Benjamin Netanyahu is a survivor — something you might expect of a prime minister elected to six terms. But Netanyahu has never found himself in a no-win scenario. And if he escapes from his current dilemma, he should become known as “Bibi the Magician.”
Netanyahu was able to cobble together the right-wing parties in Israel into a shaky coalition that brought him the prime ministership but has yet to show that it can govern. To cement that coalition, the prime minister introduced a judicial reform bill desired by some of his coalition partners and was the primary reason they agreed to support Netanyahu as prime minister.
Even many on the left in Israel support judicial reform. But Netanyahu’s bill goes too far, say critics, and hence, the streets filled up with hundreds of thousands of Israelis.
Not all the protesters were opposed. There is a significant percentage of conservative religious Israelis who want to rein in the power of the high court and want the prime minister to stick to his guns. Hence, Netanyahu’s dilemma.
If he rams the reform bill through the Knesset, the nation will convulse in a spasm of anti-government fervor. But if he pulls the bill back, his coalition will almost certainly collapse and new elections would be called.
In his national address announcing that he was pausing the effort to pass the reform measure, Netanyahu recalled the story of King Solomon and the baby being fought for by two mothers — both of whom loved the child.
“Even today, both sides in the national dispute claim love for the baby — love for our country,” said Netanyahu. “I am aware of the enormous tension that is building up between the two camps, between the two parts of the people, and I am attentive to the desire of many citizens to relieve this tension.”
“He is playing the game,” said Gideon Rahat, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “You can never know what will happen, and that’s the problem … There is no certainty in Israel, in the Israeli system, and I am not sure that he’s not happy about this.”
Keeping his opponents in the dark about his intentions prevents them from formulating plans to oppose him. Aviv Bushinsky, a former long-serving media adviser for Netanyahu, thinks Netanyahu might try waiting out the opposition.
“I think Netanyahu will try to run away from this thing, hoping that things will gradually ease,” said Bushinsky, noting that the ministers who had threatened to resign should the bill not advance have all remained in their posts.
Then, there’s always the possibility of Netanyahu using an external security threat to unite the two sides against a common enemy.
Analysts say, however, that what could once again unite the fragmented country and have the public rally behind the government is a potential security threat, either from neighboring countries or through conflict with the Palestinians.
A security crisis would reorient the government’s attention, said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, whether it arises from conflict with the Palestinians, the Iran-backed Hezbollah group in Lebanon or others.
“Some thought that if there was a security crisis, then Netanyahu would be saved by the bell,” said Bushinsky.
It wouldn’t take much provocation from the Palestinians, who are always willing to shoot themselves in the foot rather than allow the Israelis to implode. And Hezbollah is always ready to lob a few missiles into Israeli settlements with no justification. Again, it wouldn’t take much provocation for either of Israel’s enemies to attack them and save Netanyahu’s hide.
But the prime minister can’t depend on outside forces to save him. And with no compromise that either side will accept, Netanyahu will likely go with his instincts and let the chips fall where they may.