Benjamin Netanyahu’s risky leadership move

Invoking the Judgment of Solomon to explain his pause in judicial reform, the Israeli prime minister staved off an immediate crisis. But will it cause his base to turn against him?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud Party meeting at the Knesset, March 13, 2023. Photo by Erik Marmor/Flash90.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud Party meeting at the Knesset, March 13, 2023. Photo by Erik Marmor/Flash90.
Ruthie Blum. Photo by Ariel Jerozolomski.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, former adviser at the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is an award-winning columnist and senior contributing editor at JNS, as well as co-host, with Amb. Mark Regev, of "Israel Undiplomatic" on JNS-TV. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, and on U.S.-Israel relations. Originally from New York City, she moved to Israel in 1977 and is based in Tel Aviv.

Members of Israel’s national camp waited anxiously throughout Monday for the speech that Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was slated to deliver in the morning. The announcement that he was going to address the nation followed the previous night’s “spontaneous” anti-government demonstrations over the firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

It also virtually coincided with the declaration by the head of the Histadrut labor federation of a general strike. This imposition of an illegal shutdown of the economy, which included the closing of banks, minimizing of hospital care and even the halt to all departures at Ben-Gurion Airport, was given a voluntary tailwind by the private sector.

Though the protest movement had already proclaimed that it was launching a full “week of paralysis” to step up its campaign to cause the ruling coalition to collapse, the entry of the Histadrut into the fray was an additional twist to the carefully plotted and meticulously executed coup.

The initial excuse used by protest leaders to rile up frightened fellow travelers was judicial reform. The latest pretext for their heavily funded hate-fests was Gallant’s dismissal.

Despite the fact that his successful showing in the Likud Party primary (ultimately earning him the coveted defense portfolio) was due largely to his stance on judicial reform, he was intimidated by insubordinate IDF reservists threatening not to serve in a “dictatorship-in-the-making.”

Forgetting that his job entails representing the government to the military and not the other way around, Gallant didn’t admonish or penalize the soldiers in question. Instead, he opted to listen to their concerns and warn Netanyahu that, under these circumstances, the Israel Defense Forces would be ill-prepared to combat the concrete external dangers looming on the horizon.

Last Thursday, he decided to go public with this assertion and call for a halt to the judicial-reform process. Netanyahu—himself about to take to the airwaves, but to assure the populace that the bills on the table would not put democracy or civil rights at risk—requested that Gallant hold off on sounding such alarm bells.

Gallant agreed. Netanyahu then gave his talk and boarded a plane to London.

Before he had a chance to return from his short visit with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, however, Gallant went on TV anyway, undercutting the government’s efforts to plow ahead with the policies it was elected to implement on the one hand, and calm national nerves on the other.

His maneuver not only dealt a blow to the many soldiers horrified by the mere suggestion of laying down their weapons, and to the majority of the electorate under assault by a defeated minority. It signaled to the protesters that blackmail pays.

Ironically, Gallant was loathed by them until he caved. Since Sunday night, they’ve been hailing him as a hero who was sacked simply for telling the truth to big, bad Bibi.

Which brings us back to Monday, when supporters of the government were worried that Netanyahu intended to yield to the havoc-wreakers and succumb to international pressure to backtrack on judicial reform. But what they—and he—knew was that if he were to go this route, his coalition wouldn’t be long for this world.

But Bibi being Bibi, deemed by friend and foe alike as a masterful politician, a “magician” who always has a rabbit to pull out of his hat, he managed to perform a feat of leadership deserving of awe. While he spent hours persuading disgruntled partners on either side of the issue of whether to pause the reforms, right-wingers took to social media to organize a demonstration of their own.

An estimated 100,000 turned up outside Jerusalem’s Cinema City, waving banners championing the restoration of democracy through the will of the people at the ballot box, not the whim of the courts. Chants of “Bibi, don’t give in or give up” permeated the crisp air of the Israeli capital prior to and after Netanyahu’s anticipated address, which he began by comparing the current strife with a story from the Bible.

“Three-thousand years ago, here in Jerusalem…[t]wo women came before King Solomon, each claiming to be the real mother of a baby,” he said. “King Solomon called for a sword with which to cut the baby in half. One of the women was willing to slice the baby in two. But the other woman flatly refused, insisting that the baby remain alive and in one piece. Today, as well, two sides in the national controversy are claiming to love the baby—our country.”

He went on: “I’m aware of the enormous tension that’s growing in intensity between the two camps—between the two parts of the nation. I’m attentive to the wishes of many citizens to alleviate that tension. But there is one thing that I’m not willing to accept. There is an extremist minority that is prepared to rip our country to shreds.”

This group, he pointed out, “engages in violence…threatens to harm elected officials, fans the flames of civil war and calls for a refusal to serve [in the Israel Defense Forces]…. The State of Israel cannot exist without the IDF, and the IDF cannot exist with refusals to serve. Refusal on the part of one side will lead to refusal on the part of the other. Refusal to serve is the end of our country. I therefore demand that the heads of the security services and the military strongly oppose the phenomenon—not accommodate it, not understand it, not accept it, but put a stop to it! Those who call for refusal—those who call for anarchy and violence—are consciously ripping the baby to shreds.”

Starting with a reference to the Judgment of Solomon and total rejection of “conscientious objection” was a brilliant way of reprimanding those who profess to be safeguarding democracy while undermining the country’s economy, military and social fabric. Still, Netanyahu was working up to the punchline that was less palatable to some of his supporters.

He did this by stating that the “vast majority of Israel’s citizens, on both sides of the spectrum, do not wish to slash the baby; they’re not willing to rip the nation to shreds.” Nor, he added, is he.

“For three months, I’ve called time and again for dialogue, and also said that I would leave no stone unturned to arrive at a solution,” he said. “Because I remember—we remember—that we’re not confronting enemies; we’re confronting brothers. And I’m saying here and now: There must not be a civil war. We’re on a dangerous collision course for Israeli society. We’re at the height of a crisis that endangers the basic unity among us.”

Such a crisis, he added, easing into the news that he didn’t want construed by either camp as capitulation, “obliges all of us to act responsibly.

“Yesterday, I read [National Unity Party chairman] Benny Gantz’s letter, in which he commits, in good faith, to enter into dialogue on all the issues,” Netanyahu said. “I know that there are other people who support this approach. To them I extend my hand, and I do so after receiving the consent of most of my partners. When there is a possibility to prevent civil war through dialogue, I, as prime minister, will take a timeout for dialogue.”

Still, he stressed, “We remain firm in the need to bring the necessary adjustments to the judicial system, and we’ll provide the opportunity to achieve them, with a broad consensus…. Thus, out of a sense of national responsibility, out of the desire to prevent a schism in the nation, I have decided to suspend the second and third [final] readings of the legislation in this session of the Knesset, to give time to try to reach that broad consensus towards legislation in the next Knesset session.”

Turning to the national camp, he said, “We have the majority in the Knesset to do this alone, with enormous support in the public. Tens of thousands of our supporters came to Jerusalem this evening to support the reform…. I’m proud of you. You are not second-class citizens…. Nobody will silence your—our—voice…. You arrived spontaneously, not organized, not funded, not with a media push, with all your heart and soul. You moved me. [But] I have one request: that you continue to behave responsibly, and not get dragged into any provocation. Our path is just…. We will not allow the people’s free choice to be stolen from them. We will not forfeit the path for which we were elected. But we will make an attempt to reach a broad consensus.”

Netanyahu ended by invoking the upcoming happy and somber occasions. “Soon we will mark Passover, [Holocaust Remembrance Day], Memorial Day and Independence Day. We will sit at the holiday table together. We will mourn our fallen together. We will celebrate our independence together. And together we will be grateful for the women and men in our security services who do not for a moment forget their duty to protect all of us, all the time. Because we have a common destiny. We have a common calling—to guarantee Israel’s eternity.”

The response to this development was swift. The Histadrut called off its strike; U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides suggested that Netanyahu might soon receive an invitation to the White House; and the protest agitators vowed to keep up their struggle to oust Netanyahu and his coalition.

Yet, Netanyahu’s credit with his base is running on borrowed time. If he makes good on his promise to enact the reforms, with or without the broad consensus he seeks, he’ll retain his unprecedented standing.

If he buckles—which won’t satisfy his detractors in any case—his days at the helm are numbered. This isn’t the scenario that those who have faith in him envision.

Ruthie Blum is a Tel Aviv-based columnist and commentator. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, as well as on U.S.-Israel relations. The winner of the Louis Rappaport award for excellence in commentary, she is the author of the book “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”

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