What Israel’s Crisis Reveals About Its Democratic Compromises

Last week, in the face of overwhelming protests and pressure from the Biden Administration, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government announced a delay in its plans to reshape Israel’s judiciary. Netanyahu took office in December as the leader of the most right-wing government in the country’s history. The proposed legislation would give the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, the ability

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Last week, in the face of overwhelming protests and pressure from the Biden Administration, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government announced a delay in its plans to reshape Israel’s judiciary. Netanyahu took office in December as the leader of the most right-wing government in the country’s history. The proposed legislation would give the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, the ability to override court decisions. Both Netanyahu and members of his coalition have reasons for wanting to weaken the judicial system: Netanyahu is facing corruption charges, and appears to have turned to the parliament for protection, whereas his partners dislike the Court’s more liberal rulings, and what they claim is its bias against Israeli settlers and Orthodox Jews.

To talk through what has happened in Israel over the past several weeks, and what it means for the future, I recently spoke by phone with Ilana Dayan, an Israeli journalist and the anchor of “Uvda,” a weekly investigative news program. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how Netanyahu and the protesters are preparing for the next battle over the judicial overhaul, whether secular Israelis should try to compromise with their religious brethren, and whether Israel’s treatment of Palestinians laid the seeds of this current conflict.

Do you view the Prime Minister’s willingness to delay this overhaul as a real victory for the protest movement, or is the same situation just going to arise again in a few months?

That’s certainly the biggest question. And I’ll tell you something about Netanyahu. People say, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Netanyahu is the weakest and the strongest he’s ever been. In one sense, there’s no question that he’s arriving at this pause, or suspension, of the reform the weakest he has ever been. The fact that he notified Yoav Gallant, the defense minister, that he was removing him from his position, effectively firing him, but never sent him an official letter, because he’s under immense pressure to let Gallant stay on, is one sign that Netanyahu’s the weakest he has ever been.

Last week, when he notified Gallant, rage erupted in Israel like I had never seen before. I’m not sure that people in America understood what happened here last Sunday. This was nothing like other demonstrations. This was pure rage and frustration—authentic and almost without boundary. It was spilling into the streets. And Netanyahu realized his miscalculation. Between Sunday and Monday, he realized that he had to stop the legislation. But it took him until Monday at 8 P.M. because of another weakness—his weakness within his own coalition. How do we know? Because he was forced to allow Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security, to have a private force, or private militia, which would be subordinate to Ben-Gvir, rather than to the police.

The third piece of evidence is, of course, President Biden’s statement on Tuesday night, which was something almost never heard before from an American President. When asked whether Mr. Netanyahu would be invited to the White House, he simply said, “No.” And then he said, “Not in the near term.”

So why is Netanyahu also stronger than he’s ever been?

Because he still has sixty-four [of a hundred and twenty] members of the Knesset and none of his partners in the coalition have any alternative. In that sense, Netanyahu is stronger than ever. For the first time ever, he has coherence to his coalition. It is a full-on right-wing and homogenous coalition. From that perspective, he’s presumably stronger than ever. He doesn’t need, in terms of hands in the Knesset, any partner from outside. You can see this even with the members of his Likud Party who, in the past, had said that they thought the legislation should be put on hold. Now none of them, not even Gallant, have said that they will vote against the legislation if and when it is up for voting.

What circumstances do you think Netanyahu hopes will change in the next few months, and what circumstances do you think might change?

There’s no way that Netanyahu or any of his associates—his advisers, his counsel, his family members—had any idea that this was how Israel would look after his reform was launched on January 4th by the minister of justice. Netanyahu also couldn’t imagine the protests, the magnitude of the protests, the economic implications, the diplomatic implications. The liberal camp is all of a sudden awakened, which it hasn’t been for decades. The tech sector threatened to pull money, and conveyed to the government that the Israeli economy would not be the same if this reform was indeed executed, if the legislation was completed. The other thing that happened was what you might call the fighter-pilot effect, which involved fighter pilots, who are in the military reserves. Many of them are guys over forty who still fly military planes. They are the ones who said, “We will not report to duty when this legislation is completed.” That was the leverage.

So what do you think Netanyahu is hoping will change?

The conventional wisdom is that he’s trying to gain time. When his defense minister publicly declared that there’s a clear and present danger to the security of the state of Israel because of what’s happening within the reserves, Netanyahu had no choice but to hold the legislation. It was not a calculated move. It’s the result of a miscalculation. He was up against the wall. And, by the way, according to reports, he spent the first part of Monday persuading the mastermind of the reform, Yariv Levin, the minister of justice, not to resign, and the second half persuading Ben-Gvir, his extreme-right-wing coalition partner, not to resign and dismantle the coalition. So it’s not like Netanyahu did something he wanted to; he did something he had to.

Are you concerned that in a few months the conditions will be different, and that he will succeed in pushing the plan through?

The minister of justice said that he would make a great effort to pass the legislation in the Knesset’s next session and the right would organize mass protests in support. From the protest side, the big question is: What do we do now? There are video clips circulating within the protest movement featuring a lawyer who was one of the leaders of the opposition in Poland in 2src17, when a similar process was launched there. And she’s cautioning us, “Be very vigilant all the time.” Because in Poland the protesters took a break in 2src17, and the government came back with a similar program later. They caught the opposition off guard and passed the legislation that they wanted. And so this clip is cautioning Israelis.

One option for the protest movement is to wait and see whether the conversations now taking place between representatives of the different parties in the Knesset go somewhere. At the same time, some people on the left of center are cautioning the protest movement, “Don’t make the same mistake that the right made.” The right came to this reform intoxicated by power. Yariv Levin and his partners were leading this reform. They were certain that it would happen in an instant—nice and easy and quickly. It didn’t happen. The Orthodox partners were sure that they could get the budgets they wanted and exemption from military service. They came with so much appetite and so much sense of power.

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