Israel celebrated its 75th Independence Day amid fears that the dysfunctionality, bordering at times on chaos, which dominated the first 100 days of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “fully right-wing government” would continue, deepening the unprecedented rifts that threaten to tear the country apart.
Speaking in late December after returning to power, Netanyahu laid out the government’s top priorities: “Stopping Iran; returning security and governance; dealing with the cost of living; and dramatically expanding the circle of peace,” in reference to the aim of expanding the Abraham Accords to other regional countries, particularly Saudi Arabia.
Little or no progress has been made in any of these areas. Iran has made significant diplomatic achievements in recent months and is closer to a bomb; security and governance are conspicuous by their absence; inflation hasn’t fallen significantly; and relations with friendly Arab states are under strain.
The issue dominating Israel: Judicial reform crisis
One issue above all others dominated the first three months of Netanyahu’s government: the plan to overhaul the judiciary.
In the election campaign ahead of the November 1st election, all the right-wing and religious parties which eventually formed the coalition advocated a shift in the balance of power away from the judicial branch, which they consider a self-perpetuating, liberal elite. However, even the prime minister’s Likud party did not present the electorate with a detailed program during the run-up to the vote.
The plan presented by Justice Minister Yariv Levin represented a seismic change.
The power of the Supreme Court to review or reject laws would be weakened, with a simple majority of one in the Knesset able to overrule court decisions.
The government would have a decisive say over who becomes a judge, including in the Supreme Court, by increasing its representation on the Judicial Appointments Committee.
Ministers would no longer be required to obey the advice of their legal advisers.
Government supporters argued that the proposed reforms were long overdue, accusing the courts of blocking the will of elected governments via unelected justices who fail to reflect the makeup of Israeli society as a whole.
Netanyahu’s opponents labeled the reform package a constitutional coup, saying the measures endanger Israeli democracy by weakening the judicial branch, ending the system of checks and balances in a country which lacks a constitution and where the Knesset legislature is already effectively controlled by the executive.
Critics also claim that the judicial overhaul will shield Netanyahu, who is currently on trial for alleged corruption (he denies the charges), helping him to evade justice.
The proposals prompted weekly demonstrations which have grown into the biggest protest movement in Israel’s history, bringing hundreds of thousands into the streets across the country.
The government wanted to complete the initial stage of the legislation (Levin said the reforms were only the first stage of a four-part plan) before the end of the Knesset winter session at the end of March.
However, Netanyahu’s announcement on March 26 that he was firing Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (after he spoke out in favor of suspending the legislation) led to mass protests and a general strike which disrupted flights to and from Ben-Gurion International Airport. With Israel in chaos, the prime minister announced a pause in the parliamentary passage of the judicial overhaul, while talks took place under the supervision of President Isaac Herzog to seek a compromise.
Netanyahu said the time-out was “to give a real opportunity for real dialogue.”
“One thing I am not willing to accept: There are a minority of extremists who are willing to tear our country to shreds... escorting us to civil war and calling for refusal of army service, which is a terrible crime,” he said.
“One thing I am not willing to accept: There are a minority of extremists who are willing to tear our country to shreds... escorting us to civil war and calling for refusal of army service, which is a terrible crime.”Benjamin Netanyahu
His comments came after hundreds of IDF reservists, including Air Force, intelligence and cybersecurity troops, threatened to refuse to serve if the judicial overhaul was passed into law.
Opponents of the government accused Netanyahu of weakening national security and undermining Israel’s deterrence. The warnings seemed to play out during the Passover holiday in mid-April when Israel faced a wave of attacks on all fronts.
Israel's internal crisis amid attacks on all fronts
Clashes between police and Muslim extremists at al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City were followed by rocket fire from Gaza into the South; from Lebanon into the Galilee; and from Syria into the Golan Heights.
Palestinian gunmen opened fire on an Israeli vehicle traveling in the Jordan Valley, killing three members of the Israeli-British Dee family from Efrat – Lucy (Leah) and two of her daughters, Rina and Maia. In Tel Aviv, an Arab Israeli rammed his car into a group of tourists, killing Alessandro Parini – a lawyer from Rome – and wounding seven others.
The Netanyahu government had vowed to restore security, but the feeling was palpable of an ever-present danger, similar to the atmosphere that accompanied the wave of suicide bombings that followed the signing of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s: Nowhere was safe, and it appeared that the government was losing control.
As security sources warned of the possibility of a multiple-arena conflict breaking out, Israel accused Iran of trying to ratchet up hostilities in all sectors and turning Palestinian terror groups into proxies, similar to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
One result of the security crisis was the decision by the prime minister to rescind the dismissal of Defense Minister Gallant (he was never actually fired, despite Netanyahu’s announcement). “We are standing together and working together around the clock. Gallant will stay in his position and continue to work for the protection of Israeli citizens,” Netanyahu said. “We will find all the terrorists and make them pay the price.”
He also blamed the opposition and the vocal protest movement for the military escalation between Israel and its neighbors.
Judicial reform crisis harms Israel's economy
The plan to weaken the judiciary has also impacted negatively on the economy. In mid-April, citing the planned judicial reform, Moody’s credit rating agency lowered Israel’s outlook from positive to stable, while affirming its sovereign credit rating of A1.
“Israel’s economy is stable and solid, and with God’s help will remain so,” Netanyahu and his finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, said in a joint statement. They said the concerns raised by Moody’s are “natural for those unfamiliar with the resilience of Israeli society.”
“I take the opinion seriously, but it’s not a big drama,” Finance Minister Smotrich explained, attempting to downplay the significance of the decision. “I do not think economists are great experts on the judicial issue.”
But the Moody’s decision followed a series of warnings from senior economists, including Finance Ministry and Bank of Israel officials, making it clear that the economy will take a significant hit if the judicial overhaul becomes law.
Israel’s Business Forum, which represents 40 of Israel’s largest companies, called on the government to halt the legislation until a broad consensus was found. This would “stop the deterioration of the Israeli economy,” it said. “The harm to the public will intensify and cause irreversible damage as long as such an announcement is not issued.” It added that stopping the plan would calm financial markets and help the economy grow.
Israel's diplomatic standing suffers amid alleged threat to democracy
Israel’s standing in the world is also suffering. The clearest example of Israel’s diplomatic decline has come in relations with its most important ally, the United States.
Ever since the swearing-in of the Israeli government in December, Netanyahu had been waiting for the traditional invitation from the White House. But, at the end of March, President Biden told reporters that the Israeli government can’t “continue down this road” with its judicial overhaul plan and stressed that he is not going to invite the Israeli prime minister to the White House “in the near term.”
The rare diplomatic snub from Washington highlighted how tense bilateral relations are at present, and Netanyahu responded immediately.
“Israel is an independent country that makes decisions based on the will of its citizens and not based on external pressure, including from our best friends.”
Another casualty was Netanyahu’s plan to expand the regional circle of peace in the framework of the Abraham Accords and persuade Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic relations.
Riyadh did endorse normalization – but with Iran, ending years of hostility following a China-brokered agreement in March. Iran invited Saudi Arabia’s king to visit the country, as seven years of regional conflict appeared to be drawing to a close, putting into question Israel’s strategic goal of forming an alliance with Sunni Arab states against Teheran’s regional ambitions.
Bilateral relations with the United Arab Emirates, the most important of the Arab states that forged ties under the Abraham Accords, have also deteriorated. A scheduled visit by Netanyahu to Abu Dhabi was canceled after National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the Temple Mount in January.
Netanyahu, Likud lose Israeli public support amid judicial reform crisis
The polls clearly indicate that Netanyahu and the Likud have lost the trust of the public. Benny Gantz , the head of the centrist National Union party, is now considered the most suitable candidate for prime minister, and his party is more popular than the Likud. Parties currently in the opposition would win a clear majority if elections were held today.
The prime minister’s cousin (their fathers were brothers) Natan Netanyahu, a professor at Bar-Ilan University and solid right winger who has voted Likud almost his entire life, addressed one of the large Saturday night protests in Tel Aviv.
He told the crowd that throughout his political career, his cousin was a firm advocate of a strong and independent judiciary but now is attempting to destroy the system of checks and balances at breakneck speed.
“That leaves the question: Why, Mr. Prime Minister, in light of the numerous essential challenges facing us, this contrived mad dash? Why are you causing huge damage to Israel’s economy, which hundreds of top economists in Israel and overseas have warned about? Why are you undermining Israel’s international stature and jeopardizing our ties with our allies? And perhaps most important of all, why are you, who is in charge of Israel’s security, leading a critical injury to the motivation and fitness of the cream of the IDF’s commanders and soldiers and to the national and social resilience of the State of Israel, which former and current senior figures in the security establishment have warned against?”
Many Israelis, while celebrating 75 years of independence and the country’s remarkable achievements, are asking the same questions. ■
Judicial reform talks resume
Substantive talks between members of the coalition and opposition aimed at reaching a compromise on the judicial reform got underway after the Passover holiday at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog.
The coalition presented a number of compromise proposals about the composition of the Judges Selection Committee, the most contentious issue dividing the parties.
The National Unity Party and Yesh Atid are vehemently opposed to having politicians select judges, and opposition representatives said that granting the coalition an automatic majority to elect judges was their red line.
The Labor Party withdrew from the negotiations, with party leader Merav Michaeli saying: “If it looks like a regime revolution, sounds like a regime revolution and acts like a regime revolution – it isn’t dialogue, it’s deceit. Gantz, don’t bask in the polls; Lapid, don’t be frightened by the polls – don’t lend a hand to this proposal.”
“If it looks like a regime revolution, sounds like a regime revolution and acts like a regime revolution – it isn’t dialogue, it’s deceit. Gantz, don’t bask in the polls; Lapid, don’t be frightened by the polls – don’t lend a hand to this proposal.”Merav Michaeli
Likud MK Tali Gottlieb also attacked the coalition’s proposal, saying: “It doesn’t give the coalition a majority. In the absence of a majority, there isn’t any point as far as I’m concerned in changing the structure of the Judges Selection Committee.”
The president of Israel plays a largely ceremonial role, but President Herzog took the unprecedented step of intervening in the current crisis in March, warning that Israel was on the edge of the abyss.
His compromise proposals and offer to host a dialogue were welcomed by the opposition but initially rejected by the government. In a joint statement, the coalition parties described his proposals as “one-sided” and “unacceptable.”
The prime minister’s U-turn in agreeing to send coalition representatives to the dialogue at the presidential residence was interpreted by some commentators as a sign that Netanyahu may be seeking a ladder to back down from the judicial overhaul after realizing the damage it was causing to both the country and his government’s popularity.