Netanyahu’s hospital sedation may be over, but Levin remains the real prime minister


At 3:04 pm on Monday in the Knesset plenum, it was easy to understand the core of the current government network of influence.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a phone call and hurried out of the whole thing. Minister of Justice Yariv Levin and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir stepped in. For the entire duration of the significant final vote on the law to restrict the judicial test of “reasonableness” for the decisions of politicians – the first judicial reform bill passed – both watched Netanyahu like a hawk, but now he seemed to be slipping away from them.

This was the second time that the Prime Minister appeared to relax the legislation and reach a compromise with the opposition at the last minute, against the two de facto prime ministers who were sitting next to him.

The first time, Netanyahu left the room after giving him a note, and Ben Gvir had quickly sent Levin after him to prevent him from doing anything out of line. “Go see what’s going on with him over there,” Ben Gvir said to Levin, patting him gently on the shoulder.

Levin had gone on the mission, returning quickly and reporting to Ben Gvir that all was well and that nothing had happened. Now, at 3:04 pm, it was Ben Gvir’s turn to calm Levin down.

The prime minister, who left after the phone call, returned to the full hall. Ben Gvir quickly went to him and asked if anything had changed. “Nothing, don’t worry,” Netanyahu replied. Ben Gvir ran back to Levin with the good news, and they both smiled. The premier was under his control.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, center, speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin during a vote on the ‘rationality’ bill at the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu wanted to delay the legislation or reach some kind of compromise, but he couldn’t anymore. He is trapped in the hands of the Levin camp in the government and in the hands of the far-right Ben Gvir, who on Monday went so far as to expressly threaten to reduce the government if the law did not succeed and the “salad bar” he promised his voters was not served in time, ahead of the entries of his promised dictatorship.

The prime minister is in shackles. Everyone knows it. Likud MK Tally Gotliv is saying it openly. “The prime minister found out that there is a very strong coalition here and that it would not be possible to just decide to delay the legislation,” Gotliv told Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel.

“We are standing in front of the right wing [electorate] who gave us their trust. This is not our private site,” she continued. “I think the prime minister realized for the first time that he could not take some step back. There is a very strong group here that wants to fulfill the wishes of its voters. That’s everything.”

Likud MK Tally Gotliv outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office at the Knesset, June 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Levin, the hardline architect of judicial reform, visited on Monday for a public display of power – together with his good friend MK Simcha Rothman, chairman of the Constitution, Justice and Justice Committee – and they all trampled in his path, from the Supreme Court to the defense minister. Yoav Gallant, a defense minister tasked with protecting the country but seeing its military reserves disintegrate before his eyes, tried to push through a modified version of the bill, but he had no chance against Levin.

In the past seven months since he took office, Levin has recruited eight ministers from the ruling Likud party who obey his orders, as well as a group of lawmakers. Facing this political army, it happened, even the defense minister and the Israeli Defense Forces did not have a chance on Monday.

It was enough to see Gallant laying out his legacy to his former military general, MK Orna Barbivai of the opposition Yesh Atid party. Through circular hand motions, Gallant described the ministerial bond of the prime minister. “I tried, but this is the story,” said Gallant, wringing his hands together in despair.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin (right) during the vote on the ‘reasonability’ bill in the Knesset, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Netanyahu’s aides promised on Monday that the reform was now done, and that Netanyahu would not proceed further. Monday’s move in the Knesset, which narrowed the reasonableness test, was the minimum achievement Netanyahu could bring to the right, and that is what he has done.

Netanyahu himself said on Monday that legislative measures will be taken from now on with broad agreement. However, it will be difficult for opposition representatives to sit down with him at Áras an Uachtaráin after everything that happened on Monday.

Everyone understands that Netanyahu is a captive prime minister. Hundreds of thousands of protesters who turned out together across the country on Monday night listened to what Levin said in his final speech, and ignored Netanyahu and his empty promises.

Coalition lawmakers gather around Justice Minister Yariv Levin to take a celebratory selfie in the Knesset plenum, as they pass the first of the coalition’s judicial reform laws, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We have taken the first step in a historic process,” Levin promised from the Knesset podium, before going down to take a celebratory selfie with Rothman and all their friends from the hardline parties of Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit.

For about two hours early Sunday morning, Levin was formally the acting prime minister while Netanyahu was under sedation and fitted with a pacemaker. Judging by his appearance on Monday, Levin has yet to hand the role back to Netanyahu.

This story was originally published in Hebrew on Zman Yisrael.

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