Israeli crisis continues as fired minister apparently refuses to quit

Oliver Holmes

The Guardian  /  March 28, 2023

Questions raised over Benjamin Netanyahu’s control over coalition as he makes concessions to far right.

Israeli politics has descended into disarray with questions over whether a fired Defence minister is refusing to step down and concerns Benjamin Netanyahu may have promised too much to far-right politicians in exchange for a deal aimed at quelling nationwide demonstrations.

Facing a climax in the 12-week protest movement against his plans to weaken the power of the courts, the prime minister on Monday evening announced a delay to the proposals, saying he wanted time to seek a compromise with political opponents.

In a televised address, 10 hours after he was initially scheduled to give a statement, a tired-looking Netanyahu said he was “not willing to tear the nation in half”.

The speech ended a tense day in which hospitals, universities, seaports and the international airport in effect shut down in protest at the judicial changes, which many see as a neutering of judges’ power to hold the government to account. Late in the day, pro-government supporters assaulted television crews and Arab passersby.

The crisis had at the weekend turned into near-chaos when Netanyahu dismissed his Defence minister, Yoav Gallant, after he broke ranks by openly calling for a halt to the overhaul.

Netanyahu’s announcement has temporarily placated seething anger. The country’s main labour union called off the strike after his speech and Israeli streets were mostly quiet on Tuesday.

The speech also pacified growing international concern from Israel’s allies, particularly from Washington, who wanted it to deal with the crisis before it spiraled out of control. The US ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, told local radio on Tuesday he welcomed the move to delay the bill, joking that after the speech he “had a nice night of sleep”.

Joe Biden would invite Netanyahu to the White House “as soon as their schedules can be coordinated”, Nides told Israel’s Army Radio, hinting that Biden wanted to reset the relationship after a tense three months.

Still, later on Tuesday, questions were being raised over Netanyahu’s control over and credibility within his governing coalition, which includes a mixture of rightwing nationalists, religious leaders and far-right firebrands.

Aides to the fired Defence minister said that despite his dismissal, Gallant would remain in his post. While the termination would have ordinarily gone into effect by Tuesday, Gallant’s aides said he had never been formally notified. Spokespeople for Netanyahu and his party, Likud, made no immediate comment.

Meanwhile, protest organizers have promised to continue to rally, accusing the prime minister of deception. Adding to their anxiety and that of the opposition, the ruling coalition on Tuesday tabled a final reading of a bill that would give Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges he denies, greater control of the system for selecting judges.

While a parliamentary spokesperson called this a technicality, Netanyahu’s critics accused the prime minister of acting in bad faith and going back on his word. “A gun is being held to our heads,” tweeted the former finance minister Avigdor Lieberman.

To halt the crisis, Netanyahu has had to balance protesters’ demands with those of his far-right coalition partners, who argue that the courts have too much power. The 73-year-old leader only managed to pacify the national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the most ardent supporter of the judicial reform bill from the far-right Jewish Power party, by agreeing to the formation of a “national guard” under Ben-Gvir’s control.

While there were questions over whether Netanyahu had made an empty promise – he did not mention it in his major Monday speech and it would require several more steps to become established – critics decried plans for what they described as a militia.

“The prime minister has bribed the extreme right via a promise to create a militia that would endanger Israeli citizens – particularly the anti-coup protesters – as long as his government survives,” the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper wrote in an editorial. It called on Israelis to “keep up the pressure on Netanyahu until he scraps the coup”.

“Experience shows,” the editorial said, “that Netanyahu resorts to manipulation, lies and scheming, and his second nature is to set traps that are discovered only when it’s too late.”

Oliver Holmes is a Guardian journalist; he was previously Jerusalem correspondent and has reported across the Middle East and Asia