Analysis | Ahead of Unprecedented Chaos in Israel, Will Netanyahu Attack or Retreat?
As the Knesset advances a key law aimed at dismantling the Israeli judicial system, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is spooked. But who scares him more: His far-right coalition partners or the defiant protesters on the street?
And just like that, Israel has gone back four months in time.
On Monday night, the Knesset passed one of the government’s judicial overhaul laws in its first reading: The near-abolishment of the Supreme Court’s power to intervene in government decisions on the basis of the ‘reasonableness standard.’ The protests out on the streets are at fever pitch – and even made it into the Israeli parliament before the vote.
Will the coalition go all the way, determined to finally get one piece of its “legal reform” onto the law books? Will the protests continue to escalate? Or will Netanyahu blink on the brink and go back to the talks?
Politically, not much has changed over the past four months. The hardcore elements of the coalition are determined as ever to grasp their opportunity to all but eliminate judicial oversight. The protest movement has proven that it has not lost any of its vigor or popularity. President Isaac Herzog seems as powerless as ever to engineer a climbdown, while dozens of would-be mediators are quietly scuttling between Netanyahu’s office and the leaders of the opposition, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, trying to broker some form of a ceasefire and a return to the talks.
Netanyahu, under pressure from his coalition, gambled that by trying to pass just one of the seemingly less controversial elements of the plan presented in January by his Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the protests would somehow be subdued. That so far doesn’t seem to be the case, though the protests have yet to reach the crescendo they did on the night Netanyahu announced the short-lived firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for openly opposing the legislation.
For now, he is sticking to the plan and is unlikely to change course before the last minute. But it’s unclear when the last minute is. At the end of the Knesset summer session on July 30, or a few days earlier, when he is expected to leave for visits in Cyprus and Greece, and no less crucially, when President Isaac Herzog is due to meet with President Joe Biden in the White House? Whatever the deadline is, Netanyahu will keep his options open until then.
Go ahead or go slow
There are, of course, unknown factors that could affect the outcome. One is the aftermath of the protests expected on Tuesday in the wake of the Knesset vote, and in the following days, which may well be the most chaotic yet.
The pro-democracy protest organizers are planning greater disruption than before, and an attempt to shut down Ben-Gurion airport is just the start of it. The police response is almost certainly going to be more violent, now that National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir got rid of Tel Aviv Police Chief Ami Eshed, who angered him by not using more force to disperse the protesters.
The change was already felt in the protests that took place last Wednesday night, as mounted police charged through and water cannons shot directly at the faces of demonstrators. Twenty-seven weeks of consecutive protests and not one police officer has been injured. But more protesters are ending up in hospital, and it could get a lot uglier. If it does, Netanyahu may be forced to pause.
Another important factor is the position of key sections of the coalition which are not fully committed yet to the legislation. The far-right Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and many of the Likud lawmakers have publicly expressed their support for going all the way, but the ultra-Orthodox politicians have been strangely silent on the issue.
In the last round, the ultra-Orthodox parties were key to opening the path for Netanyahu to make a hasty retreat. They are no fans of the Supreme Court, on the contrary, but their leadership has expressed concern over the way the protesters have targeted them as responsible for the constitutional insurrection and they may once again privately counsel Netanyahu to go slow.
Another key figure is Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, the catalyst of the climbdown last time, who is once again facing the prospect of thousands of crucial reservists refusing to turn up. He has remained silent so far.
Interestingly, one senior Likud figure, Economy Minister Nir Barkat, said on Monday that after the first reading, the government should return to the talks with
the opposition. Barkat is not the kind of politician to stick his neck out unless he knows that there are others in Likud, including Netanyahu himself, who are open to such an option. From the opposition’s side, both Lapid and Gantz said they are prepared to resume talks if the government suspends legislation.
On Monday evening, shortly before the first Knesset vote, Netanyahu broke his silence on the issue and released a video insisting that “correcting the ‘reasonableness standard’ is not the end of democracy, but a strengthening of democracy.” It is unlikely to convince anyone, but his send-off, that the legislative “correction” his government is leading is “certainly, certainly not a reason for [reservists] refusal or disrupting the lives of millions of citizens,” was a clear giveaway of how spooked he is by an escalation in the protests.
Going forward, Netanyahu’s calculation of whether or not to hold more votes on the judicial overhaul bills, charging towards establishing them in law, will be based on which side can cause him more damage.
Will it be the protests, with their disruption to Israel’s economy and security and, no less worrying for him, their blow to his international standing – who knows, perhaps even Greece and Cyprus won’t want to host him in a couple of weeks, let alone the White House, which remains firmly closed to him?
Or perhaps Netanyahu will prioritize the members of his coalition who will be furious with him if he once again pulls the rug out from under them, just as they are about to plunge their dagger into the judiciary.