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Adults in the Room

In judicial reform battle, Bibi is no longer AWOL

ON Motzaei Leil Seder, Israel entered a state of alert. For the first time since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, a significant barrage of missiles was fired on the towns of the north. The sense of the country being under siege was only compounded by a spate of terror attacks in Judea and Samaria over the chag.

In the middle of Yom Tov, an emergency cabinet meeting was set for 8:30 p.m., less than hour after Motzaei Yom Tov. Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, who spent the chag in the northern yishuv of Safsufa, wasn’t informed of the cabinet meeting until after Yom Tov. While he’s no longer a minister, courtesy of the High Court’s ruling, Deri wished to participate as an observer, to help calm the atmosphere and strengthen Netanyahu’s hand against the right-wing margins.

Despite his lingering tension with Netanyahu following Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s dismissal, which Deri opposed, the Shas chairman requested to take part in the meeting remotely from a secure conference room in the IDF northern command’s HQ. Deri had gotten used to such remote meetings during the coronavirus pandemic, when the government — like everyone else — transitioned to the “work from home” model.

For technical reasons, joining the meeting from the IDF command center in the north proved infeasible. As usual, Netanyahu couldn’t make it in time and postponed the meeting twice, and it only started at 11:00 p.m.

“You could have come after all,” Bibi told Deri in a special phone briefing on the decisions he intended to present to the cabinet. Deri, left behind in Safsufa, sighed with relief when he understood what direction the winds were blowing in.

The adult in the room, as Netanyahu has nicknamed Deri in recent years, didn’t have to drive down to the Kiryah in order to duke it out with Smotrich and Ben Gvir, the two most right-wing members of the security cabinet. After midnight, when the cabinet’s decisions were released, it became clear that Netanyahu intended to serve up the usual fare: right-wing rhetoric, moderate policies. Rightist ministers’ proposals to renew the assassination of Hamas leaders was removed from the agenda, and the half-hearted IDF response in Lebanon seemed designed to not hurt Hamas too much.

Sadly, the horrific murder of the Dee family mother and daughters went by as just part of Israel’s new routine of death and life. This isn’t the first time the Israeli right has discovered that there’s no bottom-line difference on security between the Bennett-Lapid government and a fully right-wing government led by Netanyahu. When it comes to national defense, the terms left and right are just semantics: at the end of the day, it’s the same generals presenting recommendations to the cabinet, which makes the decisions with the prime minister before the meeting even convenes.

At the start of summer of 2023, Israel is ringed on all sides by the tentacles of the Iranian octopus, from Gaza in the south to Syria and Lebanon in the north. It’s only b’chasdei Hashem that the situation doesn’t explode in our face all at once.

Last Tuesday, the cabinet convened again, and Netanyahu phoned Deri to invite him to participate as an observer. And this time Deri confirmed, in light of the sensitive issues on the agenda. At an abysmal moment security-wise, economically, and diplomatically, you can’t entrust the steering wheel to the right-wing margins.

Deri still can’t understand what possessed Netanyahu, Israel’s most experienced politician, to fire Gallant. After the spectacular mismanagement of the judicial reform, when the secular left woke up and turned into the streets, Gallant’s dismissal for his call to halt to the process was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

As the masses flooded the streets of Tel Aviv and stormed the gates of the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence on Rechov Azah, Netanyahu gave Deri the green light to negotiate with Gallant for a public apology in exchange for his reinstatement to the post. Deri, who’s told himself many times that he’s done serving in the role of Bibi’s factotum, once again found himself having to singlehandedly piece together the fragments of the right-wing coalition.

With Bibi’s approval, Deri invited Gallant to his home, and after hours of back-and-forth, the two reached a compromise. At a late hour, Deri picked up the phone to inform Netanyahu that he’d found a solution that would allow both the defense minister and the prime minister to save face.

But Netanyahu got cold feet. “I have to sleep on it,” he said.

And as everyone knows, the firebrand son Yair Netanyahu was home that night. Bibi disappeared for two weeks, at the end of which he had to unilaterally announce Gallant’s reinstatement, without any apology from the defense minister. Bibi’s vacillating got him the worst of both worlds…

Now that Pesach is over, the coalition is gearing up for the Knesset battle to approve a two-year budget, which should provide the government with some stability, at least in theory. It didn’t work for Naftali Bennett, whose government collapsed months after it passed its first budget. But for a homogenous right-wing government of 64 MKs, passing a budget should be the closest thing to an insurance policy.

But everything we knew about Israeli politics has been upended by this government over the past three months. Netanyahu has come to his senses and realized that he’s facing the greatest challenge of his career, ever since he became prime minister in ’96.

Netanyahu has made it crystal clear to his justice minister that the reform is never returning to the merry days of Levin and Rothman. But Bibi’s best hope lies in the three fresh faces calling the shots in his government ever since the judicial reform fiasco: Ron Dermer, the de facto foreign minister; Tzachi Hanegbi, now national security advisor (the equivalent of Biden’s Jake Sullivan); and attorney Yossi Fuchs, the new cabinet secretary.

The three share a pragmatic, sensible worldview that eschews the kind of incendiary rhetoric we’ve seen from this government until now. They believe that every reform should be gradual, accomplished over the course of the government’s four-year term, with as much consensus as possible and without making half the country feel like an enemy living under a foreign occupation and acting accordingly.

“Every mistake in the book was made during the judicial reform process,” a minister close to Netanyahu told me this week. “Now we have to rebuild from the ashes. And this time we have to get it right. We have to give a chance to the talks with Benny Gantz at the president’s residence, and we have to act gradually — first seek understandings on the reform, but once that’s done, we’ll have to rethink the composition of the government.”

Netanyahu and his circle of moderates are counting on Benny Gantz to save them from the right-wing margin, but the National Unity chair has no intention of volunteering himself again. The last time Gantz broke a campaign pledge and sat with Netanyahu, it almost cost him his career. Soaring in the polls (he’s now overtaken Netanyahu in prime ministerial preference polls), Gantz is making clear in private conversations that while it’s in his interest to secure compromise on judicial reform, letting him portray himself as national savior, he has no intention of serving as a fifth wheel in Netanyahu’s government. Bibi will have to face the summer of 2023 — and the fully right-wing government that has turned on its maker — alone.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 958)

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