state of play

What’s next for Israel’s judicial reform protests?

Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that he would put his judicial reform plan on hold in order to restore calm, but his coalition partners are urging him to move ahead

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - MARCH 27: An aerial view shows thousands of Israelis take the streets as they block Ayalon highway in response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuâs surprise sacking of his defense minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, Israel on March 27, 2023. (Photo by Harel Ben Nun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

After a tumultuous 24 hours in Israel, with mass spontaneous protests, national strikes and political posturing, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to restore calm on Monday, announcing that he would put his plans for judicial reform on hold, at least for the next month, pending broader discussions with opposition leaders. 

Netanyahu’s promise of a timeout, however, came just as pro-government supporters, spurred by key members of his own coalition, also took to the streets calling to push ahead with reforms that aim to restyle the make-up of Israel’s Supreme Court and rework some of the basic laws that make up the country’s de facto constitution. 

Even as the legislation is temporarily stalled, it remained unclear Tuesday if Netanyahu’s steps were too little, too late and whether they could both restore order in the streets and keep his coalition intact. 

Opposition leaders, former Prime Minister Yair Lapid and former Defense Minister Benny Gantz, welcomed Netanyahu’s timeout, saying they would work with him to reach a consensus on the proposed constitutional changes, but many of the anti-government demonstrations continued, with some protest groups declaring that they would not stop until this government was removed. 

“The announcement of Netanyahu and his extremist ultra nationalist partners, reveals that they plan on continuing on with the judicial coup,” the Umbrella Movement of Resistance against Dictatorship in Israel, a group that serves as the logistical arm uniting all the various protest groups, said in a statement. “As long as the legislation continues and is not completely stopped, we will protest in the streets.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the right-wing Religious Zionism party, also said he would push on. In a video statement, he urged pro-government supporters to rally for the changes. “We must not stop the reform,” he said. “We must not surrender to violence, anarchy, military service refusals and wild strikes. We are the majority, let’s make our voice heard. We won’t let our vote and the state be stolen from us.”

Amotz Asa-El, a fellow at the Jerusalem-based Hartman Institute, told Jewish Insider that the government still appears determined to implement the controversial reforms and still has the ability to pass legislation. However, he said, after the force of the protests, “it just won’t work now.”

“The people feel the power that they’ve suddenly wielded,” noted Asa-El, a former Jerusalem Post editor. “It feels great and they will return to the streets to rock the boat until all this is undone.”

Asa-El said that while it was the judicial reforms that initially sparked the protests, there was something deeper that is likely to keep the momentum going. 

“The political grievance against Netanyahu transcends his natural opposition,” he said, explaining that even some of those who voted for the longtime leader and once belonged to his inner circle, such as former Mossad head Yossi Cohen and former Shin Bet Internal Security Director Yoram Cohen, feel that “Netanyahu went the Trump way, meaning that he made a strategic aim of pitting people against the people.”

“This is deeply disagreeable to most Israelis, to those I call middle Israel,” added Asa-El. “And this is where he [Netanyahu] miscalculated and where this critical mass of Israeli society responded with unpredicted ferocity. Nobody knew that this energy existed, and it just erupted like a volcano.” 

“I think that the political landscape is ripe for the rise of an alternative that will be led by a centrist consensual configuration,” he theorized. “Who that might be I have no idea, but someone could emerge.”

Adam Shinar, a senior lecturer at the Harry Radzyner Law School at Reichman University in Herzliya, disagreed, saying that Netanyahu’s government remained strong despite the unrest. 

“This government still has 64 seats out of 120 seats,” he told JI. “No party in the coalition wants to have an election right now because the likely scenario is that they will lose voters.”

A poll published Monday by Israel’s Channel 12 News showed a dramatic drop in support for Netanyahu’s religious-right coalition from those 64 seats to only 54. It noted that if elections were held today, the opposition could form a 61-seat coalition – even without the support of the predominantly Arab Joint List.

 “He [Netanyahu] has made a number of misjudgments but he has not lost yet,” observed Jonathan Rynhold, head of the political studies department at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. 

“All leaders in power for a long time lose touch of reality,” Rynhold explained. “That is true of everyone, [former British Prime Minister] Tony Blair wrote about it in his memoir.” 

“These days, Netanyahu listens to his son and his wife, who are on the far right, and the people who he is dependent on in his coalition,” he added. “That is his reality and that has led to make miscalculations among what is going on in the public and the army.”

Anshel Pfeffer, a journalist with Haaretz and author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, told JI that the prime minister would do whatever he could to keep his coalition intact, although after events of the last few days it was no longer clear if he was still in control.

“He’s not in control of this coalition as he promised he would be,” Pfeffer noted, adding that the unrest had revealed stark divisions among Netanyahu’s coalition partners.

“Three months ago, we were talking about this being a very cohesive coalition, about how they were all on the same page,” he added. “Now they are all blaming each other for being the ones responsible for this not working and it doesn’t look very good for the one who was this great architect of this great victory.”

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