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‘Netanyahu’s Pre-Occupation with Political Survival Exposed Israel to October 7 Attack’

Two months on from the horrors of ‘Black Saturday’, the question of why a country normally so sensitive to risk was caught off guard has an answer that undermines the future prospects of Israel’s prime minister.

Protestors outside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s private home in Jerusalem, 4 November 2023 Photo credit: Eddie Gerald/Alamy

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Polling released by the Israel Democracy Institute on 5 December showed that a significant majority of both Jewish (73%) and Arab (64%) Israelis expect a large wave of protests after the war, demanding that those responsible for the failures of October 7 are held to account. This majority stands across all political orientations, including 86% on the left, 69% in the center, and 74% on the right.

Israel’s intelligence agency is one of the world’s largest. Mossad employs more than 7,000 people and has an annual budget in the billions of dollars. National service is compulsory, meaning the country has always been able to rely on millions of reservists.

Its history and geography means Israel is also normally hypersensitive to terrorist threat. When I flew from London to Tel Aviv in February, the pilot sternly warned passengers we may be diverted to Cyprus after one fleetingly sought to access a make-up bag from her overhead locker while within Israeli airspace. The flight had already been delayed due to “military drills” taking place in the country.

The military and the government weren’t consumed by Hamas at the time, however. The year 2023 had begun with Israel ‘at war’ with itself. That’s what I was travelling to the country to research, modern manifestations of public protest, for a book I was writing. A new coalition government – the most right-wing in Israel’s history – had just been sworn in and its first pledge was to neuter the supreme court. This led to 100,000 protesters overwhelming Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in an unprecedented campaign of resistance that began in January and went on to grow ever larger as the year went on.

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Israel exists without a constitution or second house and so an independent judicial system has stood as the country’s only democratic safeguard for decades. Suddenly, the safety net was set to be dismantled by a new government comprised of far-right outfits propping up Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

The court has been important at the best of times in Israel’s relatively short history, but it stood to be all the more pivotal after Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the second largest coalition party, was appointed security minister last November. Ben-Gvir was a follower of the fascist organisation Meir Kahane, banned in Israel and designated as a terrorist group by the United States. He had previously called for the deportation of citizens considered “disloyal” and been convicted for racist crime.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the archetypal survivor Prime Minister, was content to acquiesce and coalesce. He had plenty of incentives. More than facilitating another term in office, the coalition deal paved the way for judicial “reforms” that could shield him from long-standing charges of bribery and fraud.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party came together with Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party a year ago to agree a series or policies that would strengthen their collective grip on power, while potentially reinforcing Netanyahu’s capacity to evade justice for corruption allegations first brought in 2019.

Israel needed a functioning coalition to break four years of political deadlock. But it did not need this. One proposed judicial reform would allow the government to appoint more members to a committee that oversees appointees to the Supreme Court, giving Netanyahu the power to pack the court with friendly judges.

This is important because the Supreme Court will hear any appeal, should Netanyahu lose his ongoing court case, which resumed on 5 December. Netanyahu faces up to ten years in jail, should he be found guilty. He denies all charges and also denies that his policies have been engineered for his own protection.

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Prior to the Hamas attacks on October 7, hundreds of thousands of Israelis had been continuing to stage weekly pro-democracy protests to resist the passage of Netanyahu’s various judicial reform bills. The movement has so far successfully stalled the bid to pack the court with more friendly judges, but it has lost other battles, including the court’s right to veto legislation. A parliament’s power to remove prime ministers deemed unfit has also been stripped away this year.

Ignoring the warnings of his military leaders, Netanyahu’s stubborn commitment to a personal agenda further incited the democracy protests and in doing so, Israel’s intelligence and security became weaker. The challenge posed by the uprising tested the faith, focus and resources of Israel’s defence apparatus.

First, reservists began boycotting training drills, believing they were no longer upholding a democracy. Then, the Defence Minister Yoav Gallant himself threatened to resign, the former military commander recognising how unsustainable it would be to oversee a secure Israel when its forces were divided on the legitimacy of their country’s leader.

Netanyahu fired Gallant before a public outcry led to his resinstatement and an agreement to water down some of his reforms. But this compromise led to a further concession to Ben-Gvir, promising him his own private militia to empower West Bank settlers. This further legitimised the illegal seizure of land and violence against Palestinians, which had been growing all year. It represented another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution Ben-Gvir has always openly opposed.

With every act Netanyahu has taken this year to protect himself, he has made both Israelis and Palestinians less secure and more vulnerable to violent attacks. The weekly protests have been postponed while the war plays out, but when they return, they may now be big enough to finally deliver his downfall.

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