Fight for Israel’s future in balance after a win for Netanyahu coalition

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  July 25, 2023 

A constitutional crisis is brewing, more protests are expected and PM looks weak despite victory.

One of the most extraordinary moments of Monday, a fateful day in Israeli history, came just before the first part of the governing coalition’s contentious judicial overhaul was voted into law. Benjamin Netanyahu was sitting in the plenum of the Knesset building in Jerusalem sandwiched between his Justice minister, Yariv Levin, the architect of the wide-ranging legislation, and his Defence minister, Yoav Gallant, its most vocal critic on the government’s benches.

The two fellow Likud members argued bitterly over Netanyahu’s head as the longtime prime minister, never usually one to shy away from a fight, sat quietly between them. He may as well have not been there.

“Give me something!” Gallant shouted at Levin as he tried in vain to broker a last-minute agreement with opposition parties on a pared-down version of the bill.

Gallant had been key to the freezing of the judicial overhaul in March, when Netanyahu fired him over his opposition to the changes. Wildcat strikes and huge protests across the country in response forced the prime minister to push the legislation to the Knesset’s summer session.

This time around, however, there was no wavering. The amendment abolishing the supreme court’s ability to overrule government decisions on the grounds of “reasonableness” passed by 64-0 after every member of the opposition boycotted the vote in protest.

Israel now finds itself in uncharted waters. On Tuesday, the front pages of three national newspapers were blacked out with the caption “a black day for Israeli democracy”, an advert taken out by a protest group opposed to the plans for the judiciary.

The Israel Medical Association announced a 24-hour walkout, and more strike action and widespread protests are expected after a night in which several confrontations between protesters and police became violent when law enforcement used water cannon and skunk gas to disperse people blocking roads.

A constitutional crisis is brewing: several petitions have been filed to the supreme court asking it to weigh in on the legitimacy of legislation curbing its own powers. Perhaps most urgently, people are waiting to see whether upwards of 10,000 military reservists who vowed to stop reporting for service if the bill was passed will follow through on their promise – an unprecedented development that could severely cripple the Israel Defence Forces’ operational capabilities.

“There are two major questions now: what is the protest movement going to do next, and what is the government going to do?” said Dr Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst and policy fellow at the Century Foundation.

“We are headed into the summer break and the amendment hasn’t been formally signed into law yet, so it might not be until October that the government can start really using this new power.

“But now the supreme court can’t override government decisions any more, I expect we will get inappropriate appointments and firings of public officials over the recess. The protest movement may slow down a bit over the summer but it is definitely not going away.”

The proposals for the judiciary have exposed deep political rifts in Israeli society and sparked the biggest protest movement the country has ever seen. For people on both sides of the debate, the fight is seen as no less than a battle for Israel’s soul, a confrontation of the tensions inherent in the relationship between the Jewish and democratic nature of the state.

Proponents of the judicial changes, introduced almost immediately after Netanyahu returned to office at the helm of the most rightwing and religious governing coalition in Israeli history in December, say they are needed to better balance the branches of government and combat a perceived leftwing bias in the unelected supreme court’s rulings.

Critics say they will allow a simple majority in the Knesset to overrule almost all of the court’s decisions and give politicians more control over appointments to the bench. The changes could help Netanyahu evade prosecution in his corruption trial, in which he denies all charges.

Total annexation of the occupied West Bank, strengthening traditional religious law, limiting freedom of speech and rolling back women’s rights and those of the gay and Palestinian communities are all on the coalition’s agenda. Weakening the supreme court, which plays a key checks and balances role when it comes to individual rights, is essential for furthering those goals.

Technically, Netanyahu has pulled off yet another personal victory with this vote: he managed to appease the rightwing base, angered by March’s postponement, and unite his fractious coalition. But the crisis has not abated and he looks weak, beholden to the demands of others to keep his government intact.

Revelations this week about his history of heart trouble – divulged after an emergency admission to hospital to get a pacemaker fitted – have added to a sense that after six stints in office, “King Bibi”, as he is known, may be approaching the twilight of his reign.

Israel’s protesters won the first round of the battle over the judicial overhaul in March, forcing the government to postpone the proposals and open a dialogue with the opposition. But after talks collapsed last month, the government decided to go ahead with one of several bills, scrapping the “reasonableness” clause. The coalition’s success on Monday means the score is now one-all, with a third bout over the makeup of Israeli democracy on the horizon come October.

The back and forth could be endless, said Anshel Pfeffer, a Netanyahu biographer and columnist at Haaretz, Israel’s newspaper of record. “This issue is like Brexit, or COVID. It sucks all the oxygen out of everything else,” he said. “What happens will depend on the supreme court ruling but also whether people like Gallant and others in the Likud or the ultra-Orthodox parties realize that this is getting in the way of policies they want to enact. They might not have the stomach for round after round of this fight.”

After the bill was passed, the national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a member of the far-right Jewish Power party, called it “good news” for Israel. “The law we passed today is important for democracy but it is only the beginning,” he said.

Ben-Gvir, a rightwing extremist with a conviction for racist incitement, may not be right about many things, but he’s right about that. The fight over Israel’s identity, and its future, has barely begun.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian