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By Thomas L. Friedman
Thank goodness that Israel’s civil society has forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pause, for now, his attempt to impose his control over Israel’s independent judiciary and gain a free hand to rule as he wishes. But this whole affair has exposed a new and troubling reality for the United States: For the first time, the leader of Israel is an irrational actor, a danger not only to Israelis but also to important American interests and values.
This demands an immediate reassessment by both President Biden and the pro-Israel Jewish lobby in America. Netanyahu essentially told them all: “Trust the process,” “Israel is a healthy democracy” and, in a whisper, “Don’t worry about the religious zealots and Jewish supremacists I brought into power to help block my trial for corruption. I will keep Israel within its traditional political and foreign policy boundaries. It’s me, your old pal, Bibi.”
They wanted to trust him, and it all turned out to be a lie.
From Day 1, it has been obvious to many of us that this Israeli government would go to extremes that none before it ever dared. With no real guardrails, it would take the United States and world Jewry across redlines they never imagined crossing, while possibly destabilizing Jordan and the Abraham Accords, eliminating hope of a two-state solution and bringing Israel in its 75th anniversary year to the edge of civil war.
That is because the key to implementing the government’s radical agenda was always, first, getting control over Israel’s Supreme Court — the only legitimate independent brake on the ambitions of Netanyahu and his extremist coalition partners — through a process disguised as “judicial reform.”
With the judiciary brought to heel, Israel would be governed more like elected autocracies, such as Hungary and Turkey, than the Israel the world has always known. And Netanyahu and his partners have pursued that kind of political control of the courts over and above any other priority they ran on, bringing the country to the brink of “civil war” — as Netanyahu admitted in his national address on Monday night.
Staring in the face of such a civil war — after an unprecedented weekend revolt by a huge cross-section of Israeli society, its armed forces and even some members of his own party — Netanyahu offered to suspend his takeover efforts and give roughly a month for negotiations with the opposition to see if a compromise can be forged.
Let’s see what happens. But one thing is clear already: Netanyahu has become the definition of an irrational actor in international relations — someone whose behavior we can no longer predict and whose words President Biden should not trust. For starters, the U.S. needs to make sure Netanyahu does not use U.S. weapons to engage in any kind of war of choice with Iran or Hezbollah without the full and independent endorsement of Israel’s military high command, which has opposed his judicial putsch.
Why do I insist that Netanyahu has become an irrational actor and a danger to our interests and values? It’s a question that can be answered with a question:
How would you describe an Israeli prime minister and his son who, after 50 years of the United States sending Israel billions and billions of dollars in economic and military assistance, have been disseminating the lie that the U.S. government was behind the massive demonstrations against the prime minister — that this couldn’t possibly be an authentic grass-roots mainstream protest? It had to be U.S.-funded.
I am not making this up.
Yair Netanyahu, his father’s closest political adviser, last week shared conspiratorial tweets with his many Twitter followers on the Israeli right, The Jerusalem Post reported, like this one: “The American State Department is behind the protests in Israel, with the aim of overthrowing Netanyahu, apparently in order to conclude an agreement with the Iranians.”
I wonder where that came from? Well, two weeks ago, The Times of Israel reported that while Netanyahu the elder was on an official visit to Rome, a “senior official” in his traveling party (which everyone in the Milky Way galaxy knows is code for the prime minister himself) was quoted as saying (without a shred of evidence): “This protest is financed and organized with millions of dollars. … This is a very high-level organization.” The story continued: “Another member of the premier’s entourage confirmed that the senior official was referring to the United States.”
This is the same conspiracy thinking that Iran’s leaders have been deploying to discredit the authentic democracy movement in Iran, led by Iranian women.
That Netanyahu and his son would turn on America with the same pathetic cynicism as Iran is shameful — and crazy. Neither man should be allowed into America until they apologize.
This is not the only sign of what an irrational actor Netanyahu has become. Ask yourself: What rational Israeli prime minister would risk fracturing his military — which this judicial takeover attempt has been doing — at a time when Iran can now whip up enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb in under two weeks, and is racking up diplomatic achievements with Israel’s Arab allies?
A little over a week ago, Netanyahu’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, a respected military leader who began as a naval commando, gave the prime minister a choice: freeze his attempt at a judicial coup without a national dialogue or go ahead with it, have his defense minister resign and have large segments of the army and air force reserves refuse to show up for duty.
Netanyahu then made the remarkable move of firing Gallant. As Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel put it: “It’s hard to think of one senior defense official who wasn’t shocked to the core by Netanyahu’s decision. … Among both current and former senior I.D.F. officers, the discussion Sunday night focused on whether a mass resignation of major generals and brigadier generals was necessary to stop the madness.”
Consider this as well: What rational Israeli prime minister would risk one of the greatest achievements of U.S. and Israeli diplomacy in the Middle East, the Abraham Accords, in order to push through a judicial takeover that would give a free hand to the Jewish supremacists and nationalist zealots in his cabinet? I am talking about the likes of Netanyahu’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, who, as Axios described it, last week “gave a speech in Paris at a podium featuring a map that included Jordan and the occupied West Bank as part of Israel and said the Palestinian people were ‘an invention.’”
This totally freaked out the U.A.E. and Bahrain, not to mention Jordan, which is a critical pillar of American Middle East strategy. If Netanyahu and company destabilize Jordan, they will sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.
And what Israeli prime minister would try to pass a law so he can appoint a thrice-convicted tax cheat and financial scammer — Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri — as his health and interior minister, with a promise to make him finance minister at the next cabinet reshuffle?
In 1993, Deri was ordered by the Supreme Court to resign from the cabinet over corruption charges, but he remained Shas leader until 1999, when he was sentenced to three years in prison for taking bribes. Then in 2021, as The Times of Israel reported, Deri accepted a plea deal in which he admitted “to a pair of tax offenses in exchange for resigning from the Knesset” and paying a fine. In January, the Supreme Court ruled that Deri was not fit to serve in government.
In case you missed it, besides everything else going on, Netanyahu has been trying to rush through legislation to override the Supreme Court so that this crony of his who defrauded the Israeli Treasury — to which American taxpayers have donated billions in aid to over the last half century — can eventually be put in charge of that same Treasury.
The contempt that all of this shows for Israeli taxpayers, for the rule of law in Israel, for the Israeli Supreme Court and for America is just more evidence of a leader who has come completely loose of any ethical moorings.
It is finally time that the American government, the American Congress and American Jewish leaders and lobbyists, who too often have been Netanyahu’s enablers, make it unmistakably clear that they are also marching with all those Israelis — from the military, the high-tech community, the universities, traditional religious communities, doctors, nurses, air force pilots, bankers, labor unions and even settlements — who took to the streets in the last week to ensure the 75th anniversary of Israeli democracy will not be its last.
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