ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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AnalysisNetanyahu didn't attend the rally, held back on promoting it

Mass right-wing protest highlights deepening divide between Netanyahu and Levin

The once-tight confidants have drifted apart on the issue of how and to what extent to pursue judicial shakeup; hardline rally pushed by justice minister as a message to the PM

Carrie Keller-Lynn

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin during the weekly meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on April 2, 2023. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin during the weekly meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on April 2, 2023. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)

Thursday night’s 200,000-person show of force in support of the government’s plan to substantively weaken judicial checks on political power underscored the fraying of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strongest relationship within his Likud party — the one with his justice minister and longtime confidant, Yariv Levin.

In December, Netanyahu agreed to unfetter Levin’s two-decade-long crusade to radically constrain Israel’s top court and the country’s judiciary, giving him the justice portfolio with an agreement to let him blitz through sweeping, structural changes to the justice system.

By March — three months into a major nationwide protest movement, economic uncertainty and open pressure from Israel’s closest ally, the US, to roll back Levin’s plan — Netanyahu had declared that he was entering the arena and taking matters into his own hands.

He echoed this argument to the High Court of Justice, saying he needed to directly deal with the shakeup — despite this potentially putting him in a conflict of interest in light of his ongoing corruption trial — because the issue had reached the level of “national crisis.

Within the senior ranks of Likud, according to party sources, this was taken as a sign that Levin’s blitzkrieg approach had failed.

Thursday night’s demonstration — bolstered by organized shuttles for religious Zionist and settler supporters of the judicial overhaul — was a support call organized by certain sectors of the government as a message to their own coalition colleagues to continue the legislative push. In other words, it was a very public demand by Levin and his allies to continue along their desired path.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu — who in late March decided to pause the reform legislation until the next Knesset session to allow time for dialogue with the opposition, announcing the suspension hours before the coalition could have enacted the dramatic law cementing its control over key judicial appointments — is seemingly weighing a different tack.

The generally tight-lipped Levin released a rare, personal video message on his social media accounts on Wednesday, making a direct plea for supporters to attend Thursday’s rally.

A protester holds up a placard bearing portraits of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin during a demonstration outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

“I need you,” he said. “We need everyone to come to Jerusalem so a clear voice in favor of the reform will be heard.”

Netanyahu, by contrast, was relatively quiet. While he did not dissuade attendance, the premier — who frequently releases video messages on social media — didn’t promote it and only released a lukewarm thank you tweet to participants as the event was getting going.

“I am deeply moved by the tremendous support of the national camp that came to Jerusalem this evening en masse,” the premier tweeted. “You warmed my heart very much.”

Tweeting slightly different remarks in English, he said: “I thank the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who came to Jerusalem tonight to support our government. Your passion and patriotism moves me deeply.”

Netanyahu did not attend the rally, while Levin was its most prominent speaker, taking the stage to say that he was determined to persevere and push the changes through, and declaring: “The attacks only strengthen me.” He both backed the ongoing compromise talks, and reminded the massed supporters that the nation voted for the reform “in the referendum six months ago” — a reference to the November elections that brought this coalition to power.

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

The difference in approach between Netanyahu and the most ardent advocates of the overhaul was not lost on fellow hardliner Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, whose Religious Zionism party has done much of the legwork to advance the first phase of the shakeup.

“Look how much power we have,” Smotrich said from the protest podium. “We have the nation. The majority that is here in full force demands from us and gives us full backing to fix what needs to be fixed.”

“The people demand judicial reform and they will get judicial reform. We will not give up,” he said.

Right-wing Israelis attend a rally in support of the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 27, 2023. (Flash90)

Yet even Levin’s own staff is unsure when the judicial shakeup will return to the legislative agenda, which is now a highly sensitive issue again as the Knesset returns from a month-long hiatus on Sunday to open its summer session. With the state budget deadline at the end of May looming — the government will automatically dissolve if the budget doesn’t pass by then — the initial legislative focal point is expected to become passing a two-year, trillion shekel budget.

Levin and Netanyahu, once the tightest pair in the Likud ranks, are said to be drifting apart amid the overhaul blowback. Levin is said to have told supporters that he remains single-mindedly determined to push his judicial agenda, especially seizing political control over judicial appointments. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has a plethora of other concerns to weigh, from national unity and a lingering terror wave to encouraging continued foreign investments and countering Iran’s nuclear threat.

Netanyahu, unlike Levin, is not a longtime ideologue fighting for constraining judicial power. On the contrary. Before the corruption investigations that led to his current trial, he was a vocal champion of the independence of the Supreme Court. As Levin admitted in January, Netanyahu’s trial — which his supporters, and the premier himself, have decried as a “witch hunt” — bolstered support within Likud for curbing the judiciary.

In many ways, Thursday night’s protest was a call aimed at Netanyahu himself, issued by the more hardline flank of his own coalition. It remains to be seen how the premier will choose to respond.

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