Netanyahu has pushed through an appalling budget. Now here comes the overhaul again

The PM caved to his ultra-Orthodox allies with boosted funds for inadequate schools and full-time Torah study. Will he ignore the national interest on the future of the judiciary too?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, MKs and ministers after the Knesset passed the 2023-2024 budget, May 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, MKs and ministers after the Knesset passed the 2023-2024 budget, May 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This Editor’s Note was sent out on Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

Glowing with success after the passage of the state budget — a two-year financial framework whose approval in theory should usher in a period of relative coalition stability — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked Wednesday morning whether the government would now be returning its attention to its plans for sweeping judicial reform.

“Of course,” the prime minister said, adding, “We are already within it, trying to reach understandings [with the opposition], and I hope we will succeed.”

Some political commentators interpreted those remarks as deliberately ambivalent and placatory — a case of Netanyahu issuing vague assurances to his firmly pro-overhaul coalition partners. Later Wednesday, Netanyahu sounded more committed to seeking compromise, declaring: “We will of course continue with our efforts to arrive at a broad consensus agreement, to the extent possible, on the issue of judicial reform.”

Opposition National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, for one, is far from sanguine. He declared the prime minister to be “drunk on power after he passed a budget that will explode in all of our faces,” reminded Netanyahu that “madness is repeating the same action and expecting a different result,” and warned: “If the judicial coup is brought back to the table, we will make the country shake and we will thwart it.”

After he self-defeatingly overreached in March — sparking a national furor by firing Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for declaring that the rift over the judicial revolution had seeped into the IDF and constituted a national security threat — the prime minister suspended the overhaul legislation. But even as he belatedly consented to substantive talks under President Herzog’s aegis for a consensual judicial reform process, Netanyahu kept the core bill, the measure that would give the coalition near-absolute control over the appointment of all of Israel’s judges, locked and loaded in the Knesset, ever-ready for its final approval with just a day or two’s notice.

The inside word from the presidential consultations is that the coalition and opposition teams are taking their discussions seriously, but that nothing substantive has been decided. A claim that agreement was near on a dramatic-sounding interim deal — under which the Judicial Selection Committee would convene for now in its current format, and no fundamental changes would be made to the judicial system without bipartisan agreement — was denied by both sides earlier this week.

It is my understanding that some — but emphatically not all — of Likud’s representatives in those talks have moderated their positions in recent weeks, notably as regards the politicization of judicial appointments. What’s important, some of them are now saying, is that the judiciary be more diverse, more representative of the Israeli demographic mix. And if that can be achieved without upending the system, so much the better.

Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, May 6, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The fact is that Israel’s judges, throughout the court system, are an increasingly diverse group, with former justice minister Ayelet Shaked having recently highlighted that, during her four years in the post, she was even able to bring “an entire camp” of conservative justices to the High Court. Still, a shift in attitude inside the Likud team regarding the draconian provisions of that judicial selection legislation, while only a small step, is worth noting.

As somebody extremely well-versed with the system vouchsafed to me, however, the true goal of some in the coalition — not only among the ultra-Orthodox leadership demanding a blanket exclusion from all military and/or national services, but also those on the far-right who are seeking to advance legislation that will legitimize discrimination — is not more Mizrahi judges, or more Orthodox judges, or more women judges. The goal, rather, is simply filling the system with judges who can be relied upon to rule in line with their agenda.

As has been the case from the very start of this nightmarish challenge to Israel’s foundational democratic and tolerant Jewish values — from the moment, less than a week after the coalition took office, when Netanyahu empowered his obsessed Justice Minister Yariv Levin to announce the planned shackling of the courts — the path now ahead will ultimately be determined by the prime minister.

He appointed Levin knowing exactly what his Likud colleague had in mind. He refused to stall the legislative blitz in the face of a vast and unprecedentedly sustained public outcry, desperate pleas from Herzog, mounting evidence of the dire economic consequences, expressions of horror from Israel’s allies and delight from its enemies. He then took the staggering step of firing Gallant, raising the outcry to such heights as to even deter at least a few members of the coalition, which compelled him to pause the legislation and eventually reinstate the defense minister.

And he will now determine whether to act in Israel’s profound national interest by credibly supporting an ongoing, patient effort at building consensus via the presidential talks, or whether — his confidence at a high with the budget hurdle negotiated, and his falling poll numbers improved in the wake of the last Islamic Jihad faceoff — to claim that the opposition is foiling the negotiations and revive the existing, devastating legislation.

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis gather around a bonfire in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood on May 8, 2023, to celebrate the holiday of Lag B’Omer.(Menahem Kahana / AFP)

Netanyahu, as ever, holds the key. And his conduct of the budget negotiations leaves no room for complacency. He did what he knows to be unthinkable by hugely increasing funds for non-state ultra-Orthodox education, including schools that do not prepare their students for the workforce, and by markedly boosting payments to full-time adult yeshiva students, disincentivizing them from even thinking of going to work. As The Times of Israel’s Haviv Rettig Gur explained on Tuesday, this will have appalling consequences for the economy, for the ultra-Orthodox community, for internal national cohesion, and thus for Israel’s very future.

That retrograde, damaging budget has passed. The coalition is relatively stable. And now, to quote Netanyahu from March, the overhaul is back “one way or another.”

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