(Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Divisions over judicial reform leave Netanyahu with a hard choice
The Israeli prime minister is caught between keeping his coalition together and calming national tensions as protestors step up their fight against his controversial reform plans
In the midst of one of the hottest weeks of Israel’s long, hot summer, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might very well have found himself at the boiling point.
As members of his ruling coalition race to push through legislation that will alter a key basic law – a clause dealing with the ability of the Supreme Court to void government decisions deemed as “unreasonable” – ahead of the Knesset’s summer recess on July 30, hundreds of thousands of civilians are ramping up their protests against what they see as an immediate threat to the country’s democratic nature. Labor unions are threatening strikes that could cripple the economy, reservists are vowing not to serve in the military and even the American president is applying pressure on Netanyahu to dial it down.
On Monday night, President Joe Biden spoke via phone with the Israeli leader emphasizing, among other things, the need for the “broadest possible consensus,” on anything relating to the controversial judicial reforms.
With the White House scrutinizing events in Israel closely, as well as with the shekel dropping to record lows and complaints from the army’s chief of general staff on Tuesday that the civic dissension poses a serious threat to national security, Netanyahu must now decide whether to proceed with the controversial reforms or reevaluate, a move that could end up breaking apart his already tumultuous coalition.
“Netanyahu, as usual, is riding on the back of the tiger,” Gideon Rahat, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told Jewish Insider.
“Right now, he is riding in a specific direction given to him by his coalition partners and by [Justice Minister] Yariv Levin and members of his party,” Rahat, who is also a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, continued. “The question is, what will happen with the other pressures, those from the U.S., the military and the economy?”
Netanyahu is not worried about the protests directly, he added, but more about how they will “influence the United States, the situation inside the military and the economy – these are things that concern him much more.”
“What Biden was trying to tell Netanyahu is that he is welcome [to the White House] if he moderates his reforms,” explained Rahat. “The problem, however, is that it is unclear whether the protestors or those in his coalition believe him [Netanyahu] at this stage – he does not have a reputation for telling the truth and so there is a problem of trust from both sides.”
Biden, who met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog at the White House on Tuesday, has been unusually critical of the current Israeli government – the most far-right and religious the country has ever seen – and has held back from inviting Netanyahu for meetings in Washington since the long-serving leader returned to power in December.
A readout from their Monday phone call issued by Netanyahu’s office said the two leaders would meet soon in the United States but the location of the meeting was not specified, fueling speculation that it could take place on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September; Biden’s statement made no mention of the meeting.
Shalom Lipner, a Senior Fellow for Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said the “dissonance” between the two readouts from the Biden-Netanyahu phone call “illustrates the prevailing tensions perfectly.”
“The prime minister’s statement was tantamount to a victory lap, projecting that the two leaders are now synchronized to the point that Biden has finally issued an invitation for him to visit the United States,” said Lipner. “The president’s version of their conversation, which makes no mention of any such invitation, reads more like a list of homework that he expects Netanyahu to complete before he can even consider being welcomed in the Oval Office.”
“President Herzog landed in Washington amid escalating protests at home over the proposed judicial overhaul, providing a striking contrast to the celebration of the State of Israel’s 75th birthday, which Herzog will be heralding before a joint meeting of Congress,” Lipner noted.
“With little to no constructive dialogue between supporters and opponents of the Netanyahu government’s designs for the judiciary, it’s difficult to identify any immediate path to ending this zero-sum game, which will continue to threaten Israel’s internal cohesion and cast the issue of America’s friendship for Israel as a prominent wedge on Capitol Hill,” he said.
Mass protests in Israel have been ongoing for some 28 weeks but were dialed back after Netanyahu agreed in March to work together with opposition leaders to find a compromise on the controversial proposals.
The talks between the sides broke down last month, however, and the government relaunched its judicial overhaul plan with a few notable changes, including the removal of a clause that would have allowed the Knesset to override any court ruling.
Last week, the coalition decided to move ahead with other controversial parts of the plan, however, bringing for an initial vote a bill that would prevent the Supreme Court from voiding government decisions and official appointments deemed as “unreasonable.” Members of the coalition who have been pushing for the reforms say they hope to present the legislation for a final vote in the Knesset plenum on Sunday, turning the first part of the judicial overhaul into law.
In response, those who oppose the government and its policies carried out a “day of disruption” on Tuesday, blocking main highways, railway stations, entrances to army bases and even a symbolic protest outside of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Additionally, thousands of reservists from key units in the Israel Defense Forces and from the Air Force, including pilots, announced that they would not continue their voluntary service if the legislation is passed. And, on Wednesday, the Israeli Medical Association held a two hour “warning strike” in response to the government’s actions.
“Netanyahu already paid a heavy political price to his coalition partners back in March when he suspended the previous round of legislation, so it will be harder for him to back out this time,” Anshel Pfeffer, a journalist with Haaretz and author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, told JI, acknowledging the prime minister’s dilemma.
“He also doesn’t want to show more public weakness and is anxious to prove that the protests and the reservists cannot pressure him,” he said.
Neri Zilber, a Tel Aviv-based journalist and advisor to Israel Policy Forum, said that it was important to look at the situation in both the near future and the longer term.
“In the near term, Netanyahu has every intention to pass this bill early next week, he’s said so, his ministers have said so, he even told Biden that he would do it,” noted Zilber. “So unless something really unexpected happens in the coming days, which seems unlikely, he will pass this bill.”
“The next question is what happens in the next weeks and months,” he continued. “His next move will be to quell and essentially try to break the protest movement, daring them to continue protesting on the streets through the dog days of summer, the return to school, and the Jewish high holidays – of course, the Knesset will be on recess by then, so no bills will be passed anyway.”
“Yet the protest movement will try to respond to the fact they just passed the first judicial overhaul bill,” said Zilber. “Netanyahu probably believes that time is on his side, and the damage to the military, the economy and the very social fabric of this country will either be not as great or as threatening as the protestors are saying or that time will heal all wounds, which it often does, especially when it comes to Bibi Netanyahu, who always plays for time.”