Likud MKs are afraid of social division, but not enough to take a stand on overhaul

With the coalition advancing its radical overhaul without pause for dialogue, it remains to be seen if increasingly troubled lawmakers in Netanyahu’s party will vote against it

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on March 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on March 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As protests, counter-protests, and recriminations hit unprecedented levels, lawmakers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party are increasingly squeamish about the way their coalition’s push to redraw power lines between the judiciary and politicians is dividing the nation, yet have been relatively muted in their criticism.

Although a handful of senior coalition lawmakers have signed letters calling for cross-Knesset dialogue on the overhaul package, and others have boldly said that the coalition will have to soften measures itself, one of those MKs — former minister and Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein — was sharply reprimanded by the party on Tuesday.

Edelstein skipped two votes tied to the legislation, despite a coalition order for all to be present. Party MKs told The Times of Israel that they saw Edelstein’s move as a snub, especially as Edelstein popped into the plenum minutes later to present his own bill, and it was timed just hours after criticism he made earlier on Tuesday against Likud’s approach to the sweeping reforms came to light.

Edelstein, a recent challenger to Netanyahu’s two-decade-plus leadership of Likud, told the party’s closed faction meeting that he was “not comfortable” pushing the legislation forward without first holding an internal Likud debate on its principles. Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Netanyahu’s closest confidant in the party, has advanced the legislation at a breakneck pace, and said he intends to finish passing the first package of changes by the Knesset’s early April recess.

Core among those changes are measures to retool judicial appointments, handing control squarely over selecting judges to the coalition; and drastically constraining the High Court of Justice’s power to review laws, in part by creating a mechanism for the Knesset to both preemptively insulate laws from oversight and to amend them to carry the same immunity, should they be struck down.

Edelstein’s stance, while quiet, is the boldest taken to date within the party against the overhaul package. Yet sources close to the senior lawmaker said that Edelstein backs most of the content of the package; his main gripe is with the process by which it is being advanced, because of the damage it is causing to national cohesion.

They also refused to say that Edelstein will refrain from voting for the package, when it comes up for its second and third Knesset readings.

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein visits the Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar, in the West Bank on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Those comments are echoed by others within the party. While a large swath of Likud voters do not support the full suite of reforms — which taken together remove most judicial checks on political power, and also include a number of pointed bills tailored to solve specific politicians’ legal woes — many of the party parliamentarians are comfortable with the thrust of their content.

The two main divides within the party surround the process by which the sweeping reforms are being pushed, tied directly to discomfort with the national discord between supporters and detractors, and whether there should be compromise on their content, and to what extent.

“I myself support the content of the reform and I don’t agree with the way it’s being done,” Likud MK Danny Danon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Like Edelstein, Danon thinks that it was a “mistake” to have no serious discussion within Likud and that the public rollout was mismanaged, which he thinks contributed to the outcry against the changes.

Danon added that he thinks other Likud MKs are starting to push back against the process, but was reticent on whether he or other lawmakers would vote against the bills in their final Knesset readings.

Likud MK Danny Danon in the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I think we should do everything in our power to change the way it is going. I don’t think it’s about getting votes through the Knesset,” he said. “I think it’s not going to be helpful and won’t last a long time” if not passed with stronger public and political backing.

As quasi-constitutional Basic Laws are amended with a simple parliamentary majority, the next coalition could easily choose to roll back provisions.

Likud MK Eli Dellal, who was also caught on tape in Monday’s faction meeting expressing discomfort, echoed other lawmakers’ claims that there is genuine frustration over how the process is going and upset over divisive public reaction.

In addition to telling The Times of Israel that he’d experienced “violence,” including protesters hitting his car and shouting at him as he left a recent event, Dellal said that he would support compromise.

“The issue of the reform is important and we have to do it, but because there are differences of opinion and incitement tearing the country apart, I say yes, do the reform, but there needs to be dialogue and broad agreement,” he said on Tuesday.

Senior Likud MK David Bitan, known to also butt heads with Netanyahu regarding influence within the party, made one of the biggest calls for compromise on Tuesday, saying that the legislation will need to be “softened,” given the polarization it is creating.

Likud MK David Bitan, chair of the Knesset Economic Committee (right) and Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi at a meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, on January 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking to Army Radio, Bitan said that “objectively, we need to soften it. And you see what’s happening in the nation.”

Hours later, protesters surrounded ultra-Orthodox MK Moshe Gafni’s house, while counterprotesters pelted them with eggs and called the largely secular crowd non- Jewish. Gafni is one of the drivers behind the overhaul, including the controversial provision to override judicial review.

“If there’s no compromise, we’ll soften it ourselves,” Bitan said, amid opposition refusal to sit with the coalition so long as it won’t pause its legislative march. He also nodded to the fact that Likud is currently polling at reduced numbers, calling it “an indication that we need to fix it.”

Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar, a strong Netanyahu backer, raised similar fears at Likud’s Monday faction meeting, saying that the national reaction to judicial reform may hurt the party at the polls.

Given this dissatisfaction over the most public and most polarizing political issue in Israel over the past ten weeks of lightning legislation and mass protest against it, why are lawmakers in the coalition’s largest party so muted in their response?

Likud sources said that there is “fear” within the party, both in terms of reprisal in the current Knesset and at the polls. Likud is one of the Knesset’s few parties to hold a form of primaries, where most of its seats are determined by the votes of its approximately 140,000 registered party members.

Police push back supporters of United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni during an anti-government protest outside his home in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, March 14, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Netanyahu is also famous for sidelining rivals for power in his parliamentary faction. Danon, who became one of the first Likud MKs to publicly call for political dialogue in a letter alongside Edelstein and two opposition MKs, just returned to the Knesset in November, after having been sent to represent Israel in the UN — Israel’s political Siberia — when he became a problem for Netanyahu. Edelstein’s slap on the wrist on Tuesday, which will block him from “speaking in the name of the Likud party” until the end of April, can also be interpreted as a warning to would-be rebels.

Earlier this month, Modiin Mayor Haim Bibas, influential in internal Likud party politics and head of the Federation of Local Authorities, said that he supports “immediate dialogue” on judicial reform and called on “all the leaders of the country to take responsibility.”

“All eyes are on you,” Bibas said to the Knesset and cabinet. “Set everything aside, come here, go into room for two or three weeks and talk to solve the problem,” the mayors’ council head said, warning that nothing else matters “if there’s a civil war.”

Nevertheless, other mayors of cities that deliver large numbers of Likud voters to the polls have not pressured the parliamentary faction. One Likud source inside the Knesset said that with municipal elections looming on the October horizon, mayors are nervous about sticking their necks out against the party on such a divisive issue.

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