Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sixth term in office is quickly shaping up as a full-scale assault on Israel’s democratic institutions. The 64-member ultra-right parliamentary coalition (out of 120 members of the Knesset) has launched a barrage of so-called “reforms” that — if legislated and adopted — will transform the “only democracy in the Middle East” into what the founder of Zionism Theodor Herzl warned against: a state of the Jews that is nothing more than just “another Levantine State.”
The judicial branch, including the Supreme Court, is to be subordinated to the executive branch. Additional planned measures include a politicization of the legal advisors to all government entities, a further weakening of the free press, and a diversion of more and more state funds to religious, nationalist, and ultra-conservative institutions. But what is Netanyahu’s endgame? Is he going to push through this virtual coup d’état, or is he exercising his old strategy of “destructive leveraging?”
The doctrine of destructive leveraging has been used by Netanyahu multiple times in the past, on many fronts. And today, he is executing it to achieve success on three key issues: annihilating the Oslo Accords and the two-state solution, curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and carrying out what is effectively regime change in Israel.
On each of these objectives, Netanyahu is skillfully building a set of menacing tools, mechanisms, capabilities, and policies that create a credible threat to the current order. Netanyahu has employed destructive leveraging throughout much of the altogether 16 years that he has been in power, and some of it also while out of office, as an active leader of the opposition. The results of this approach have, today, reached a critical mass. But judging by the behavior of the Biden administration — as well as other major Western governments — they seem to be missing all the big points.
In a nutshell, on the Palestinian front, Netanyahu’s government is committed to collapsing the Palestinian Authority, annulling the Oslo Accords, annexing part or all of the West Bank, and leaving its 3 million Palestinian residents without voting rights and under a non-democratic, coercive regime. Jewish settlement activity will, of course, be accelerated, under the direct authority of the two most powerful cabinet ministers — Bezalel Smotrich, minister of the treasury and “state-minister” in the Ministry of Defense, and Itamar Ben-Gvir, minister of “national security” (in charge of the Israel Police). In order to provide cover for this hostile takeover, Netanyahu is highlighting what he calls “Israeli-Arab peace,” meaning the Abraham Accords, designed to bypass any Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. When the time comes, for example once Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is out of the picture or if the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan falters, the destructive leverage will come into play, overtaking events and creating a completely new strategic reality within a very short period of time.
On the Iranian nuclear front, Netanyahu has exerted all efforts to curb Tehran’s advancement using Israel’s state-of-the-art arsenal of covert intelligence as well as cyber and kinetic capabilities. His intention has always been to prevent any diplomatic compromise and create the conditions for the United States military to intervene. Here too, the destructive leveraging doctrine is being successfully implemented. Israel is constantly raising the bar of military friction with Iran, pushing the latter to retaliate “in kind” or disproportionally. When this happens, Israel might be ready, but the U.S. will be at a loss, having been forced into a choice between bad options, “under fire.”
On the third issue — changing the nature of Israel’s regime — Netanyahu has been arraying his forces for decades. His mission was initially described as “replacing Israel’s liberal elites” by conservatives; but in recent years, though mostly undeclared, it mutated into all-out regime change, borrowing pages from Victor Orban’s Hungarian and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkish books. The country is rapidly approaching an unprecedented historical and constitutional juncture, which might deteriorate into some type of civil war.
The big question here is to what end will Netanyahu choose to use the tremendous destructive leverage he has amassed — toward the creation of an Erdoğan-style quasi-democracy, essentially an autocracy with formal elections, or toward a get-out-of-jail-free card for him and some of his fellow criminal defendants? Previously, during his fifth tenure as prime minister, he was already negotiating a convenient plea bargain, which would have absolved him of jail time over corruption charges in exchange for temporary retirement from office. Will he make a last-minute shift toward a similar deal today, instead of attempting to complete the coup? Some astute students of Netanyahu assess that his real plan is to stop short of tarnishing his legacy by becoming “the destroyer of Israeli democracy” — that instead, he will try to cut a deal. Others are overwhelmed by the brute force and sweeping nature of the attack already mounted and believe he is determined to push it through.
Be that as it may, U.S. policymakers need to quickly reassess the situation on all three fronts. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) head Bill Burns, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken all visited Israel in the last two weeks, trying to take Netanyahu’s temperature. But both their public statements and off-the-record briefings revealed either a lack of understanding or a dangerous hedging strategy. Half-hearted remarks about maintaining the “vision” of a two-state solution, unattributed and later public denials of U.S. involvement in the Jan. 28 attack on an Iranian missile factory carried out while these high-level officials were in Israel, and calls for “consensus” on major judicial and democratic “reforms” amounting to a regime change are all feeble, out-of-touch talking points that ring hollow.
Instead, the administration should use its own vast leverage over its ally and draw clear lines in the sand. Both privately and publicly, Netanyahu needs to be made aware that an attempt to degrade Israel’s political system to a quasi-democracy will lead to the immediate reevaluation of the special relationship and directly impact U.S. policies regarding Israel-related issues, including arms exports and other sensitive areas of cooperation. Unprecedented? Absolutely, just like the attempted coup d’état taking place right now.
On the peace front, Washington should re-link Israeli-Arab with Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, a policy that was a main tenant of all American administrations save Donald Trump’s, though called for even under his “plan.” On Iran, the message needs to be: If Israel’s government seeks continued U.S. cooperation, the previously observed rule of “no surprises” must be reinstated and adhered to without exceptions.
None of these policies will recover trust between the two administrations. As long as Netanyahu is in office, trust is out of the question. But confronting and foiling the three destructive leverage vectors is necessary and possible. If, however, the Biden administration fails to realize the magnitude of the moment and the scope of its potential damage — if it does not move swiftly and decisively — the U.S. will find itself on the wrong side of history on some or all of these three critical fronts.
A non-resident scholar at MEI, Eran Etzion is a diplomat and strategist with more than 20 years of experience in senior government positions in Israel.
Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.