Netanyahu brings Israel to a crossroads

The prime minister was ‘forced to pause’ his ‘ambitious plan’ to weaken country’s supreme court

protestor holds sign that reads "absolute power corrupts absolutely"
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in recent weeks
(Image credit: Eyal Warshavsky/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Has Benjamin Netanyahu finally lost his touch, asked Anshel Pfeffer in Foreign Policy. For 12 weeks now, the great survivor of Israeli politics has fought an escalating battle with protesters.

This week, the prime minister admitted defeat – temporarily, at least. When he returned to power at the head of a hard-right coalition government in December, Netanyahu had immediately launched an ambitious plan to weaken the powers of Israel’s supreme court.

In response, hundreds of thousands of liberal Israelis took to the streets, protesting weekly against what they saw as a naked “power grab” – and an attempt by Netanyahu “to wriggle out of his ongoing trial for alleged bribery and fraud”.

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More worryingly, hundreds of reservists announced that they would not report for duty, including fighter pilots and intelligence officers. Citing the threat to national security, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant called for the legislation to be put on hold.

On Sunday, he was fired by Netanyahu. A nationwide strike followed, which shut down swathes of the economy.

‘Legitimate to seek to rein it in’

Ultimately, Israel’s “key institutions” sided with the protesters, and Netanyahu was forced to pause the legislation: he said he’d take “a timeout for dialogue”.

The Right in Israel has had the supreme court in its sights for decades, said Haviv Rettig Gur in The Times of Israel. And it is “legitimate to seek to rein it in”.

While Israeli politics has turned to the right, the court is still dominated by progressives – not least because the justices have a major role in appointing new members of the court.

Israel has no constitution, and the judges have increasingly waded into political matters, striking down laws such as those governing the expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.

A significant section of the population wants the court reformed. And when this current coalition, not dependent on any centrist or leftist faction, came to power, the Right believed its time had come. But the government drastically overplayed its hand.

There was “no debate, engagement or negotiation”. Protests were dismissed as the griping of the “old elites”.

‘Attempting to politicise the judiciary’

By the time ministers had realised their mistake, “it was too late”. Netanyahu may have retreated, said Haaretz. But the protesters must not “let up the pressure until the legislation is scrapped”.

We should recognise this law for what it is: an attempt to politicise the judiciary and scrap a crucial check on the power of government. It is designed to erode the rule of law and “destroy” Israeli democracy.

This is a dispute about a fundamental issue, said David Friedman in The Jerusalem Post – “what it means to be a Jewish state”.

It reflects the growing power of ultra-Orthodox Israelis, who have become “a major demographic and political force”, controlling about 15% of the Israeli parliament and exerting great influence in coalition negotiations.

Ranged against them is the secular Left, which largely built modern Israel; it no longer commands a majority, but has retained a strong influence through institutions such as the supreme court. Israel is “divided as never before”.

Sensible people are talking openly “about the risks of a civil war”. We must pray that the nation steps back from the brink.

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