Netanyahu Attempts Another Juggling Act, Maybe His Toughest Yet

Little more than a year ago, it seemed that the political career of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, was all but over. Out of power, he was struggling to maintain relevance. State prosecutors had offered his lawyers a plea deal that would have let him avoid jail in his ongoing corruption trial, in exchange for leaving politics for seven years.

The negotiations fell through, the trial continues, and Mr. Netanyahu, who denies the corruption charges, instead ended last year as prime minister for the third time. It cemented his reputation as a magician who can escape any political straitjacket.

On Monday night, Mr. Netanyahu tried to pull off a similarly dexterous maneuver. After charging ahead for weeks with a deeply contentious judicial overhaul that has unpicked the seams of Israeli society, Mr. Netanyahu sought to find another escape hatch.

The overhaul will be delayed, he announced after a day of high-stakes protests, strikes and back-room negotiations — at least until after Parliament’s Passover recess, leaving open the possibility of a mediated compromise with the opposition. And his coalition of the far right and religious ultraconservatives will stagger on, at least until the next crisis.

Supporters of Mr. Netanyahu’s judiciary overhaul in Tel Aviv on Monday night.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Superficially, it appeared the kind of balancing act that Mr. Netanyahu has always excelled at. Except this one might turn out to be his toughest to achieve.

And it is a challenge that, like the social crisis that emerged in recent days, will consume and distract him from long-term priorities like strengthening Israel’s diplomatic ties with the Arab world and working with the United States to combat the threat of Iran’s nuclear program.

“He’s the magician who always pulls a rabbit out of his hat,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a Netanyahu biographer. “Now he’s finding it harder and harder to find any rabbits.”

Though secular, Mr. Netanyahu has for years maintained a fruitful political alliance with ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. Though of European descent, he has long presented himself as a champion of Jews of Middle Eastern backgrounds. As a world leader, he established a warm relationship with Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, while sustaining Israel’s strong ties with the United States. And as a domestic politician, he often assembled coalition governments with parties to his right and to his left that he could play against each other.

Mr. Netanyahu ability to triangulate allowed him in 2020 to forge landmark diplomatic agreements — without ceding any land to the Palestinians — with three Arab countries that had long forsworn ties with Israel until the creation of a Palestinian state. He framed the first of those deals, with the United Arab Emirates, as a quid pro quo for suspending a plan to annex part of the occupied West Bank, a plan that some analysts questioned whether he had ever really intended to enact.

The Judicial Crisis in Israel

  • Complicated Ties: As Israel’s government pushes ahead with its plan to overhaul the judiciary, the resulting crisis has shown the limits of President Biden’s influence on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
  • Military Concerns: The proposed overhaul has prompted many Israeli reservists to avoid volunteer duty. Military leaders have privately warned that this might require scaling back operations.
  • Fueling the Overhaul: The Kohelet Policy Forum has been a major force behind the judicial overhaul, but who’s behind the once-obscure think tank? Two guys from Queens.
  • A Grass-Roots Movement: The protests across Israel against the government’s plan, both large and small, often spread by word of mouth and WhatsApp messaging groups.

His odds-defying skills allowed him toenter power for the first time in 1996, defeating Shimon Peres after overcoming a 20-point deficit in the polls. And his ability to bounce back returned him to power, first in 2009 and then again late last year, despite the corruption trial.

But there was a sense on Monday that, this time, Mr. Netanyahu had no easy exit ramp from the crisis in which he has enmeshed himself, his government and his country. He has bought himself some time. But in a zero-sum game between his opponents in the streets and his allies in power, that may only last so long.

If after the April recess Mr. Netanyahu waters down — let alone cancels — the judicial overhaul, he risks an irrevocable break with the far-right parties that give him a majority in Parliament.

If he gives in to them and plows ahead with the plan to weaken the Supreme Court’s independence and its ability to act as a check on the government, he risks deepening and prolonging a social crisis that has prompted strikes at hospitals, airports and schools, and set off unrest in the military.

“It’s a lose-lose situation,” Mr. Pfeffer said.

Protesting the proposed judicial changes in Jerusalem on Monday.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

To many, Mr. Netanyahu has already lost something: his reputation as a safe pair of hands who prioritizes Israel’s stability and security.

Before re-entering office in December, he repeatedly told allies and journalists that he would remain a steadying influence, despite forming the most right-wing and religiously conservative coalition in the country’s history.

“I’ll have two hands firmly on the steering wheel,” Mr. Netanyahu said in December in an interview with National Public Radio.

But his decision on Sunday to fire his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, a day after Mr. Gallant warned that the social rifts caused by judicial overhaul had endangered state security, appeared to critics like the actions of a leader more motivated by political considerations than security ones.

And the upheaval that followed on Monday — civil unrest, a nationwide strike, suspensions of health services, schools, flights and even garbage collection — seemed anything but stable.

Police officers used water canon to force protesters from a road they were blocking on Monday in Tel Aviv.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

A poll released Monday by Kan, the national broadcaster, suggested that many Israelis were shifting their opinions of their prime minister. For the first time, more Israelis said they would prefer to be led by Benny Gantz, an opposition lawmaker and former army chief, than by Mr. Netanyahu. Almost two-thirds opposed Mr. Gallant’s dismissal, and a similar number supported immediate cessation of the court legislation.

All this stems in large part from an earlier calculation by Mr. Netanyahu:to remain in politics despite being investigated, charged and tried for corruption. That decision led to a rift between him and more moderate allies, leaving him few potential coalition partners except among the far-right and ultraconservative parties.

In the lead-up to last year’s election, he formed a bloc with them, leaving Mr. Netanyahu — a right-winger himself — at the far left edge of his alliance. That made him beholden to his allies’ priorities, including profound judicial change, and no longer able to triangulate, as he had in previous coalitions, between contrasting goals with himself in the center.

Critics say Mr. Netanyahu has his own reasons for trying to undermine the judiciary: to derail his prosecution, an accusation he denies. But it was Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition allies, Yariv Levin and Simcha Rothman, who drove the judicial overhaul in recent weeks, not Mr. Netanyahu himself.

Beyond the judiciary, Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition partners are also undermining some of the foreign policy goals that most preoccupy him.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right national security minister, angered Muslims by entering the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, a holy site in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount, surrounded by armed policemen.

Itamar Ben-Gvir greeting supporters of the judicial overhaul on Monday in Jerusalem.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

Bezalel Smotrich, the far-right finance minister, caused outrage by commenting recently that Palestinians did not exist, and calling for the Israeli state to “erase” a Palestinian town at the center of recent violence in the West Bank.

Both men have undermined Mr. Netanyahu’s goals of establishing ties for the first time between Israel and Saudi Arabia, strengthening the bond he helped create in 2020 between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and encouraging Washington to help Israel target Iranian nuclear infrastructure.

Mr. Netanyahu has not been invited to visit Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital. Instead, a senior Emirati official quietly visited Israel last week to speak to Mr. Netanyahu about, among other issues, Mr. Ben-Gvir’s actions, according to a senior Western official briefed on the meeting who requested anonymity in order to speak more freely.

Formal relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia remain distant. Mr. Smotrich’s comments prompted formal censure and condemnation from the Saudi government, shortly after it restarted relations earlier this month with Israel’s enemy, Iran.

Relations between Mr. Netanyahu and the Biden administration are also fraying. American concern over the judicial overhaul, coupled with frustration over Mr. Ben-Gvir and Mr. Smotrich, has consumed much of the bandwidth in the bilateral relationship. There is a risk that American attention from Mr. Netanyahu’s concerns on Iran and Saudi Arabia may end up diverted.

In previous coalitions, Mr. Netanyahu might have relegated Mr. Ben-Gvir to a less prominent position. Now, his power depends on Mr. Ben-Gvir’s support.

To retain that support on Monday, Mr. Netanyahu offered him the prospect of more influence, promising to consider the formation of a national guard — and to place it under Mr. Ben-Gvir’s control.

Carol Sutherland contributed reporting from Moshav Ben Ami, Israel.

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