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Avalanche of security chiefs warn Netanyahu: Israel on brink of the abyss

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems deaf to warnings by Israeli security chiefs that the growing rift within Israeli society could end up in a strategic disaster.
People demonstrate at the Brandenburg Gate during the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against possible legislation in Israel that would undermine the role of Israel's Supreme Court, Berlin, Germany, March 16, 2023.

TEL AVIV — Hundreds of Israelis living in London demonstrated Friday against the judicial overhaul plan, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. If Netanyahu thought he could leave behind him in Israel, at least for the weekend, the ongoing political turmoil, demonstrations in the British capital proved him wrong.

The series of dramatic upheavals shaking Israel at breakneck speed this week would have been considered outlandish apocalyptic scenarios just a few short months ago.

Israel has skillfully created a bubble of normalcy and routine over the years to cushion the adverse social, economic and security impacts of the many challenges it has faced. Israelis had looked in amazement at the social and political upheavals shocking their Arab neighbors — the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt and Arab Spring protests — and sighed in relief at the relative stability and democracy they enjoy despite periodic political turmoil and major security threats. Clearly, that reality of internal calm is now gone.

Heads of Israel’s strategic-security agencies have issued stark warnings in recent days to Netanyahu about the disastrous effects of the deep constitutional changes he is spearheading, especially legislation giving the government control over Supreme Court appointments. After midnight on Friday, Israel air force commander Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar received hundreds of messages from reserve pilots who form the backbone of Israel’s aerial deterrence, informing him of the immediate termination of their volunteer service and explaining that they would not risk their lives to serve a dictatorship.

Military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Herzl Halevi reported to Netanyahu that an increasing number of reservists, including special forces and intelligence and cyber personnel, are declining to show up for duty, and expressed fear that the disobedience would spread to the regular army. Shin Bet domestic security chief Ronen Bar also voiced severe warnings in conversations with Netanyahu of threats to Israel’s social fabric and the encouragement Israel’s enemies derive from this domestic unraveling, fueled by the violent potential of the month of Ramadan. Netanyahu heard similar dire warnings from Mossad Director David Barnea.

Events appeared to come to a head on Thursday, with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announcing he would hold a news conference at 7:30 p.m. Aides told reporters that the defense chief would call on Netanyahu to halt the judicial overhaul juggernaut in order to defend state security, and urge him to enter into dialogue with the opposition that has been mounting furious countrywide protests to the legislative blitz.

Gallant has been under increasing pressure in recent weeks, exposed to signs of rebellion in the ranks, as well as dire warnings of the heavy economic and social impact on the country. He has held several secret meetings with former colleagues, including previous chiefs of staff and current Knesset opposition members Benny Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot.

But as Gallant was putting the final touches to his planned statement, the Netanyahu family stepped in. The prime minister’s son Yair Netanyahu, considered the most radical element in Netanyahu’s circle, sent his own troops into action. The group of outspoken Likud Knesset members over which he is said to hold sway, as well as the radical nationalist Jewish Power party allied with the Likud, immediately issued statements demanding that Netanyahu fire Gallant and stating that the latter was no longer part of the political right wing.

Netanyahu himself then summoned Gallant from his Tel Aviv office to Jerusalem and in typical Machiavellian fashion talked him out of going public with his warnings. There is no need for you to put yourself out there, Netanyahu reportedly told Gallant. I will address the nation, propose dialogue and put a stop to this madness.

Earlier rumors that Netanyahu was about to issue a public address and make things right sent the stock market and shekel value soaring just before the close of trading. But hopes were dashed when he stepped up to the mike just before 9 p.m. with a jumble of conciliatory platitudes and deceptions that the smokescreen he spread failed to disguise.

The only real and clear message Netanyahu delivered Thursday night was that he would wade into the judicial appointments’ crisis, violating the conflict of interest pledge he had made to the High Court and the attorney general to stay out of the fray given his ongoing trial on corruption charges, which is expected to face a Supreme Court appeal.

“Until now my hands were bound. Now I am getting involved," he announced, buoyed by legislation approved earlier in the day that prevents the attorney general from pronouncing him unfit to govern. According to the newly adopted amendment, a prime minister can only be deemed unfit for reasons of physical or mental disability, and only by a 75% Knesset majority vote. In other words, Netanyahu felt invincible in announcing to the nation that he was ignoring his conflict-of-interest commitment and spitting in the eye of the law.

Several petitions against the anti-impeachment law have already been presented to the Supreme Court. If the justices overturn it — a big “if” given the determined campaign to weaken the court — Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara will face the most difficult decision ever faced by an Israeli attorney general — whether to pronounce Netanyahu unfit to rule given his violation of the law. Such a decision would likely set off a war between Netanyahu’s opponents and his loyal political base.

It would not be an overstatement to describe these days as the most fateful in Israel’s modern era. The Jewish state has experienced severe existential threats in the past, including the 1948 War of Independence, the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Its people rallied and united to defeat their enemy, and went on to prosper. Prime Minister Golda Meir once explained this phenomenon to the young US Sen. Joe Biden. "We Jews have a secret weapon in our conflict with the Arabs, and that is that we have nowhere to go," she told him just before the 1973 war.

Fifty years on, with Israel having normalized relations with many of its former Arab enemies, Israelis are free to travel and live abroad in countries once off-limits. The concern these days is that those who want to return will find their country has turned into a dictatorship.

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