An Israeli government with no compass
When I wrote here a couple of weeks ago that cracks were already beginning to show in the then barely two-month-old Israeli government, I did not expect that within a short time it would be in full-on crisis mode to the extent that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would sack his Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and expose deep rifts even within his own Likud party.
In a country where security is a key concept used to justify almost everything, the most senior minister in charge of that security was unceremoniously sent packing. And what was his sin that so irked Israel’s supreme leader? He dared to use his best judgment, something the prime minister is failing miserably to do at the moment.
Gallant, himself not exactly known for being an ardent defender of democratic values, urged the prime minister to halt the irresponsible destruction of the judiciary’s independence, as it had become an issue of contention within the security forces, thus affecting their preparedness.
Gallant was most understated in his assessment, so as not to upset Netanyahu, the very sensitive defendant in three corruption cases, or his family, all of whom are quick to take any sign of criticism very personally.
Worried about the security implications should the government continue with its so-called judicial overhaul, the now former defense minister called for the legislation to be paused for a few weeks to create space for a wider and more constructive dialogue between the coalition government, the opposition, and other important stakeholders in search of common ground.
Considering the widespread public protests, the refusal of many reservists in key positions to serve, and the damage to the economy, all resulting from the attack on the judiciary, most people would find this request sensible and helpful — but not the 2023 model Netanyahu. As a hostage to the far-right members of the coalition, as well as some members of his own Likud party, especially Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the prime minister has been ensuring that voices of reason are automatically discarded and marked as those of enemies.
It is almost too easy for the protesters to make a hero out of Gallant, a former general, for being ready to sacrifice his own fledgling political career for the greater good. More than simply a savior of Israeli democracy, he was concerned about the ability of Israel’s security forces to carry out their missions in the face of a malaise spreading from reservists to regular soldiers.
But the question that should really be asked is not why Gallant spoke up, but why he and some of his more responsible colleagues in the coalition were cowed into silence for so many weeks. It would have been better if they had shown courage and challenged the prime minister before the country was brought to a standstill by the protest movement.
The other, equally disturbing, question is this: What possessed Netanyahu, after witnessing the determination of the protesters and the gathering momentum among all who oppose the judicial coup, to sack the defense minister instead of taking the opportunity to heed his advice?
The answers to both questions illustrate the eclipse of judgment and the unscrupulousness evident in this government, which prefers to keep itself, rather than the country, intact. The writing has been on the wall for all to see, as hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets for nearly three months, and many thousands of reservists from the air force, intelligence corps, special forces, medical corps, cyberwarfare and many other units have been constantly warning that they would not serve under a government that is leading the country toward dictatorship.
Firing Gallant demonstrated that it is not Netanyahu who controls the government, but the government that is controlling him.
But still the government refused to listen. What Gallant said, when he eventually found his voice and his courage, while Netanyahu was away on one of his brief and futile foreign excursions, was what he should have expressed clearly weeks ago, before the crisis broke and compromised his country’s security.
But it is the second question that is even more of a mystery, because Netanyahu had a golden opportunity to halt the devastating legislation and put the onus on the army, its chiefs and the defense minister. But in his fear of the far right, and reportedly also his son, he instead caved in to National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s demand and sacked Gallant.
It was a hasty and nasty move by a prime minister under siege, caught between serving his own private interest in escaping justice in his corruption trial by subordinating the judiciary to politicians (read himself), and serving the best interests of the country by heeding Gallant’s plea to halt the crazy legislation.
But Netanyahu, true to character, opted to proceed with the legislation, only to discover that the protests he and his wife faced last weekend in London during their shopping and luxury dining jaunt were merely a prelude to what awaited him at home after sacking Gallant.
Despite the dismissal being unexpected, and taking place on a Sunday when protesters usually take a breather, almost instantly tens of thousands of people across the country took to the streets to express their dismay and anger at a prime minister who has always promoted himself as “Mister Security” yet who was ready to compromise his country’s security if it might help keep him in power and out of jail.
Firing Gallant was not only a miscalculation in terms of gauging the response of the wider population. It also demonstrated that it is not Netanyahu who controls the government, but the government that is controlling him. It took only a night of protests for Netanyahu to revert to what Gallant had advised in the first place and pause the judicial reforms, but by then he had lost his defense minister and angered a number of his fellow Likud members in the Knesset.
To placate his far-right, messianic domestic and regional pyromaniacs, Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and get them to agree to delaying the most harmful legislation brought against Israel’s democracy since its inception, Netanyahu also agreed to establish a National Guard under the control of Ben-Gvir, as the latter had demanded.
When the going got tough for Netanyahu, he buckled under pressure, incited against those who opposed him in the streets, recklessly pushed his country to the brink of civil war, and handed the leaders of the settlement movement their own militia.
It is only those citizens of all political shades protesting in the streets in defense of the judiciary’s independence who, through their conviction and persistence and by setting out their red lines as citizens, are now the backbone of Israel’s security and economy and the guardians of the well-being of its society, and who can stop this madness.
- Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg