This article has been republished in light of the news that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has delayed his controversial judicial reforms package until the Knesset parliament’s summer session; he said he was doing this “to avoid civil war.”
In its 75 years, the state of Israel has never experienced this degree of internal upheaval. Week after week, for more than two months, Israelis have taken to the streets to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s raft of legislation, which they fear will not only limit the power of the judiciary but also, many believe, transform the country into an autocracy. Opposition to the measures exploded on Sunday 26 March when hundreds of spontaneous protests took place across the country, and a powerful labour union announced a national strike – putting Netanyahu under even greater pressure.
The judicial reform, as some refer to it, or judicial coup, as others do, is a series of legislative changes that would give the government control over judicial appointments and veto power of high-court rulings, removing checks and balances on Israel’s executive and legislature. The government, a coalition of right-wing and religious parties led by Netanyahu and elected last autumn, has been rushing through the reforms, ostensibly to fight judicial tyranny and in service of democracy. Last week, a law that makes it impossible for the High Court of Justice to recuse a serving prime minister over conflicts of interest passed its final reading in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The government has been aiming to get all the bills through by 2 April, when it breaks for Passover.
On 26 March, thousands were out again after Netanyahu fired his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, for publicly opposing the judicial reforms. Police reported around 150 spontaneous protests around the country, which included a demonstration of hundreds outside the PM’s official residence in Jerusalem, from Sunday evening – when the firing was announced – to the early hours. One protester was pictured with a sign reading “I was already in bed!”
The previous day, Gallant became the first member of Netanyahu’s government to publicly call for a halt to the reform programme. “The deepening split is seeping into the military and defence institutions. This is a clear, immediate and real danger to Israel’s security,” he said in a televised address. Army reservists have eschewed training in protest at the judicial reform.
Though for some the reforms are ideological – the programme was devised together with a right-wing, libertarian think tank and led by the justice minister Yariv Levin, a long-time proponent of reforming the judiciary – for Netanyahu they could allow him to steer clear of legal complications. The prime minister is currently on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
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Netanyahu had been preparing to fly to London on 23 March, when it was reported that Gallant was on the verge of going public with his opposition to the reforms. The prime minister delayed his trip to meet with Gallant, and seemingly convinced him to back down. Then Netanyahu made his own statement, calling for calm and saying he would get personally involved in the reforms.
What followed was a glimpse of the constitutional crises into which Netanyahu is prepared to lead the country: Israel’s attorney general Gali Baharav-Miara accused Netanyahu of violating a conflict of interest deal he made in 2020 that allowed him to continue governing while on trial. “The legal situation is clear,” she wrote in a letter, “you must avoid any involvement in measures to change the judicial system.” With Netanyahu on trial, Baharav-Miara argued, the conflict of interest in the reforms is clear. She called on him to retract his statement, but his spokespeople said he hadn’t broken any laws.
Gallant’s firing could well be the tipping point for a government that only has a majority of four in the Knesset (the ruling coalition has 64 seats; the minimum for a majority is 61). How much longer can this unrest continue? Voices in Netanyahu’s Likud party are reportedly admitting the reforms are a failure. Even ultra-Orthodox parties, long loyal to Netanyahu, are supposedly in agreement. Meanwhile, Justice Minister Levin and the public security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir are reportedly threatening to resign if Netanyahu halts the programme. The prime minister is to make a public statement today (27 March), halting the reform. Simcha Rothman, chair of the Knesset constitution committee, and a major advocate of the reform, called on supporters to go out and protest in favour of the judicial overhaul. “They won’t steal the election!” he tweeted this morning.
The labour union Histadrut also announced the national strike this morning – a major escalation of the protest. The head of Israel’s airports trade union, himself a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, stopped all inbound and outgoing flights from Ben Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv in protest at the reforms. The country’s doctors’ union announced a freeze of healthcare services until the judicial overhaul is stopped.
Meanwhile, Israelis continued to demonstrate on the streets, blocking one of Tel Aviv’s busiest highways. This chaos – with pro-democracy protesters showing no signs of fatigue, the police powerless before them – looks like the beginning of the end of Netanyahu’s time in power.
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This article was originally published on 27 March 2023.