Netanyahu Holds the Key to De-escalating Israel’s Crisis

How the country’s tense dispute over court powers may have crossed a point of no return and why the only solution is in the government’s hands

Netanyahu Holds the Key to De-escalating Israel’s Crisis
Thousands of Israelis in Tel Aviv take part in the “Day of Resistance” rally on March 11, 2023, to protest government plans to introduce sweeping changes to the judiciary. (Amir Terkel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Because of mass demonstrations along the highways, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced last week to use a helicopter instead of what is usually the 20-minute drive from Jerusalem to Israel’s international airport near Tel Aviv. Like a tinpot ruler afraid of his own people, the long-serving Netanyahu also deployed an empty helicopter as a decoy against protesters and to ensure the logistical shame wasn’t caught on camera.

In another sign of ignominy, upon arrival at the airport, Netanyahu met with visiting U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who was unable to leave the airport and flew out after only a few hours. The Israeli premier then embarked on a diplomatic trip to Rome, where he and his wife used the long weekend to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

Israel these days feels like a country on the brink. In the face of massive public opposition to proposed curbs in the supreme court’s powers, Netanyahu’s far-right government — just over two months in office — is pushing ahead with its plan to radically overhaul the judiciary and arrogate nearly unchecked power to itself.

Hundreds of thousands of citizens have taken to the streets for 10 successive weeks, in demonstrations and strike actions, as part of the largest and longest protest movement in Israel’s history. The twin pillars of the country’s military strength and economic power — elite combat reservists and tech workers — are in open revolt and have taken highly public leadership roles in the protests. The shekel has depreciated, Israelis are moving money out of the country, and global credit rating agencies warn of further negative repercussions.

On an almost daily basis, the government appears to be in open warfare, not only against the court (its first and immediate target) but also its own attorney general, legal advisers and national police. Senior ministers have been forced to cancel multiple public appearances because of demonstrations, while Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, was recently besieged at a hair salon in swanky north Tel Aviv and had to be extracted by riot police.

“Whoever thinks that a real civil war, of human lives, is a limit that we will not reach, has no clue,” said President Isaac Herzog in yet another harrowed primetime address to the nation on March 15. “Precisely now — in the 75th year of our independence — the abyss is within touching distance. We are at a crossroads: a historic crisis or a defining constitutional moment.” (As president, Herzog is the ceremonial head of state but not the head of government.)

So far, it seems, Netanyahu and his coalition partners are choosing the former, immediately rejecting a compromise proposal unveiled by the president.

A slew of draft bills have been moving through the Israeli parliament that would, in their current form, allow the government to control the judicial appointment process and effectively undermine the court’s review powers over the executive and legislative branches. The government still says it intends to ram through the legislation in the coming weeks, before parliament recesses for Passover break in early April.

Opponents and critics view this as a pure power grab that would usher in a tyranny of the majority. Demonstrators on the streets, from all political and social walks of life, say they’re defending Israel’s democratic order.

Meanwhile, in classic strongman fashion, Netanyahu has dismissed the protesters as mere “anarchists” funded by unnamed foreign elements and egged on by a left-wing media. He has compared the peaceful and law-abiding demonstrators to the extremist Jewish settlers who rampaged last month through a Palestinian village in the West Bank, setting fire to homes with families still inside them. Other Netanyahu mouthpieces, including his son and close adviser, Yair, have likened the protest movement to “domestic terrorism” and demanded a harsher crackdown by the national police.

All of this has only further fanned the flames of protest, with more citizens joining in the street demonstrations, many for the first time in their lives. Some even identify as right-wing.

Protesters — high school kids, university students, tech workers, doctors, lawyers, parents, grandparents — have taken to greeting one another ironically as “anarchist” or “terrorist.” With rather less irony, terms used by Palestinians in their own struggle against Israel have been thrown around unofficially by the media and some protesters, such as a “Jewish Day of Rage” or “Israeli Intifada.”

Protest leaders are clear-eyed that there is nothing politically or institutionally that can force the government to back down, save ever more public pressure and the disruption of daily life inside the country. The government has so far refused even to temporarily pause its legislative blitz so as to allow some form of negotiation with the opposition.

“It’s difficult and depressing, and yet I’m optimistic,” said one tech CEO prominent in the protest movement to New Lines. “Everyone is fighting — the tech sector, [military] reservists, the entire country … even the Mossad [Israel’s famously secretive foreign intelligence agency, which granted permission to its employees to protest]. When did the Mossad ever put out a press release?”

The domestic upheaval is not without its dangers, as evidenced by the thousands of elite combat veterans who have signed petitions threatening to refuse service if Israel, in their minds, ceases to be a democracy. The head of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevy, even took the unprecedented step of meeting with Netanyahu last week to warn him about the growing rift.

“The IDF will not be able to operate while the nation is divided. The IDF will not be able to operate without the volunteering spirit of the reservists … which depends on the preservation of the IDF as the ‘people’s army’ in a Jewish and democratic country,” Halevy said in a March 12 speech.

As with much else over the past two months, long-standing taboos in Jewish Israeli society are being stretched to near their breaking point — including the prospect of a constitutional crisis, institutional collapse and possible civil war.

So far, the hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets still hold out hope of the government not following through, of a brokered compromise, of national unity holding. To one middle-class demonstrator in Tel Aviv last weekend, I asked what would happen if the demonstrations failed and the laws were passed.

“We will burn down the country,” replied the 40-year-old insurance salesman and father of three.

In institutional terms, the likely next step, according to legal analysts, is the supreme court striking down the government’s legislation as “unconstitutional constitutional amendments.” In such a scenario, according to Guy Lurie, a research fellow at the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, Israel will find itself in a full-blown and historic constitutional standoff, with the judicial and legal system on one side and the government and Parliament on the other.

“It’s a place where we don’t know what will happen because Israel has never been there before, where the respective government branches don’t recognize each other’s authority,” Lurie says. “I only hope the institutions of state obey the supreme court, as the branch tasked with interpreting the law. But I can only tell you how we get into this — I can’t tell you how we get out.”

Multiple protest leaders told New Lines they were confident that, in such a standoff, state institutions — the military, police, internal security agency, Mossad and more — would remain on the supreme court’s side. Yet, in truth, no one can be certain, because Israel has never come close to testing such a hypothesis.

Netanyahu, for his part, remains adamant that he and his government are the true democrats and are merely expressing the will of the people. Publicly, he has shown no inclination to back down.

“Only four months ago we went to elections. The government led by me received a clear mandate from the citizens of Israel … and we will fulfill our mandate,” he thundered at the start of the cabinet meeting on March 12.

“In any proper democracy that wishes to live,” he added ominously, “the elected government is the one that is responsible for the army, the police, and the other security agencies. … This is the basis of every democracy and every correct society, and if you undermine it, you undermine the very existence of democracy.”

Longtime Netanyahu watchers and even former aides struggle to answer the question of how Israel’s longest-serving leader brought the country to this breaking point: the worst internal crisis in its history, with his own economic officials warning of future ruin, his own security officials warning of disaster, diaspora Jewry threatening to halt support, stalwart international friends expressing concern, and even the Biden administration refusing to invite him to Washington and boycotting his radical far-right ministers.

Adding to the sense of drift, tensions increased with Lebanon this week, following a cross-border incursion deep into Israel by an armed militant, who was shot dead after carrying out a roadside bomb attack at a highway intersection. The IDF reportedly believes the attacker had links to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Meanwhile, violence with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem threatens to escalate with the start of Ramadan in just a few days (which this year coincides with Passover).

“There was always a tension between ‘Dr. Netanyahu,’ the historic statesman on the world stage, and ‘Mr. Bibi,’ the cutthroat politician,” says Tal Shalev, Walla News’ chief political correspondent, who has covered and interviewed Netanyahu for years.

“These days it feels like analyzing him with the old tools just doesn’t work, and it’s probably more correct to analyze him through the prism of a populist, propagandist, extremist and dangerous leader.”

According to Shalev, Netanyahu is in real distress and does genuinely understand the implications of what’s happening, including the need to calm things down — and yet in both word and deed he is doing the exact opposite.

“The old Netanyahu was strong and could have stopped this type of legislation even at the last minute before it passes. But this Netanyahu is weak, beholden to extreme [coalition] partners, and he probably can’t stop any of them even if he wanted to,” says Shalev.

All of the recent talk regarding Israel’s constitutional order and reform misses the key part, she adds, which is that Netanyahu himself is still on trial for a raft of corruption charges and would be the prime beneficiary of any judicial overhaul.

“Netanyahu 10 years ago would never have had a need for this overhaul and would never have let it happen,” she says. “The amazing Israel we have was built by Bibi. I don’t understand how he’s destroying his own project.”

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