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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Bethan McKernan in Jerusalem

Crises on multiple fronts threaten Benjamin Netanyahu’s grip on power

Israelis demonstrate against Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition government's judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv.
Israelis demonstrate against Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition government's judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv. Photograph: Ilan Rosenberg/Reuters

On Friday afternoon, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, found himself standing at the side of a remote road in the vast desert valley that runs the length of the occupied West Bank’s frontier with Jordan.

Along with his defence minister, Yoav Galant, Netanyahu was inspecting the scene of a shooting attack earlier in the day that killed British-Israeli sisters Maia and Rina Dee, 20 and 15, and left their 45-year-old mother Lucy fighting for her life. An Israel Defence Forces (IDF) search for the perpetrator is still under way.

“For this challenge as well, we are standing united, unified, sure of our righteousness,” Netanyahu said in comments broadcast by Israeli television. “We will act together with total backing for our forces.”

Unfortunately for the prime minister, his remarks rang hollow for many Israelis. This week Israel has faced flare-ups in violence on almost every front – East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria.

The security establishment has also been unnerved by the sudden rapprochement between Saudi Arabia – the region’s geopolitical heavyweight, with whom Israel is seeking warmer ties – and the country’s arch enemy, Iran.

As if the intersecting border crises were not enough to deal with, Israel is also undergoing unprecedented upheaval at home sparked by the government’s bitterly contested plan to overhaul the judiciary.

Dozens of former senior defence, security and intelligence officials have opposed the proposals weakening the supreme court on the grounds they are anti-democratic. Israel’s crucial military reservists, including almost all of those serving in its most important air force unit, have joined the nationwide protests and said they will refuse to attend for service, setting alarm bells ringing over the reliability of the chain of command and operational capacity.

Galant might have been standing by his side as the pair pledged to find the Dee sisters’ killer, but two weeks ago, Netanyahu fired him after he became the first senior government official to voice objections to the judicial changes.

Public pressure quickly forced the prime minister to back down, and announce that legislation weakening the supreme court would be postponed until after the Knesset’s Passover recess. But the lingering uncertainty over Galant’s position and the appointment of the inflammatory national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, does not exactly convey strength and stability – particularly now.

Leaked Pentagon documents that surfaced on Saturday suggesting the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, encouraged its staff and the Israeli public to participate in the protest movement, have added to a growing perception among Israel’s many foes that such internal discord represents an opportunity.

“I served in the army for decades, and I did not see behaviour as reckless as that of Netanyahu now,” Moshe Ya’alon, a former defence minister and IDF chief of staff, said in an address at a protest in Tel Aviv on Saturday night.

“His obsessive plot to overturn Israel’s democracy represents an immediate threat to Israel’s security … Our enemies are watching, and our deterrence is waning.”

Despite corruption scandals and a colourful private life, during his previous five stints as prime minister Netanyahu was generally seen as a safe pair of hands when it came to Israel’s security.

Now, even among the rightwing public that voted in the current coalition of extremist and ultra-religious parties, dwindling support suggests that image is fading, and the Israeli leader could once again be forced out of office. A total of 69% of voters gave the government a bad grade on its first 100 days in office, according to polling released by Israel’s Channel 12 on Sunday.

Hebrew media reported over the weekend that government sources had suggested they would be forced to launch a major military operation in the coming weeks, after the conclusion of the sensitive overlapping Passover and Ramadan holiday period, in order to bolster the coalition’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

Israel’s current government was elected on a platform promising order and security. So far, they have delivered the exact opposite.

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