After almost three months of unprecedented political turmoil, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a time-out for the judicial overhaul this week.
In keeping with his procrastinating nature, Netanyahu waited until the final hour to intervene. For 13 weeks he ignored hundreds of thousands of protesters, warnings and petitions calling to pause the contentious legislation. He even fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who dared to voice his objection to the reform, citing it as a “clear and immediate danger” to the security of the state.
In keeping with his dramatic nature, only when the internal crisis reached the verge of explosion did the embattled prime minister decide to retract, staging a suspenseful grand finale. Against the backdrop of jaw-dropping masses who spontaneously flooded the streets in protest of Gallant’s firing, it took Netanyahu hours to convince his combative allies to agree to the freeze. Only after he promised Itamar Ben-Gvir a new national guard/private militia could he proceed with his decision.
Meanwhile, he and his partners mobilized dozens of thousands of pro-reform supporters to demonstrate their disappointment, just in time for his typical prime-time TV address, in which he announced he is putting the brakes on the first stage of the contentious legislation. To them, he pledged it is only a temporary pause.
Sometimes, the temporary tends to become permanent, but this game is far from over, and the battle over the future of Israeli democracy is only at its first intermission. Following Netanyahu’s announcement, President Isaac Herzog convened representatives of the coalition and the opposition together for the first time, launching an official national dialogue seeking consensual constitutional changes, but both sides have low trust and little faith in the process. Netanyahu made a commitment to his extremist partners to renew the legislation blitz after the Knesset spring recess, if presidential talks fail, keeping suspicious anti-reform leaders and activists alert and on guard, only lowering the scale of their protests and disruptions.
A chance to look at the scoreboard
EVEN THOUGH it is too soon to declare the end of the game, a time-out is a chance to look at the scoreboard, mark the clear result of the first round and highlight the victors and losers: 1-0 for the liberal-democratic camp against Netanyahu and his radical government.
The strong civilian resistance to the aggressive judicial overhaul expanded beyond any prior standards or expectations, and unified the center-left-liberal-secular forces to display the most varied, creative and impressive popular dissent the country has ever known. Hi-tech moguls, hedge hunters and economists, ex-army generals, reservist IAF pilots and commando commanders, Nobel Prize laureates, red-hooded women, doctors, artists and millions of ordinary Israelis stepped up to fight against the proposed changes.
The coalition, with its clear-cut 64-seat majority, arrogantly underestimated the widening protests and dashed forward with the judicial legislation as planned. But after 13 weeks, the anti-reform movement subdued Netanyahu and his government in the first round of the battle over Israeli democracy.
The opposite side of the time-out scoreboard underlines Netanyahu’s failure. In less than 100 days, his government diverted far away from his inauguration promises to fight the cost of living and prevent a nuclear Iran, and has led the country into one of its most dangerous crises ever.
The prime minister, otherwise known to be cautious and wary, ignored the writing on the wall, dismissed all of the grave financial, security and diplomatic warnings, and failed to assess and control the escalation. He enabled his radical proxy loyalist, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, to navigate the judicial overhaul to the extreme, while manipulating his own legal conflict of interest as an excuse to evade responsibility. Thus, when he finally decided to take control and officially interfere, his power-savvy partners threatened to revolt against his directive, only exposing him in further weakness.
Last but not least was the premier’s impulsive and irrational decision to terminate his defense minister just for sounding the alarm over the imminent threats the judicial overhaul poses to Israel’s security. That and US President Joe Biden’s criticism, which revealed the depth of the US-Israel crisis, shattered any last remains of Netanyahu’s powerful and responsible statesman image, replacing it with a portrait of a self-destructive politician, beholden to his zealot allies, acting against the fundamental interests of the state.
Netanyahu’s personal approval ratings are dropping to historic lows, with only 25% positive grades, on a Channel 2 poll published this week, for his current performance. Polls also revealed the severe damage the judicial reform has inflicted on the Likud, standing alongside Netanyahu on the losing side of the game: The ruling party has declined by seven seats – 20% – since the November 1 elections. If another election were held today, the 64-seat right-wing coalition is predicted to shrink to 54, and would not be able to stay in power.
On the sidelines of the scoreboard, other players can be ranked as temporary victors and losers, though their final result, too, is yet to be determined.
Herzog, who was rudely snubbed by the coalition for weeks, scored a small triumph, as Netanyahu eventually had no choice but to accept the constitutional mediation he had rejected for weeks. However, if the presidential negotiations fail, his achievement will be short-lived.
The judicial reform’s architect, Levin, who adamantly opposed the time-out, was knocked out by Netanyahu’s decision to impose a freeze. But he could very well come back in the second round and renew his legislation in the next Knesset session.
Gallant, who bravely spoke up against the reform and eventually forced the freeze, is hailed by the liberal protesters as the hero of the day. But by confronting Netanyahu and his party, he sacrificed his own political interests, and his future career in the Likud is clouded in deep doubt. After crossing the lines, Gallant needs to strategically calculate his new position in order to survive till the next round.