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Netanyahu’s political touch eludes him as Israel descends into chaos


JERUSALEM — Few figures have stood astride the Israeli public stage like Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history.

Over a record six terms, the leader known as ‘Bibi’ forged an image more of a puppeteer than a politician, as he escaped scandal, bounced back from defeat and outwitted his opponents (and more some allies).

But his government’s decision to overhaul the judiciary has created a crippling political crisis – sparking mass protests, sending the currency plummeting and triggering warnings of “civil war” from Israel’s president. As the upheaval approaches its fourth month with no signs of abating, and even extends into the ranks of Israel’s revered military, the prime minister seems unable, or unwilling, to apply his much-vaunted touch.

“Where is he in all of this? This is what we all talked about,” said a former senior Netanyahu government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity so he could speak candidly about his former boss.

Israeli military joins nationwide protests against judicial reform

Little about the new government’s sudden push to radically redo the courts, or its response to the huge international backlash, bears the mark of a Netanyahu production, political observers say.

“It really is a mystery,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a Jerusalem-based columnist and author of a biography of Netanyahu. “It seems almost impossible that this guy who is the master tactician, the political strategist of Israel, the maestro of presentation, how did he misinterpret that so much?”

Netanyahu did not campaign for court overhauls in last fall’s elections, which resulted in a four-seat parliamentary majority for his coalition of conservative, ultra-Orthodox and nationalist parties. He did not mention judicial changes in his inaugural speech, which focused on promises to counter Iran, befriend Saudi Arabia and upgrade infrastructure.

But days later, Yariv Levin, the new justice minister for Netanyahu’s Likud party, introduced a surprise package of bills in the Knesset that would give ruling parties more power to overturn Supreme Court rulings. and select the judges. Additionally, as part of the package, courts would no longer be able to bar politicians convicted of crimes from holding high-level positions in government.

Supporters see the changes as crucial to reining in a justice system they say has usurped legislative authority and is hopelessly biased toward Israel’s left-wing elite. Critics say it is a power grab that would undermine the long-standing balance of power between the legislature and the judiciary and set the country on a path to authoritarianism.

Why Israel’s planned judicial overhaul is tearing the country apart

Judicial reform has never seemed to be a priority for Netanyahu, a politician who has risen on his mastery of geopolitics and economics. But it’s a longstanding ambition for Levin and other members of Netanyahu’s far-right coalition, on which he depends to maintain his slim parliamentary majority.

As the backlash intensified, Netanyahu made four trips to European capitals, trying to keep the spotlight on Iran in his familiar role as a globe-trotting statesman.

But he couldn’t leave his troubles at home: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz expressed “serious concerns” over the judicial overhaul. French President Emmanuel Macron is said to have warned that these measures go against “the common conception of democracy”. And British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Friday “stressed the importance of upholding … democratic values”.

These reproaches, and the protests that await it from Israeli expatriates, are painful for a prime minister who has compared himself to Winston Churchill, according to Aviv Bushinsky, Netanyahu’s chief of staff when he was finance minister.

“My opinion is that he lost control,” Bushinsky said. “He didn’t realize there would be such an objection on the streets and in the world.”

Netanyahu spent more than a year relegated to the opposition before returning to power in last November’s elections, the country’s fifth national ballot in four years. So how did a strategist known for his risk avoidance and careful planning allow his triumphant restoration to be engulfed in chaos?

One of the most repeated theories raging on social media and TV discussion boards is that he cares less about healing the country than avoiding prosecution, and hopes the prospect of judges being sorted on The shutter will help him dismiss the corruption charges that dogged him for years – and which he is still fighting in a Jerusalem court.

Others believe the 73-year-old Netanyahu has lost a step, making him less effective at countering the coalition’s hardliners. And more than one commentator has suggested he’s been in the grip of his vocal wife, Sara, and his famously combative son, Yair, who recently compared Israelis protesting the court remake to Nazi brownshirts.

“Today’s Benjamin Netanyahu is not the Benjamin Netanyahu I knew when he appointed me to head Mossad,” his former spy chief, Efraim Halevy, recently told CNN.

None of this is true, said Ron Dermer, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States who is one of Netanyahu’s closest allies in the Likud party and now his strategic affairs minister.

The main problem, Dermer said, is that Netanyahu’s hands have been tied by a ruling by Israel’s attorney general that the prime minister must recuse himself from legal controversy because he is a defendant in the justice system.

“They won’t let him lead the process,” Dermer said in an interview, saying Netanyahu has regularly walked out of meetings where the issue is discussed. “If the gag were lifted, the chances of a compromise would increase.”

Netanyahu would back a brokered deal, Dermer said, that might give the government more say in selecting judges — if less than some coalition partners want — but also formalize some level of judicial oversight. Knesset activities.

“That’s not the main reason he came to power. Its main target is Iran,” Dermer said. “But he views judicial reform as a serious issue that needs to be addressed, as do millions of his supporters. Still, there is no doubt that he would like to see a compromise.

Netanyahu’s grip on circumstances has only weakened. On Thursday, hours after parliament passed a law making it harder for him to be impeached, Netanyahu delivered a prime-time address to the nation. Speculation has swelled that he is ready to act, perhaps suspending legislation or launching talks with the opposition.

He had just met Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who warned that the number of reservists pledging to boycott training missions could undermine military preparedness. Israel’s Finance Ministry, meanwhile, has said that deteriorating credit ratings and investor fear could cost the economy more than $8 billion a year.

Undeterred, Netanyahu said the judicial overhaul would continue and key elements of the package would be put to a vote in the coming days. He pledged to personally take the lead on legislation despite the ‘gag order’, leading Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara to call his involvement ‘illegal and tainted with a conflict of interest’ “.

Hours later he was on a plane to London, where protesters greeted him upon his arrival in Downing Street.

Saturday night in Israel, with Netanyahu still abroad and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv once again filled with protesters, Gallant voiced his concerns publicly. The unrest threatened Israel’s security and the legislative push should be halted, he said in a televised statement.

He was backed by two other Likud members and a fourth was on the fence, according to Israeli media. All it would take is four defectors to vote no and defeat the legislation, despite Netanyahu’s promise to ram it through.

“It’s hard to fathom – he knows the damage that’s being done,” said Dan Ben-David, president of the Shoresh Institution and an economist at Tel Aviv University. “As the longest-serving prime minister in our history, he should be concerned about his legacy, which right now is burning down the house.”

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