sensitive the government is to the allegation that it itself poses a threat to Israeli security when it denies the army optimal legal backing at a time of war.

Then too, extremist ministers like Levin, National Security Minister Ben Gvir and Minister of Finance Smotrich are ignoring Netanyahu’s new ‘moderation’ and insisting they still intend to legislate the full menu of their anti-judicial initiatives. Given how weak the prime minister appears to be, whom should the public believe?

And the Israel Police, apparently anxious to please their boss Ben Gvir, are engaging in increasingly comprehensive crackdowns on anti-government demonstrators, often on what appear to be trumped-up and baseless suspicions and charges. The Israel Police are even reportedly considering investigating former PM Ehud Barak and former IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan (Meretz) because their anti-Netanyahu rhetoric has included calls for (non-violent) civil disobedience.

Q: Where does Sunday night’s IDF invasion of Jenin fit in?

A: Jenin is once again, as in 2002, a focus of Palestinian extremism. The IDF’s main concern in the current Operation Home and Garden (bayt ve-gan) is to curtail Iranian influence, via Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas, in Jenin and the northern West Bank. It may hope that a Jenin cleared of extremists, its bomb workshops and command centers destroyed and its nascent rocket industry nipped in the bud, will be re-occupied by cooperative Palestinian Authority security forces who have been keeping their distance.

In view of the Netanyahu government’s current outpost/settlement-building binge in the West Bank, that is doubtful. In other words, the achievements of this operation will be short-term at best.

By Monday noon, the Jenin operation appeared successful and likely to end soon. Netanyahu, who is often accused of plotting a war to distract the public from his anti-judicial ‘reform’ and his own legal woes, is in reality extremely cautious militarily lest he be blamed for IDF casualties and Palestinian civilian losses and draw international condemnation.

In any case, this operation will hardly improve Netanyahu’s chances of achieving a breakthrough to normalization with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is more sensitive than, say, the UAE to the welfare of Palestinians.

Note that the operation was timed for the Fourth of July weekend in the US in the hope it will be completed by July 5 and not draw Biden administration fire.

Finally, for what it’s worth, be assured that if the operation escalates--with Hezbollah in Lebanon and/or PIJ in Gaza joining in--the striking reservists will faithfully report for duty.

Q: Netanyahu’s interview with the Wall Street Journal, at a time when he refuses interviews to the Israeli media, was understood to constitute a choreographed signal of relative moderation to President Biden and the US Congress. So why is Netanyahu planning to visit China, an initiative almost certainly understood in Washington as a red flag?

A: In view of the composition of his government and the nature of its policies, Netanyahu is not invited to Washington or to European or Arab capitals, nor even to Abu Dhabi, which promised him a visit back in 2021 and has continually postponed it. Because he is not invited to the White House, he does not even allow Defense Minister Galant to visit Washington in order to cultivate US-Israel security ties; Galant recently had to meet Secretary of Defense Austin in Brussels.

The China visit--no date has yet been announced--appears to be a message from Netanyahu to Biden that Israel’s leader has alternatives. There is an element of spite here. The visit, we are told by the PM’s intimates, is a ‘signal’ to Washington.

This is dangerous for US-Israel relations. Netanyahu knows that were he to cancel his ‘judicial reform’ entirely, freeze settlement construction and reign in his most extreme ministers--he would be invited to visit Biden. But he cannot take those steps without losing his coalition. Instead, he ostensibly modifies but does not abandon judicial reform, and goes to visit Chairman Xi. He has ‘other options’. If the Far East has become America’s primary strategic challenge, surely Israel must get involved there too.

China is undoubtedly ‘on a roll’ in the Middle East. It mediated successfully between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It wants to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians. It seems to have a finger in every Middle East pie. For these and additional, even more pressing reasons--East Asian security, cyber, economic tensions--Washington’s anxiety about Chinese diplomatic, security and commercial initiatives is at a record high.

American sensitivity to Israel-China relations is hardly new. The US has long warned Israel to beware of Chinese penetration into security-sensitive Israeli infrastructure projects like ports and Israeli academic R&D initiatives. Then too, Netanyahu has a record, at least in American eyes, of meddling in sensitive Middle East-related American diplomatic issues: remember his intervention with the US Congress in 2015 against President Obama’s JCPOA Iran-nuclear deal.

Netanyahu’s China initiative, with its obvious backdrop of US-Israel tensions and of the prime minister’s credibility deficit in Washington, has all the earmarks of yet another major irritant in Israel-US relations.

Q: Bottom line?

A: Don’t believe Netanyahu; ever. Look for the current confrontation--between his government and the majority of Israelis who reject his unilateral judicial reform program--to escalate, with a possible slide into violence.

Let’s hope for everyone’s sake that the Jenin operation does not escalate. Yet, either because Netanyahu has lost control or is pretending to be a nice guy who has control problems while his agenda is carried out by others, look for escalation in the West Bank even without Jenin. The Smotrich-Ben Gvir team is tightening Israel’s annexation-motivated settler grip there. Palestinians will retaliate; Arabs everywhere will protest.

US-Israel relations will suffer. So will Israel-Arab relations.