The uproar over the Western Wall bill proposal was costly for the government, which, only a month and a half old, has already pushed the Israeli public to a breaking point over its proposed reforms of the country's judicial branch.
The fiasco took the government by surprise. The bill was only intended to reach a preliminary reading in the Knesset so that the state could argue to the High Court in a hearing next week that it was being advanced. This would have made irrelevant the hearing's subject matter - an ongoing appeal by a number of organizations to open an area at the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer.
How Netanyahu's coalition suffered a major headache
The move was thus a delay tactic, almost technical; the request to add it to Sunday's cabinet agenda came after the agenda had already been published. And yet someone leaked it, causing the coalition a major headache, supplying fodder for the opposition and adding fuel to the fire of protests against its judicial reform.
The prime minister wisely killed the legislation quickly and with it the wave of condemnations from all sides of the political divide. Even more wisely, he did so at 4:00 p.m. Israel time – 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time in the US – before US Jewry could enter the fray. But the damage was done.
Netanyahu's response to criticisms often shows how serious of a threat he views them. The lowest rung is a statement in the name of "senior Likud members"; next up is a statement from Netanyahu himself; and the highest is a video of him arguing his cause.
Thursday's announcement came via video. The prime minister urged everyone to calm down. But a call to calm down usually indicates that currently, everything is not calm – and this was likely the case here as well.
Shas also put out a statement, which is a rare occurrence; a relatively long one, which is even rarer; and an apologetic one - which is even rarer. It argued that the part of the text that included punishments was copy-pasted from a governmental secondary law from 1981 and that it was clear to "all who have eyes in their head" that this clause would have been dropped. Among the wave of condemnation, however, this did not seem very convincing.
A costly flip-flop
Netanyahu and Shas are already walking on thin ice. The coalition is speeding up the part of the judicial reform that bars the High Court from intervening in Basic Laws, in order to then amend Basic Law: The Government in a way that will enable Deri to become a minister again, after the Court last month forced Netanyahu to fire him due both to his numerous criminal convictions and his intentional misleading of a court last year in order to score a lenient plea bargain.
This would be the second time in approximately two months that Netanyahu's coalition would be passing a semi-constitutional amendment for one person's benefit – and a person who has three criminal convictions on bribery, fraud and tax offenses no less.
Netanyahu, Deri, Shas and the entire coalition are taking heat for enabling what opponents are claiming is a cynical twisting of Israel's Basic Laws for political purposes. This, according to the opposition, is cause enough for widespread protest – and is barely the beginning of the judicial reform.
Even though the uproar died down soon after Netanyahu announced that the law was off the table, this saga will continue to dog him as his coalition attempts to get Deri back into the government and push through its judicial reforms.