Opinion |

More Than Netanyahu, Fear Yariv Levin

The move of the 'polite and cultured' Levin into the Justice Ministry, which gathered momentum this week, is the real danger

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Yariv Levin and Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset in November.
Yariv Levin and Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset in November.Credit: Noam Rivkin Fenton
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

The only thing that was known and agreed upon in advance in the lively, tumultuous Likud primary was the achievement of Yariv Levin, who swept up the top spot. This calm person, who often seems to be someone just shaking off his afternoon nap, managed to cross the divides and controversies between different camps that were at the core of this primary.

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He was popular among the “free voters” Netanyahu encouraged to vote, in an almost desperate act of delaying the closure of ballot boxes, in an effort to advance candidates he wished to promote (such as journalist Boaz Bismuth). Levin was also popular among the dealmakers, who in many cases advanced candidates Netanyahu would have preferred to leave behind (such as David Bitan).

Levin is currently the most sophisticated operator in Israeli politics, contributing more than anyone else to the well-engineered undermining of the “government of change” led by Bennett and Lapid. His long-standing proximity to Netanyahu was not to his detriment, obviously, but the source of his success is much more profound than his loyalty to a leader.

Levin is the most prominent, most veteran figure among the enemies of the justice system who are plotting to destroy it or, in their words, “to transform it from its foundations.” He was there long before this became fashionable on the right, an emblem of one’s identity and affiliation. He was there when Netanyahu was still proud of his warm relations with Supreme Court justices, never imagining that he would one day use the charged phrase “Dreyfus trial” while referring to himself. Like artists who persevere for years working in a narrow niche, until suddenly something in the cultural climate hooks up with their worldview and the masses come to them – this is the case of Levin, the justice system and Likud voters.

More than anything else, Levin’s election attests to the fact that the biggest party in Israel, the ruling party for most of the last decades, currently represents a radical, revolutionary agenda that denies the legitimacy of the justice system in particular, and the rule of law in general. This plainly sounds dangerous and confused, a sad development since the days when Menachem Begin, so pined for by the left, spoke so favorably about the “judges in Jerusalem.”

The current attitude can be ascribed to the madness of the Netanyahu trial. In fact, this is a logical evolution of Israel’s right wing, and the trial, with all the fierce emotions it evokes, is a perfect vehicle for the acceleration of a much larger process.

In an interview with Haaretz in September 2017, Bitan, then a strong leader of the governing coalition and a good friend of Netanyahu, said the biggest mistake made by Begin after the 1977 electoral upheaval was to leave the old professional civil service intact. After 40 years of Likud rule, it can be said that Likud is eager to complete the revolution: by demolishing any vestige of statism, which is viewed as an imposed construct of the old Mapai party, and reshaping state institutions in the mold of the current majority.

The state-oriented right, whose adherents are now mentioned as the tie-breaking electorate, is a tiny appendage that refuses to grow, since its creed, especially now, involves an inherent contradiction rather than the embracing of a unified, enthusiastic agenda (an effort reminiscent of the conflict in the Zionist left, torn between aspirations for humanist justice and the preservation of Jewish nationhood).

A very senior government source said before the election that he was not afraid of Netanyahu’s return to power or of the growing strength of Itamar Ben-Gvir. Instead, he saw Yariv Levin’s becoming justice minister as the biggest threat looming over Israeli democracy.

It’s not the abrasive style of David Amsalem or the populism of Miri Regev, or even the aggressive style of Amir Ohana in the Justice Ministry that should cause concern when thinking about a Knesset majority in the Netanyahu bloc. The move of the “polite and cultured” Levin into the Justice Ministry, which gathered momentum this week, is the real danger.

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