The creative and innovative Israeli mind has once again introduced a unique and original political invention: a government demonstrating against itself.
Senior figures in the ruling coalition, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu downward, worked for weeks to mobilize supporters for Thursday night’s mass right-wing protest in support of the judicial overhaul in Jerusalem, marking exactly a month since the premier announced a freeze on the contentious legal plan.
Netanyahu himself kept his distance from the popular demonstration, citing security concerns, but he drummed up his loyalists and supporters to attend, and the Likud reportedly contributed to the funding of the rally. Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the halted reform, and two of the main power-holders in the coalition – Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir – headlined the rally as keynote speakers.
Only the Israeli genius can fabricate a phenomenon in which a government, which is supposed to formulate policies and make decisions, organizes a protest against its own steps.
The pro-reform demonstration was branded in advance as “The March of the Million,” in order to raise high expectations: even if less than a million showed up in reality, it was designed to challenge 17 consecutive weeks of mass anti-government protests, and intentionally scheduled for a few days before the beginning of the Knesset summer session on April 30 after a four-week recess.
Just before the spring break, Netanyahu put the controversial judicial blitz on hold and delegated a negotiation team to reach a compromise with the opposition under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog’s national mediation attempts.
Thus, as presidential talks have yet to produce any significant agreement or understanding, proponents of the reform hope to pressure the prime minister to live up to his commitment and renew the legislation from where it was paused during the next session. The opposition, on the other hand, is set to demand a complete withdrawal of the Judicial Selection Committee bill, as a precondition for continuing Herzog’s constitutional arbitration.
The right-wing power display, organized by activists, settler groups and coalition MKs calling for “reform now,” reinstated Netanyahu’s dilemma. As the Knesset session resumes next week, Netanyahu needs to navigate between the widespread anti-reform dissent and unprecedented liberal awakening, on the one hand, and the anger and disappointment of his embroiled electoral base, bolstered by his radical allies and partners, on the other.
Netanyahu chose to embrace the pro-reform rally, even though the common assumption in the coalition is that he has already made his decision, and just doesn’t want to say so out loud. Behind closed doors, even the architect Levin admits that his reform is unlikely to resume in the foreseeable future.
The judicial reform and its consequences – and most notably the sacking of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant – took a significant toll on Netanyahu’s political standing, dropping him and the Likud to historic lows in the polls, and prompted him to change course and try to salvage his shattered image. Thus, the recurring buzzwords in all of his national holiday addresses and speeches have been “compromise,” “agreements” and “consensus.”
According to his close confidants, Netanyahu intends to continue the freeze on the legislation blitz until further notice and would like the compromise talks to proceed at least for the upcoming weeks and perhaps even months, in which he plans to focus on other tasks and issues: security, economy and political stability.
“If it were up to Netanyahu alone,” one of his party members observed, “the presidential constitutional talks would go on forever: they provide him with an excuse for the angered reform supporters, neutralize the leaders of the opposition, and perhaps will even open up the closed door to the White House Oval Office.”
The coalition's to-do list
The No. 1 priority on the coalition’s to-do list is to pass the 2023-2024 state budget by the end of May, including heavy funding promised to his ultra-Orthodox and settler partners, amid predictions for a growing fiscal deficit and concerns from a drop in government tax revenues.
Another burning topic on the coalition’s table is the haredi military conscription bill, which the ultra-Orthodox parties are demanding to pass before the budget, as they were promised in the coalition agreements, ahead of a looming Supreme Court deadline on the matter approaching at the end of July.
But while the prime minister hopes the freeze on the legal reform will calm down the civil unrest, various secular and liberal groups and activists have already diverted their protests and campaigns from the judicial overhaul to the issue of “equality of burden,” and are bound to further complicate the government’s plans to legalize a full haredi exemption from the IDF.
Some of the ultra-Orthodox leaders are now reconsidering their demand, out of concern from the anti-haredi public sentiment. The premier’s main political challenge for the upcoming weeks will be to fulfill – or postpone – his various undelivered promises, while keeping his coalition together and isolating it from the noises in the streets.
However, Netanyahu’s attempts to put the judicial genie back in the bottle and take shelter under the presidential compromise talks have yet to convince the anti-government protesters, who are suspicious and wary that his political maneuvering is only a tactical scam aimed at winding down their dissent.
As the Knesset session resumes, they are likely to mount even more pressure on Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz to drop out of the presidential process, especially if the coalition pushes forward some of its contentious bills or other legal initiatives.
Thus, between the right-wing “March of the Million” and the Center-Left’s continuous resistance, both sides of the negotiation table will be constrained by their respective political bases, making it difficult to yield any significant compromise.
If, and when, the constitutional talks do indeed blow up, Netanyahu will have to either find a different excuse for stalling the reform to present to his angered supporters