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Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.
“We fought the Arabs three times, according to their rules, and we won”, Dani Dayan told me over breakfast in Jaffa about ten years ago.
Dayan was still at the time head of the Yesha (settlers’) Council in Israel (he now chairs the board of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and serves as Israel’s consul-general in New York).
In that diplomatic post he might find himself having to explain why some 300 Jewish settlers rampaged around the West Bank town of Hawra in a “pogrom” that followed the killing of two settlers by Palestinians.
The p-word wasn’t used by an Arab leader or anti-Israeli commentator, but by Maj Gen Yehuda Fuchs, commander of the Israeli Army in the West Bank, apologising for his troops’ failure to stop the violence.
The settlers have reason to feel impunity. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, limited himself to saying they shouldn’t “take the law into their own hands”.
Meanwhile Belazel Smotrich, the finance minister, briefly liked (and subsequently un-liked) a tweet demanding the village be destroyed, while Zvi Fogel, a government MP, defended the riot, saying it would deter Palestinian terrorism.
All three come from parties in the coalition calling itself Religious Zionism; at the last election it won 11 per cent of the vote, but it wields disproportionate power in the coalition because Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, knows that he can’t govern without them.
He needs their votes to get his main project through: a Poland-style refashioning of Israel’s judiciary to allow a parliamentary majority to appoint judges and make it all but impossible to strike down laws.
Israel, like the UK, has an uncodified constitution, but its conventions have, until now, been different. The Supreme Court discovered, in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the power to strike down laws it deems violate the declaration’s principles.
Yet, it also accepts that the fundamental constitutional nature of the state can be a mended by an ordinary Knesset law, requiring an ordinary majority, so long as the Knesset is sufficiently specific about its intent.
How the Supreme Court would react to a law denying it the ability to strike down legislation is, however, an open question.
In the absence of a strict constitutional rule, the court has flexibility: Michel Mandelblit, a former attorney general (who was appointed by Netanyahu), has called on the court to strike down the law that would curb its power.
If it did, it would have public opinion, the business community, and Israel’s security establishment on its side.
A huge alliance, far broader than the usual opposition to Netanyahu, come out into the streets to oppose what they call a “judicial coup”. Foreign investors have reacted nervously, and the shekel has fallen. Human rights groups and left-wing activists have been joined in protests by serving members of the Mossad. Elite combat reservists have sworn to refuse to report for duty if the the reforms go ahead.
In his desire to weaken a judiciary soon to try him for corruption, Netanyahu has instead weakened the Israeli state.
Israeli society stands as divided as it had been the last time Netanyahu went too far, in the period immediately leading up to the assassination of Yizhak Rabin (Ben-Gvir was involved in fomenting trouble back then as well).
Netanyahu’s desperation to avoid trial has forced him into a major mistake. His political virtuosity had allowed him to play the irresponsible populist in opposition, but an effective economic reformer at the Finance Ministry, and cautious Mr Security at the Prime Minister’s Office.
Yet his weakness has always been his tendency to appease his enemies and double cross his allies.
Legions of former Likudniks, IDF generals, and now US diplomats and tech industry leaders, are arrayed against him. His only friends are the arsonists of the settler movement, and his error was to think any fires they set would only be rhetorical.
Instead he has frightened centre-right Israel. They had long abandoned hope of actual peace with the Palestinians, but thought rational security measures could keep them in check.
They didn’t actively support the settlement ideology (quite a few even live there – but because it’s cheaper), but sympathised with Dayan’s feeling that what’s the point of “winning” if your enemy keeps coming back for another round. They thought the left, and often their own pervious sympathies for the left, naive after the Second Intifada.
Yet they did all this in the name of order, not chaos. To build their home in the Land of Israel, not set it ablaze. It has dawned on them that Netanyahu has become an agent of instability, and they are determined he must be stopped.