The Challenges of Leadership in a Polarized Society: Netanyahu’s Legacy in Israel

Anil Trigunayat

There is no doubt that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel (Bibi) has perhaps been the most elected and electable politician. Shrewdness with savviness in politics is an art that  often takes you places in democracy and often treated as an essential trait for success. But arrogance can often take one down. And utter and crass ambition could steer in the direction of arrogance especially when a politician’s personal integrity and credibility is questioned and matter remains  subjudice.

Majoritarianism and numbers at the hustings and in the legislature in a democracy have an implicit  danger of leading one towards the path of autocracy and indifference to the public opinion. Bubble of self-conceived beliefs also bursts at times.

Israel is facing a similar crisis . With the advent of an ultra-right government led by PM Netanyahu was expected not to concede to Palestinians an inch but its ‘Israeli Spring’ moment is  a self-goal by Bibi.

Composition of his government and some statements even gave jitters to their iron clad friends in the US Administration and the most powerful Jewish lobbies in the US. But his new project undermining the powers of judiciary by undertaking so called reforms through supremacy of legislature engineered the unprecedented ground swell of opposition to his designs.

Simply put, by a simple majority  the Knesset could overturn or overrule any court judgement or rulings let alone the assumption of unilateral powers to appointed the choicest and pliable  judges . Today Netanyahu is in a comfortable position with 64 seats in a 120 house compared to the previous governments that hung by a simple majority of one or two leading to their losing the vote on the floor if that one ‘Angel’ chose to cross the floor or found abstaining preferable . But divisions in the treasury benches  led by Likud Party are also becoming evident as the strong protests continue.

Netanyahu’s proposal to subjugate the judiciary

Israeli people were not amused as they want the three pillars of the democracy equally strong and not overbearing on the other .Hence they have been protesting in ever increasing numbers by the day. There is no match to the fury and ire of the people .  When people rise regimes fall. Arab Spring is the most recent example which arguably did not succeed to the desired extent but has left a template for governments to be mindful and mend their ways . Even autocratic regimes need people to stand by them. 

More importantly proposed reforms are also being seen as self-serving for Bibi who has cases of corruption pending against him raising questions on his own intent credibility.

His own Defence Minister Yoav Gallant , the second most powerful man in the Cabinet ,protested and wanted Bibi to drop and halt  the proposed reforms was fired by Bibi citing no reasons. Had he gone ahead he couldn’t count on all his alliance  partners and even his Likud MPs , who might have abstained even if they chose not to cast a negative vote. 

International community ‘s concerns may also be playing on his mind as President Biden urged Bibi to ‘walk Back’ from this path and even decided not to welcome him at White House in near future as has been the general practice  . But it was the common citizen who sent an unequivocal message to Bibi even asking him to leave.

His choices got limited and finally he told the people that he was listening to them and he did not want a civil war and hence decided to suspend the proposed reforms and preferred dialogue with relevant groups before reintroducing the proposal . ‘From the national responsibility and will to avoid rift with people’ he had decided to ‘suspend the 2nd and 3rd reading of the Law’ Bibi claimed. 

Israeli Embassies got shut ,airports and ports were closed  and flights cancelled due to the calls by the Trade Unions . In fact when US Defense Secretary  Lloyd Austen visited Tel Aviv the meeting with Israeli leaders had to be arranged on the airport itself due to road blocks and protests  . Thousands of reservists with elite units, including combat pilots, intelligence officers, and cyber experts, announced in open letters over the past weeks that they will not show up for duty if the reforms are passed in Parliament. An unprecedented situation indeed. 

Often to distract and unite public opinion and evoke patriotism countries tend to create or stoke conflicts and fear of  their enemies . Hopefully such military  adventurism will not be resorted to in the already volatile region of West Asia. 

Writing on the wall is clear ‘don’t mess with institutions that ensure the very fabric of democracy and governance and are the last resort and recourse to justice for the citizens’. Moreover, when you live in glass houses it will be a folly to cast the stones on others.

First published in CNBC TV 18 on April 6, 2023 as World View: Israeli Spring — the price that Netanyahu paid for indifference to public opinion

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Authors

  • IMPRI

    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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  • Anil Trigunayat

    Former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya, and Malta; Distinguished Fellow and Head of the West Asia Experts Group at the Vivekananda International Foundation.

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