Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
During his record tenure as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has built his political brand on protecting Israel from external, existential threats. But now he's created his own security threat with his effort to radically curtail his nation's judiciary and, by extension, its democracy.
Netanyahu acknowledged as much Monday when he told Israelis in a nationally televised address that he would be delaying his push for judicial reform, explaining that "When there is a possibility of preventing a civil war through dialogue, I, as the prime minister, take a timeout for dialogue."
That the country is convulsing to such a point that the prime minister feels the need to use that language is extraordinary, especially when the crisis is self-inflicted.
"This is the most profound domestic crisis in 75 years of the state because people think that the very character of the state is on the chopping block," David Makovsky, the director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told an editorial writer.
That's because Netanyahu and his far-right governing coalition, cobbled together with some religious and nationalist extremists, put it there. The judicial proposals, packaged as "reforms," are much further reaching and would erode an essential check on whichever government is in power, no matter how narrow the parliamentary majority.
Passing the proposals would transform Israel into a majoritarian democracy — a democracy "that is essentially governed by the will of the majority with minimal protection for the rights of minorities," Ronald Krebs, a University of Minnesota professor of political science, told an editorial writer.
The judicial proposals could also protect Netanyahu from the corruption charges he's facing. That alone should delegitimize his quest to gut the governing order.
Polls indicate that most Israelis are against such a radical change in how their government works. As a result, Israelis have surged into the streets for weeks, especially after Netanyahu sacked his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, on Sunday. Gallant had the temerity to speak the truth and say that Netanyahu's actions directly threatened national security.
"The rift within our society is widening and penetrating the Israeli Defense Forces," Gallant said in a nationally televised speech on Saturday, adding that the divides have created a "clear and immediate and tangible danger to the security of the state. I shall not be party to this."
Neither would an increasing number of military reservists, furthering the perils the prime minister has brought upon the country. Rather than resign, Gallant was fired by Netanyahu. Makovsky said that was a "kill-the-messenger moment" for a defense minister who contended that "all the division is seeping into the military, and it's being noticed in the Middle East, and this is dangerous for Israeli security."
And perhaps dangerous for peace prospects — with the Palestinians, to be sure, but also with Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu desperately wants the Saudis to enter the Abraham Accords, the Trump-era breakthrough that saw some Arab nations recognize Israel. Bowing to extremists in his party who seek to neuter the court's ability to curb expanding settlements would only jeopardize this objective.
No nation has done and spent more to ensure Israeli security than the United States, and so it's appropriate that the Biden administration has publicly nudged Netanyahu to seek compromise. In fact, according to a White House statement, President Joe Biden himself directly told Netanyahu in a phone call that democratic values "have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship" and that such a significant shift in Israel's governance structure must only "be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support."
The broadest base of support would likely be to scuttle the proposed changes altogether. Some key hard-liners in Netanyahu's coalition have already pronounced their resistance to compromise. Meanwhile, some notable Israeli opposition figures, including former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, have said they welcome a delay and dialogue, while others are outright opposed. For example, Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli asked: "How many more times can we fall into the trap of cooperating with Netanyahu?" who she charged with "buying time at the expense of our democracy."
It could also be at the expense of national security, something that no Israeli leader — especially Netanyahu — should subjugate to political and personal gain.