When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his key coalition allies on Monday morning that he saw no alternative other than to pause their legislative blitz neutering Israel’s judiciary, the far-right Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir was reportedly the most bitterly opposed.
“We are letting the anarchists win,” protested Ben Gvir (using the coalition leaders’ favored term for the defenders of our democracy), according to an unconfirmed account of the conversation reported by Channel 12 news.
“We’re not letting them win,” Religious Zionism party chief Bezalel Smotrich is said to have retorted. “We’ll only halt the legislation for a few months.”
At which point the justice minister, Yariv Levin, reportedly summed up: “You’re all correct, but we need to be smart. We’ll pass the legislation later on, but not now. We have people in Likud who are opposed; I’m not sure that we’d have 61 [votes in the 120-seat Knesset]. The people want reform, and they will get it, but we also have to look at what’s going on outside [with the anti-overhaul protests, etc.]; it can’t be ignored.”
The exchange helps underline why, when Netanyahu told the nation on Monday evening that he was halting the legislation’s progress for a few weeks, his declared readiness to do so “out of national responsibility, out of a desire to prevent a rift in the nation,” was instantly dismissed as empty rhetoric by the leaders of the mass protests, and opposition leader Yair Lapid warned that Netanyahu might be up to his old tricks.
After all, Levin had vowed repeatedly, during the three months since he unveiled plans to give near-absolute power to the coalition and leave Israelis’ most basic rights unprotected, that his “reforms” would not be halted “even for a minute,” and reportedly threatened to resign should the march to enactment be interrupted.
Furthermore, the prime minister had insisted as recently as Thursday that, while no disagreement should be allowed to “endanger our joint future,” a central element of his de-democratization assault, the law that gives the coalition control over the appointment of judges, would be approved by the Knesset this week, as planned, in its current form.
What, then, prompted Netanyahu to magnanimously announce the temporary shelving of that law and the others in the pipeline on Monday evening, and Levin to back him in the coalition meeting earlier in the day?
The simple fact, as the justice minister reportedly acknowledged, that despite heading a 64-strong coalition in the 120-member Knesset, they were no longer certain that they had the votes for an absolute majority — not technically required to pass the judicial selection law, for which a simple majority would suffice, but a major asset in defending the democracy-shattering legislation before a still-functional and independent High Court.
What had changed since last Thursday was that Netanyahu had fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, for having the temerity to privately and then publicly warn that the national divide over the coalition’s bid to change the way Israel is governed was prompting deepening dissent in the ranks of the military, to the point where it constituted a “clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state.”
The dismissal of the defense minister on Sunday night, in turn, triggered a spontaneous national uprising, angry demonstrations that raged for hours among a growing swath of the citizenry who saw, in Gallant’s brutal termination, further evidence that Netanyahu continues to place personal and political interests above the core needs of the state.
And those protests, in turn, finally prompted a handful of Likud politicians to publicly raise concerns — not, heaven forbid, about the content of the Netanyahu-Levin legislation, but about the way it was being steamrollered through parliament, with a speed and brutality that, opinion polls have indicated, was gradually alienating ever more of the public.
With the support of the likes of Nir Barkat, Yuli Edelstein, David Bitan, Eli Dallal and Danny Danon no longer guaranteed, and Gallant himself most unlikely to vote with the coalition, Levin was compelled to point out that “I’m not sure we’d have 61.”
‘One way or another’
Does all this mean that Netanyahu’s promise to halt the legislation and engage in dialogue is merely a case of him playing for time — ostensibly heeding the concerns of the electorate while allowing public anger to subside and herding his Likud colleagues back into line, ready to revive the self-same legislation just a few weeks from now?
That is indeed almost certainly the plan. His gambit also confuses the public and thus likely weakens the mass protests against de-democratization. It yields the added bonus that Netanyahu has deepened the friction in the opposition camp between the relatively statesmanlike if wary Benny Gantz, who welcomed Netanyahu’s speech, and the warier-still Lapid. And it immediately separates — not ideologically but practically — the anti-Netanyahu political leadership, which will now engage with the prime minister’s representatives in a dialogue brokered by President Isaac Herzog, from the protest organizers, who have unsurprisingly concluded that the prime minister is still intent on enacting his “dictatorship laws” and who will only stand down if the current legislation is scrapped.
Don’t forget, Netanyahu, in his speech, made clear that work on the legislation would resume after the Passover break, that the overhaul would end up passing “one way or another,” and that the “lost balance” between the branches of government would be restored. “We will not give up on the path for which we were elected,” he vowed.
The march of tyranny was merely taking what Netanyahu described as “a timeout.”
Nonetheless, the prime minister’s spectacularly intemperate firing of Gallant prompted not only an outpouring of public rage but also nationwide strike action on Monday. Overseen by the Histadrut labor federation, this entailed dozens of canceled flights at Ben Gurion Airport, the shuttering of some local councils, and the closures of shops, restaurants, malls, banks, universities and more. The Histadrut called off the strike action as soon as Netanyahu had finished speaking, but it has now shown its potency, and would likely be ready to order repeat action if needed.
And Netanyahu has also now found himself dragged back into contact with Herzog, would-be judicial peacemaker in chief, whose alternate package of reform proposals the coalition summarily rejected just two weeks ago.
The president has, to put it mildly, an uphill battle as he now resumes his negotiating efforts, and the stakes could not be higher.
The elements of this national crisis remain as problematic as ever. Netanyahu and his allies want to shackle the justices in order to advance a radical, discriminatory, and in some cases, racist and theocratic political agenda, at odds with Israel’s democratic and tolerant Jewish foundational principles. They won a decisive election in November and enjoy fervent and wide support.
But half the country didn’t vote for them, and some of their own voters are deeply unhappy that they did. If the surveys are to be believed, the coalition is hemorrhaging support, which can only reinforce its desire to marginalize the judiciary and maximize its hold on power.
On Monday morning, the coalition-controlled Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved the legislation that gives the government control of judicial appointments, precisely as Levin had planned and Netanyahu had promised. On Tuesday morning, the draconian edict was formally filed for its second and third (final) readings in the Knesset plenum, which can now take place at any moment.
Had he not fired his defense minister, the prime minister would right now be enacting into law the centerpiece of his judicial takeover. Instead, that peremptory tactical overreach, by a would-be despot who preposterously invoked King Solomon as his role model on Monday night, means he and his cronies will have to wait.
The fear is that it won’t be for long. “We need to be smart,” as Yariv Levin said. “We’ll pass the legislation later on.”
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
I'm proud of our coverage of this government's plans to overhaul the judiciary, including the political and social discontent that underpins the proposed changes and the intense public backlash against the shakeup.
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