Netanyahu halts judicial overhaul but fight is far from over

Bethan McKernan & Quique Kierzenbaum

The Guardian  /  March 27, 2023

The biggest protest movement in Israeli history has achieved its goal but the country may soon face new elections.

One word is heard more often than any other on the streets of Jerusalem these days: democratia, or democracy.

About 100,000 people sang, shouted and banged pots and pans outside the Knesset building on Monday afternoon, many carrying Israel’s blue and white flag. The demonstrators were tired; some had been up all night.

But after three months of unrelenting public pressure, the biggest protest movement in Israeli history achieved its goal: the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, finally announced a halt to his far-right government’s judicial overhaul weakening the supreme court in a televised address on Monday evening.

“I am here today because I am worried about the future, what the future will be like for my six-year-old,” said Sharon Pelin, 45, a teacher from Jerusalem at the afternoon’s protest. “I am hopeful we can get the people around [Netanyahu] to make him stop.”

While leftwing Israelis and Palestinians have levelled criticism at the movement for defending the supreme court, which plays a major role in upholding the occupation of the Palestinian territories, the mobilization of huge swathes of what is usually a highly polarized society is nothing short of remarkable.

Demonstrations that began in central Tel Aviv on cold and rainy Saturday nights in January, just after the new government entered office, have evolved into a mass movement unlike anything Israel has seen before.

On Monday, the 12 weeks of sustained protest culminated in a general strike across the country that closed hospitals and nurseries and grounded flights at Tel Aviv’s airport.

As evening approached, the demonstrators were joined by several thousand counter-protesters, mobilized by Netanyahu’s Likud party’s social media channels. Police numbers were reinforced to handle possible trouble, after posts calling for attacks on leftwing Israelis.

The strikes followed a night of unprecedented protests sparked by Netanyahu’s decision to sack his Defence minister for opposing the judicial plans, and they build on significant pushback against the government’s plans from the military, Israel’s vital hi-tech sector and allies in the US.

Although the prime minister has reportedly been taken aback by the scale of the protests, and has been looking for a way to back down without destabilizing his government, he resisted significant internal and international pressure to delay or compromise on the legislation.

Proponents say the changes are needed to curb the powers of the supreme court, which plays an outsized checks-and-balances role in a country with no formal constitution and only one legislative chamber.

It is not lost on anyone that the proposals could help Netanyahu in his corruption trial, in which he denies all charges. Critics of the move say it will undermine democratic norms and the rule of law, allowing the far-right elements of Netanyahu’s coalition to press ahead with draconian measures limiting the rights of minorities, women and LGBTQ+ people.

Even as Israel grappled with nationwide upheaval, a parliamentary committee continued to push elements of the legislation forward to votes on the Knesset floor, and the far-right architects of the overhaul reiterated their determination to pass the most important elements before the Knesset breaks up for the Passover holiday on 2 April.

After a day of fractious negotiations with the prime minister’s office, the far-right coalition party Jewish Power issued a statement on Monday evening saying it had agreed to push the legislation to the next parliamentary session.

For both sides, the fight is far from over. The compromise raises the spectre of new elections if the government collapses through infighting. Many Israelis would dread that prospect: voters have been evenly split over whether Netanyahu is fit to lead the country in five polls since 2019.

After a short stint in opposition, the prime minister returned to office in December for a record-breaking sixth term after convincing three small far-right groups to run on one slate so they could clear the Knesset threshold. The move worked, giving Netanyahu’s bloc a majority of four in the 120-seat Knesset, although he won just 49.57% of the vote.

Much of the Israeli public, jaded by the endless electoral cycle, did not see the threat from the far right coming. In office, Netanyahu’s partners have proved unpalatable to the majority of the country.

“I think the coalition is going to fall to pieces. I am ready for elections … Yes, we had five before, but now people really understand what democracy means,” said Yoav Mazya, 77, from a village near the northern city of Haifa.

“I’ve been to lots of the protests and they fill me with hope. Looking at all the people here … It’s like a dream,” he said. “I am very proud to be part of this country. I didn’t feel like that a few months ago.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian

Quique Kierzenbaum in Jerusalem