Where is Bibi’s head at?

‘What I am seeing today is not the Netanyahu that I have known and this is what is so painful to watch,’ former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Danny Ayalon, who also served as an advisor to the Israeli prime minister, told Jewish Insider

Once referred to as “King Bibi,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is viewed by many as an impressive global diplomat and master political tactician, but that image has lately been battered as he faces massive public demonstrations, threats of a national labor disputes and widespread criticism – both from former allies within Israel and from Washington – mainly over his government’s attempts to overhaul, and some say weaken, the country’s independent judiciary. 

Some have raised hard questions over Netanyahu’s current policies and wondered why he appears to be embracing some of the most zealous elements in Israeli society, or why his coalition is pushing so hard and working so rapidly to change the fundamental basis of Israel’s de-facto constitution, when just a decade ago Netanyahu blocked similar initiatives against the justice system. Others are asking how much of these efforts are tied to Netanyahu’s own legal predicament as he stands accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases.

Netanyahu’s refusal to heed warnings from the country’s top economic experts and from top security chiefs past and present, even going so far as announcing plans to dismiss (and then reversing) his Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who spoke up publicly urging the coalition to pause the judicial overhaul, have also raised concerns. 

“Like everything else, it’s very complicated, we are not talking about a single event with a narrow explanation,” Uzi Arad, once a trusted foreign policy and national security advisor of Netanyahu’s, told Jewish Insider.

Arad, who also served for many years in the Mossad, said Israel’s increasingly tense situation, which some fear will cause irreparable social divisions and threaten Israel’s special relationship with the U.S., is centered on Netanyahu’s criminal indictments and has evolved from there over the past few years.

“As he sits on the bench and is leveled with three criminal cases, the effects are many,” Arad explained. “He’s trying to protect himself and much like with [former U.S. President Richard] Nixon – the cover-up is much worse than the original acts.”

“Nixon went to lengths to obstruct justice, but at no point did he try to change the Constitution, or change the penal code,” Arad continued. “Netanyahu is striking out at the law and wants to change the legal system… he’s trying to cover up for himself.”

Arad said he believed that Netanyahu was “very aware” of what he was doing and that he might even be acting “deliberately.”

“Some people here are saying that he has lost his senses or that he is operating under a torturous mindset, which is leading him to cause damage in the hope that he will get a pardon or a plea bargain,” he added.

Either way, the former advisor explained, the prime minister “is locked in a vicious cycle and that is what is causing problems.”

Right now, Arad continued, Netanyahu has no choice but to align himself with far-right, theologically driven politicians such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the Jewish Power party, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist faction, in a bid to save himself.

“He is in a self-defeating dynamic but he’s still trying to vindicate himself; and he still wants to end his term with a historic success,” Arad theorized.

In a public address last Monday, Netanyahu tried to calm public tensions announcing a time-out in the legislative process until after the Passover holiday but he raised eyebrows by comparing himself to the wise biblical King Solomon and accusing those protesting of being “extremists.”

At the same time as his speech, members of his own government declared their intention to move ahead with the contentious reforms, and Netanyahu was reportedly forced to concede a private militia to Ben-Gvir, despite warnings from his own security apparatus, in order to keep his coalition intact. 

He also appeared to have difficulty reining in members of his own Likud party and his supporters, especially after U.S. President Joe Biden – a day after Netanyahu said he was pausing the legislation – criticized the Israeli leader’s actions, saying he was concerned about what was unfolding in Israel and that Netanyahu would not be invited to the White House in the near future. The backlash ranged from a letter sent by freshman Knesset Member Dan Illouz to 500 members of Congress accusing Biden of crossing a “red line in the relationship between our two countries,” and outlandish comments by the deputy speaker of the Knesset, MK Nissim Vaturi, blaming former U.S. President Barack Obama for the deaths of Israeli soldiers during the 2014 Israel-Gaza war due to a “weapons embargo.” On Thursday night, pro-government demonstrators could be seen waving banners that read “F–K Biden.” 

“What I am seeing today is not the Netanyahu that I have known and this is what is so painful to watch,” former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Danny Ayalon, who has known Netanyahu since 1997 and previously served as his foreign policy advisor, as well as deputy foreign minister in a previous Netanyahu government, told JI.

“The Netanyahu that I worked with was charismatic, was very cool, was very calculating in the sense that he was smart and always put Israel’s security above anything else,” Ayalon added. “The Netanyahu of today is not the same guy, unfortunately, and in the last three months he has made every strategic mistake on the books.”

Ayalon, who is co-founder and chairman of financial advisory firm Silver Road Capital Group, added, “Unfortunately, what we are seeing today is a prime minister who is in a free-fall, and the result is that this is a government that is in free-fall.”

He said that he believes that Netanyahu is no longer totally in control of his government and “as long as he does not get back control, I think that this government is doomed.”

“I can tell you that within the Likud they are upset with Netanyahu, but they’re afraid to speak out because of the wrath of his machine,” Ayalon added. “They are upset with him because when he is not in control, then Likud is not in control and Likud is the largest party, the ruling party.”

“Netanyahu has never been so weak vis-à-vis his coalition members,” he observed. “He’s had complex coalitions in the past and has managed them very well, to the best interest of the State of Israel, but not anymore.”

Ayalon cited two examples showing how Netanyahu has lost control of his far-right ministers. The first is their responses to the recent security conferences in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and Aqaba, Jordan, to discuss arrangements with the Palestinian Authority ahead of Ramadan, both organized under the auspices of the U.S., Egypt and Jordan. Despite agreements reached, members of Netanyahu’s coalition said they would not abide by them.

The second example, according to Ayalon, was the government’s decision to repeal the disengagement law – reached in coordination with the U.S. in 2008 – regarding four West Bank settlements.

“With this legislation, Israel is basically nixing the agreements it made previously, which is crazy,” said Ayalon. “And for what? For nothing. Are they going to rebuild these four communities? Are they going back to Gaza? They say it’s because of coalition considerations, so Netanyahu is being squeezed by his coalition members and he’s also compromising Israeli strategic interests.”

Neri Zilber, a Tel Aviv-based journalist and advisor to the Israel Policy Forum, also said that since returning to power after the November 2022 election, Netanyahu appears to be a “very different politician than the one we’ve come to know over the previous three decades.”

“I don’t think even his former aides or journalists who have been covering him for many, many years or from the beginning of his career, have a clear answer as to what is going on,” he said, adding, “I think it’s important to say that nobody has a clear answer about what is going through Netanyahu’s mind right now, so we should show some humility in terms of trying to diagnose the man either politically or psychologically.”

However, Zilber said that what is clear is that throughout his career, Netanyahu has focused on three pillars, or made three wagers with the Israeli public: The first is economic growth, he said, “the Israeli economic miracle of prosperity and rising standard of living.”

The second is military caution. “Despite his international reputation, he has remained actually very pragmatic and cautious in terms of the use of force,” said Zilber.  

The third pillar, he said, was international acceptance and recognition, “increasing Israel’s diplomatic and global standing, which he has taken great pride in throughout the years.”

“Now we see that in the matter of three months, all three of these pillars, all three of these wagers that he made with the vast majority of the Israeli public, the points that got him reelected time after time, are in complete shambles,” concluded Zilber.

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