The Guardian / March 28, 2023
Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t abandoned his attack on the supreme court. His opponents should not give up either.
There is no room for relief. Benjamin Netanyahu’s assault on Israel’s democratic institutions is not over; it is merely on pause. After nearly three months of political crisis, popular outrage and mounting protests, the prime minister was forced to suspend his attack on the judiciary. He has already caused serious damage to the economy and the state through a headlong charge at the supreme court’s independence, which was opposed by most Israelis. Though he said that he was “not willing to tear the nation in half”, his primary motivation is not saving the country, but himself.
Mr Netanyahu, who has corruption charges hanging over him, has no love for the judiciary. And though the court has repeatedly undercut Palestinian rights in the West Bank and helped to entrench the occupation, the prime minister’s far-right coalition partners are angered by even its modest rulings outlawing Israeli settlements. They are unlikely to back down. Mr Netanyahu’s best hope is that the protests’ momentum ebbs over Passover and in the weeks that follow.
The determination of his opponents was aided by Mr Netanyahu’s unusual political ineptness. He failed to set out an appealing case for the reforms. Weeks away from the country’s 75th anniversary, its president, Isaac Herzog, warned that Israel could be approaching civil war after his compromise plan failed. Then came an unforced error: firing the defence minister, Yoav Gallant, who had urged pausing the legislation, given the turmoil it had caused in the military, with reservists saying they would refuse to serve. Tens of thousands more protesters took to the streets. Bank bosses, tech entrepreneurs and trade union leaders agreed to a mass strike. Israel’s consul general in New York resigned. Flights were grounded, nurseries closed their doors and hospitals handled only emergencies.
The far right’s price for Monday night’s climbdown was an agreement that the minister of security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, could set up a new “national guard” under his control. Whether or not it materialises, sceptics note that Mr Ben-Gvir is bigger on rhetoric than delivery, and that Mr Netanyahu will not want him to have his own armed power base – the pledge to hand a man convicted of inciting racism a militia of his own is inherently horrifying.
The danger now is that the prime minister may up his political game rather than lowering his ambitions, moving more slowly and thus, perhaps, more effectively. He could back off – for now – on allowing the Knesset to override the supreme court with a simple majority, while pushing ahead on increasing political control of judicial selection and preventing the court from having oversight of basic laws – elements that have already passed a first reading.
His staunchest opponents, as well as former allies, know to their cost that he is a formidable political survivor and dealmaker. Yet he is undeniably weakened by the last few weeks. The extremity of his coalition reflects the fact that he has run out of people to work with, and polls show a dramatic reversal in its fortunes. Only sustained pressure will see off this threat to Israel’s already limited checks and balances. Mr Netanyahu will persist. Will those standing against him?