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Opinion Netanyahu’s unforced error could come with heavy costs

Israeli police scuffle with demonstrators blocking a road during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv on Thursday. (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)
4 min

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s performance since he began his sixth term in December has seemed to his critics to illustrate something that Meir Dagan, former chief of the Mossad, said about him to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman in 2011: “That someone is elected does not mean that he is smart.”

Netanyahu, the supposed genius of Israeli politics, walked into a political disaster with his plan to remake the country’s judicial system. After three months of protest, which spread so far that it threatened even the stability of the nation’s vaunted military, Netanyahu pulled back on Monday by announcing a delay in the legislation.

The embattled prime minister said he was shelving the plan “from a desire to prevent the nation from being torn apart.” He explained: “When there is a possibility to prevent a civil war through negotiations, I will give a timeout for negotiations.”

The Israeli political crisis should ease now, at least temporarily. But what damage has it done to Israel’s security interests — including its new partnerships with friendly Arab nations and its relationship with its closest ally, the United States? And how has the turbulence in Israel affected the country’s ability to confront an Iran that is potentially just months from becoming a nuclear weapons state?

Iran and its proxies “are no doubt rubbing their hands with glee” over Netanyahu’s political troubles, says Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who just returned from a trip there. But if anything, Indyk argues, there’s an increased risk of an Israeli military strike if Tehran moves nearer to the nuclear threshold, because Netanyahu will want to demonstrate that Israel’s deterrent capability hasn’t been weakened by internal discord.

Iran, emboldened by its backers in China and Russia, could easily miscalculate. Tehran could press what its leaders imagine is the advantage they gained with the recent Iran-Saudi accord brokered by China. They might assume that Netanyahu is enfeebled by his “threadbare mandate,” notes Karim Sadjadpour, a senior analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Michael Morell, a former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, wonders whether internal political dissent might check Netanyahu’s ability to get a consensus within his security cabinet to take military action against Iran. “If the Iranians read it the same way, they could push the envelope even further on weapons development,” Morell contends.

This was a self-inflicted wound for Netanyahu. When he took office in December, he said he wanted to focus on confronting Iran, expanding the Abraham Accords with moderate Arab states, improving relations with the Biden administration and tackling the country’s economic problems, recalls Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Instead, Netanyahu proposed a fundamental change in the judicial system that widened the fissure between secular Israelis, who want to retain the independent judiciary, and ultra-Orthodox Israelis who want a more religious state — and form an essential part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition. That constituency will balk at the sort of compromise that Netanyahu apparently envisions, which could rupture his coalition and deepen the political instability.

“All of the oxygen has been sucked out of the political system” by the debate over the judicial changes, says Shapiro. He notes that the legal turmoil became a national-security problem, as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant argued when he noted that pilots and other military reservists weren’t showing up for duty in protest. Netanyahu fired Gallant this past weekend for telling that truth, and the unrest that followed finally forced the prime minister to back down.

A wild card in the Israeli turmoil is whether it will alter the enthusiasm for better relations with Jerusalem among moderate Arab states in the Gulf region, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Indyk explains: “The UAE and Saudi Arabia had come to see Israel as an important alternative to the United States for their security needs because they had viewed it as reliable, in contrast to the U.S. Now, both have become unreliable. They [the Arab states] are not happy.”

Nadim Koteich, an Arab advocate of expanded ties with Israel, noted his worries about what the judicial battle had revealed in a blog post Sunday in the Times of Israel. “As Israel grapples with a complex political quagmire, those of us who champion peace find ourselves contemplating the nature of the Israel we will share our lives with,” he wrote, adding: “As an Arab advocate for peace, the recent developments prompt me to consider that those opposing peace in Israel appear more intransigent and unyielding than their Arab counterparts.”

Ehud Olmert, a former Israeli prime minister who became a bitter opponent of Netanyahu, argued in his memoir “Searching for Peace” that for the usually deft Netanyahu, “there’s always someone else to blame, someone who led him astray, someone who didn’t understand.” Not this time.