Is the current Israeli government truly on the verge of an authoritarian turn? No, of course not. The mass protests and over-the-top rhetoric from Israel’s domestic opposition, Joe Biden’s warnings that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reform agenda will curtail minority rights, gleeful announcements by the U.S. ambassador about his right to interfere in domestic Israeli politics, group letters from 50 former commandos and 75 economists who all oppose judicial reform, the financing of Palestinian groups with terror links, public harassment of Netanyahu’s wife: These are among the details of a single blueprint. The fact that this blueprint is designed in Washington, D.C., gives courage and direction to the demonstrators acting out their color revolution fantasies on the ground in Tel Aviv. And it’s evidence that Bibi is in Washington’s crosshairs, for regime change has come to Israel.
The world has learned a lot watching America’s Middle East freedom agenda wind its way through the Fertile Crescent, North Africa, and then up the Nile, first under George W. Bush and then under Barack Obama. The first of these lessons is that when U.S. policymakers selectively deploy the rhetoric of democracy and human rights against target governments, their words are typically accompanied by practical measures to destabilize those governments, including U.S. allies.
When the Freedom Agenda debuted after September 11, it described a set of dangerously wishful beliefs about how some of the region’s most repressive governments could become more democratic, provided their new leaders, like the Americans calling the shots, ignored historical reality and political culture. Then the concept transitioned, and by the time the Arab Spring rolled around, democracy promotion became cover for an arsenal of techniques deployed by U.S. intelligence services and NGOs to undermine governments that the White House, the State Department, and the CIA didn’t like.
Perhaps most famously, the Barack Obama administration’s pro-democracy campaign helped push out Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in favor of a government run by the Muslim Brotherhood, hardly an exemplary force for universal human rights. Then, during the Trump administration, the same Obama officials working while out of government partnered with foreign spy services to target Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with the goal of forcing him out of the line of succession in favor of a royal more likely to feather the retirement nests of agency officials.
A similar operation is now underway in Israel, where the Biden administration has departed from diplomatic protocol by repeatedly advertising its meetings with the political faction seeking to undo Israel’s newly elected right-wing government. More significantly, Biden’s State Department is now directly funding local activists organizing the protests. By publicly putting its prestige and money behind the coalition that lost the latest Israeli election, Washington is openly advertising its desire to bring down Netanyahu.
Maybe it seems strange that the current U.S. presidential administration considers Israel’s government hostile to American interests. Why, it was just months ago that Biden aides mediated an arrangement between Israel and Lebanon over their maritime border. Even practical, hard-minded Israeli officials said the deal enhanced security and may even lead to more positive steps with the Beirut government. Surely that’s indicative of good relations between Washington and Jerusalem, no?
In reality, the maritime agreement was just the latest in a series of initiatives to realign U.S. interests with those of the terror regime in Tehran while alternately sweet-talking and threatening traditional U.S. allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia to fall into line. Accordingly, an Israeli prime minister like the one Bibi replaced, Yair Lapid, who wanted to ingratiate himself with the Obama-Biden faction by integrating Israel into its pro-Iran security architecture that augments Hezbollah’s power, was indeed a friend of the current White House.
Netanyahu, however, is a problem for an administration still determined to reenter the nuclear deal from which Donald Trump withdrew. Netanyahu has opposed the deal since the Israelis got wind of it early in Obama’s second term. Yet in his previous tenure as prime minster, he passed on several opportunities to disrupt Obama’s negotiations and destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. But there’s no guarantee the famously cautious Netanyahu wouldn’t launch an attack now, especially with a right-wing government at his back and the U.S. seemingly preparing to accept Iran as a member of the nuclear club, so long as the terror regime’s capacity is limited to just one bomb, or maybe just a few.
Betting that Netanyahu will continue to sit on his hands is not a strategy. So, the Obama officials running Biden’s Middle East policy are set on bringing down Bibi. Their instrument is his domestic opposition, galvanized to thwart his proposed judicial reforms.
Netanyahu aides and supporters argue that far from weakening Israel’s democratic processes, his reforms would make the country’s democracy more dynamic by further empowering legislators, the elected representatives of the Israeli public. Thus, what Netanyahu’s opponents hysterically describe as an anti-democratic putsch is in reality a plan for a modified version of the “checks and balances” system that would distribute power among equal and independent branches of government—i.e., an Israeli rendition of the U.S. Constitution. And whatever experts may think about the pros and cons of the proposed reforms, the fact remains that Israel’s judiciary is less responsive to any kind of democratic restraint than the judicial system of any Western democracy.
The issue then is not that Bibi’s reform agenda endangers the rights of its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike. Rather, it attenuates the vast powers of the judiciary, a corps of lawyers tapped by their professional colleagues to serve lifetime terms in posts where they are unaccountable to the electorate at large. Instead, they represent the interests of a political, corporate, and media establishment determined to impose its will on the country.
In Israel the judiciary fills the role of the national security establishment in the United States. As American elites revere domestic U.S. intelligence services for waging an unlawful and ongoing campaign to ruin Trump and his supporters in order to, in their words, “save our democracy,” the anti-Bibi rebels esteem the judiciary as the thumb tilting the scales of justice against those they detest.
For more than two decades, Israeli judges have imposed “ongoing investigations” on right-wing leaders to cripple their agendas. They developed the method with Ariel Sharon, then used it on Ehud Olmert (now, apparently converted by his experiences in prison, a hardline leftist) and repeatedly against Netanyahu. In 2019, he was indicted under charges so vague and elastic—including the assertion that a politician seeking better coverage from a media organization is a crime—that it is clear the judiciary molded them only for the purpose of asserting its authority over Israel’s longest serving prime minister.
Israel’s judiciary cornered Bibi the same way U.S. intelligence services framed Trump: Any attempt at self-defense against an element of the deep state is refashioned by the establishment media as evidence of guilt. Unable to get Bibi out of power at the ballot box, his enemies used the courts, until Bibi outmaneuvered them. With his November reelection, he won a mandate to reform the judiciary. And that’s why the opposition has gone to the streets in much the same way U.S. progressives rioted alongside Democrat-supported street gangs in the spring and summer of 2020. The point is to make the majority beg for an end to the chaos, a plea the motivated minority is glad to accommodate but only on its terms: Help us get rid of the man you elected.
The anti-Bibi coup looks and feels like the anti-Trump operation because it’s run by the same people—the Obama operatives who hunted Trump and now run the Biden White House. It was Obama’s spy chiefs who fabricated Russiagate, the politically funded smear campaign designed to destabilize the Trump presidency. And it’s Obama’s State Department that created the machinery to take down Netanyahu nearly a decade ago by funding anti-Bibi election campaigns with U.S. taxpayer dollars.
Obama’s button men have made the “Get Bibi” machinery a permanent part of the Israeli political landscape: It’s how they dress their never-ending Iran deal campaigns in the garb of domestic Israeli politics. After Obama’s second term ended, his ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, stayed in country to service the anti-Bibi infrastructure while warning Israelis that no matter how good Trump was for Israel—crashing the nuclear deal, moving the embassy to Jerusalem, etc.—they better not get too close to the Republican president, for there would be a price to pay once the Democrats returned to power. And now they have.
Netanyahu brought some of this punishment on himself. His March 2015 speech before a joint session of Congress warning against the Iran nuclear deal was celebrated by Republicans at the time as a bold gesture of defiance. They likened Netanyahu to Winston Churchill, with Obama scripted as the grand appeaser, Neville Chamberlain.
In retrospect Bibi’s speech was a mistake. First, it was an announcement to the world that having gone all out—short of taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities—Bibi lost. Second, it signaled that the crucial decisions about Israel’s future were made not in Jerusalem but in Washington. This is what galvanized Bibi’s domestic opposition.
Israel’s anti-Bibi establishment was pleased to do Obama’s bidding. It didn’t matter that he was empowering Iran. If America wanted a deal with the clerical regime, they would have it. What Bibi’s domestic foes wanted was an imperial patron who would back their confrontation with the near enemy, Netanyahu, even as they continued to lose elections.
Now that there is no mistaking who is driving the coup against him, Bibi at least has a clearer picture of the game board before him. He can’t do much about the “ally” that has legitimized BDS on a grander scale than its academic proponents in the U.S. could ever hope for by filling Israeli streets with opponents threatening to take capital out of the country and shirk military service. The only way out of this mess is to reassert his freedom of action by zeroing in on the Obama-Biden faction’s favored foreign constituents, the regime in Tehran. If America wants to set fires in his backyard, Bibi can set fires, too.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).