Israel’s Master Contortionist Netanyahu Tests Political Limits

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(Bloomberg) -- Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to pull off political escape acts and outmaneuver rivals is a legend in Israel. Even a collection of scandals didn’t block him from winning office.

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But after unprecedented protests at home forced him on Monday to suspend a legislative blitz to weaken the country’s courts, the man who has dominated Israeli politics for the past three decades is testing limits like never before.

“Given what happened lately, politically and personally, there’s no question that he lost confidence,” said Abraham Diskin, a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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“He’s not as sure as he was before. And under such circumstances, mistakes are much more crucial,” said Diskin, who is also a senior research fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum, which was instrumental in drawing up the proposed judicial overhaul.

The fact Netanyahu succeeded to reach a delay without the collapse of his government shows some of his abilities are still there, said Diskin, who had thought a pause “would mean political suicide” given some of his allies’ deep commitment to the plan.

The delay gives the Netanyahu government and opposition negotiators until the end of July to come up with a compromise version of the overhaul, which sought to gut the authority of the Supreme Court, the most powerful check on Israel’s politicians.

It will also give Netanyahu and his Likud party time to recalculate after making crucial mistakes, a senior Likud official said.

Read more: What Is Happening in Israel? What’s Netanyahu’s Judicial Change?

Handing responsibility for the plan to Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who tried to ram it through, was a huge mistake, the official said on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive political issues.

Levin, the official said, announced a slew of radical changes at once and insisted they would all pass by parliament’s end-March recess - a political overreach Netanyahu hadn’t intended and that created a national protest movement that has caused him and his government enormous damage.

Netanyahu will now be more cautious, and needs to work on other issues he neglected, the official said. Levin did not immediately respond to a request for comment via his office.

Surveys released Monday suggest that if elections were held today, the prime minister’s Likud party would lose signficant support and he would not be able to cobble together a government.

Netanyahu finds himself in a precarious position both politically and legally. Although his government doesn’t appear to be in danger of falling imminently — all of his partners supported his decision to hit pause on the judicial remake — some of his allies may not be open to major compromises. They need a significantly weakened Supreme Court to promote their interests in religious affairs and settling the West Bank.

It’s also unclear how far Netanyahu will be willing to compromise. In announcing the delay for negotiations, he vowed that “the reform” will take place.

The turmoil also comes at a time of big shifts abroad. Arch enemy Iran ramped up sensitive uranium enrichment Israel says is aimed at a bomb despite Iranian denial; Tehran has grown closer to regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia; and there’s been saber-rattling by Iran’s proxy, Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah.

Violence with the Palestinians has also escalated, accompanied by rising vigilantism against the Palestinians on the part of a small minority of West Bank settlers.

Waning Power

Netanyahu formed his government late last year by striking a deal with far-right and nationalist politicians from Israel’s political fringe. He promised to be in charge of a tricky grouping that put him in the unusual position of center-right moderate.

“The extraordinary protests of the last several weeks, and especially the spontaneous protests of Sunday night and Monday morning, have put the lie to this notion of Netanyahu in charge,” wrote Richard LeBaron, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former US diplomat in Israel.

Netanyahu once boasted about the independence of Israel’s judiciary but his tone changed after he became entangled in three corruption cases that he maintains are a political witch hunt by forces eager to depose a right-wing leader.

If the judicial changes his government put forward go through, they may help him avoid potential conviction and jail time as handpicked judges take the bench and the court’s power is diminished.

But Netanyahu underestimated the power of the popular revolt against his plan, according to Anshel Pfeffer, author of an unauthorized biography of the prime minister.

“He failed to grasp that the economists, the business community, the tech sector, and most crucially, the thousands of reservists” who joined the protests were “capable of bringing Israel, its economy and security forces to a standstill,” Pfeffer wrote in the Haaretz newspaper on Monday.

By igniting open conflict with the rest of Israeli society, Netanyahu has caused his power to wane, he added. While coalition partners won’t be eager to give up power, “Netanyahu, the man that held them together because of his uncanny ability to build winning coalitions, has lost his magic,” he said.

“It is always presumptuous to predict his political demise, but the implosion of Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul could be a sign pointing in that direction.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid cautioned that opposition negotiators had to remain guarded in the upcoming talks on a compromise plan. “Anyone who ever worked with Netanyahu knows to expect tricks,” he said in an interview on Tuesday with ynet radio.

And protest leader Shikma Bressler, a particle physicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, said by telephone that demonstrations would go on because Netanyahu didn’t pledge to abandon the bills as opponents have demanded.

“We know Netanyahu for too long and we care about the country too much to be tricked and fooled again.”

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