AnalysisEvent was huge shul gathering of the national-religious camp

An uncompromising right could drag Netanyahu down a more hardline path

In many ways, Thursday’s mass pro-overhaul demonstration was also against the premier; any attempt to construct a more moderate proposal will be tortuous for Likud

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the 75th anniversary Independence Day ceremony, held at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem on April 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the 75th anniversary Independence Day ceremony, held at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem on April 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On the morning after Thursday’s major right-wing rally in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to lack a consistent approach toward his own government’s judicial overhaul plan: At times he appears to be leading the charge, at others he is being led by members of his coalition, and on yet other occasions he is acquiescing to its opponents.

A few weeks ago, the prime minister bowed to the immense pressure of the overhaul’s opposition, walked back the dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and agreed to pause legislation that would radically weaken the judiciary, in order to allow for negotiations with those on the opposite side of the aisle on a potential compromise.

Since then he has appeared to lead an effort — despite opposition from those within Likud — to step back, set a fresh agenda and wait for the overhaul to be forgotten, fade away, or die, so that the country can return to some semblance of normalcy, and he can finally get an invite to the White House.

Thursday’s impressive rally in Jerusalem, which drew some 200,000 right-wing supporters, could drag Netanyahu back in a direction he does not desire. In many respects, it was a demonstration against Netanyahu, and not for him.

Though his Likud party participated in funding and promoting the rally, the prime minister himself did not go out of his way to push it. In addition, he did not issue any of the base-rallying videos for which he is so well known when wanting to get supporters out onto the streets or to the polls. He also didn’t come out to speak to the hundreds of thousands who came to Jerusalem, filling the streets around the Knesset, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Supreme Court.

In a short statement posted to social media, the premier only thanked activists for coming out in a show of “tremendous support” and saying they warmed his heart, without making mention of the legislation or its future.

Indeed the messaging at the rally was not at all in line with Netanyahu’s efforts to escape — or at the very least to moderate — the overhaul plan that now has him up to his neck in trouble.

An aerial photo of the pro-judicial overhaul rally in Jerusalem on April 27, 2023. (Flash90)

A closer look at the turnout for the rally shows Likudniks were a minority. Rather, the event was in effect a massive shul gathering of the national-religious camp, with participants who showed no inclination whatsoever toward dialogue or compromise with the opposition. The masses came mostly from settlements and yeshiva high schools. Likud members who did attend were of the variety that dismissed as a non-starter any prospect of tempering the legislation.

The host, Likud MK Avicahy Buaron, who led the fight against the 2017 evacuation of the illegal Amona outpost, made sure to repeat the refrain “no compromise” whenever he was able, and the crowds enthusiastically repeated it.

Right-wing Israelis attend a rally in support of plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem, Thursday, April 27, 2023. (AP /Ohad Zwigenberg)

The most popular politicians at the rally were clearly the most hardline and outspoken ones: Judging by noise and applause, the most well-received were Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben Gvir, Likud’s David Amsalem and Tally Gotliv, and Religious Zionism’s Orit Strock. Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the plan’s chief architect, was also met with great enthusiasm, up until the moment he said it was possible “to come to an agreed-upon change” — to which the crowd chanted again “no to compromise” and “Bibi, don’t give in.”

Still, Levin’s message was important. He was in effect acknowledging to 200,000 right-wingers that the far-reaching overhaul he had presented to the country on January 4 was no more. Assuming the sides currently negotiating at the President’s Residence do not reach an agreement, Likud is expected to try to pass a different unilateral reform — one that does not land it in hot water with Thursday night’s passionate crowds. It will be a tortuous task.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin at a rally in support of the government’s planned judicial overhaul outside the Knesset on April 27, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Ben Gvir on Thursday repeated his demand for “a full-on” overhaul. He also has a promise from Netanyahu to pass the legislation in the Knesset’s summer session, which opens Sunday.

We are currently at the height of a monumental struggle between the overhaul’s supporters and opponents, but also one that is being waged between the national-religious right of Smotrich, Strock and Ben Gvir on one side, and the more moderate right of Netanyahu on the other. No one knows how the situation will develop, certainly not after Thursday’s uncompromising rally.

Of note in this respect is the Haredi decision to stay away from the demonstration. The ultra-Orthodox don’t want to become deeply involved. They’re generally supportive, but in many respects, the overhaul doesn’t much interest them. It’s only gotten them into trouble, turning them into a central target of the massive liberal protest movement that has risen in recent months.

What truly matters to the Haredim is the military draft law: They will back any moderate proposal so long as they are guaranteed the exemption from army service of yeshiva students.

Netanyahu may be able to use them as a counter-weight to the national religious camp if and when a more moderate reform plan is placed on the table — with the hope that such a compromise doesn’t bring his government crashing down.

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