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Netanyahu Flinched



Last night, hundreds of thousands of Israelis poured into the streets, believing their country’s democracy to be in peril. The immediate precipitant for this popular protest was the firing of Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister. A former general tasked with overseeing the Jewish state’s security, Gallant had called for his own coalition to pause its attempted overhaul of the Israeli judicial system, arguing that division around the plan was undermining national cohesion. Rather than accede to Gallant’s proposal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired him. But although this removal provided the spark for Israel’s extraordinary explosion of civil dissent, the tinder had been building for months.

In January, shortly after the new hard-right Israeli government assumed office, it unveiled its first major initiative: a sweeping reconstruction of the country’s judiciary. Israel’s Supreme Court is arguably the most powerful such body in the world, and experts and politicians have long called to recalibrate its powers. But the radical wish list produced by Netanyahu’s coalition did not seek to reform the court, but neuter it, and would essentially allow the ruling government to appoint all judges and override their decisions. This plan was composed in the halls of conservative think tanks, with no input from opposition parties and no attempt to broker a national consensus. What’s more, this effort to fundamentally revise Israel’s democratic order came from a government that had received less than half the vote in the last election.

It did not go over well.

On the first Saturday night of January, tens of thousands of Israelis began demonstrating in Tel Aviv, setting off a chain of weekly protests. The crowds soon swelled to hundreds of thousands, not just in more liberal centers like Tel Aviv, but in more middle-of-the-road places such as Ashdod and Beersheba. The mass movement brought together previously unimaginable bedfellows—including the conservative family of Israel’s first Likud prime minister, Menachem Begin, and the elected leaders of both Israel’s Arab parties. Business and technology leaders openly came out against the judicial plan and began shifting capital out of Israel. Civil servants warned that the reform threatened Israel’s economic and international standing. Israel’s mild-mannered president, Isaac Herzog, attempted to broker a compromise and was rebuffed by Netanyahu. Most remarkable, many Israelis in elite army units declared that they would refuse to serve if the legislation passed. Israel has a citizen’s army populated by a universal draft, and this sort of mass disobedience was both unprecedented and a genuine threat to the country’s national security. It was this development that prompted Gallant to speak out.

In recent weeks, ministers in Netanyahu’s government have dined with a convicted member of an organized-crime family, insulted the United Arab Emirates, and called to “wipe out” a Palestinian village. None of these individuals were publicly reprimanded by the prime minister. Gallant, by contrast, was promptly fired for questioning the judicial-reform plan. Netanyahu apparently hoped to make an example of him and quell further dissent. Instead, he supercharged it.


As news of Gallant’s firing spread after midnight, hundreds of thousands of Israelis rolled out of bed and into the streets. By daybreak, the entire country had essentially shut down, as Israel’s biggest labor unions, universities, banks, and even hospitals went on strike. Planes stopped departing Ben Gurion Airport. Israeli embassies around the world closed their doors. More than 100,000 protesters in Jerusalem converged on the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, where voting on the legislation was set to take place.

In the face of this outcry, Netanyahu did something unusual: He folded, at least temporarily. On Monday evening Israel time, he announced that he would be pausing—but not abandoning—the legislation. “We are not standing facing enemies, but facing brothers,” he said. “We must not have a civil war.” For more than a decade, Netanyahu has caved when pressured by his hard-right base. But this time, he was compelled to concede by an emergent counterweight to his left. This was a victory for the protesters, but only a partial one.

The news that Netanyahu had flinched was first made official not by the premier, but by Itamar Ben-Gvir, his far-right national-security minister, in a telling demonstration of who has been driving the car in this Israeli government. Ben-Gvir then promised that the reform would still pass by late summer. Netanyahu and his allies are likely betting that the pause will take the wind out of the protest movement’s sails, and that having exhausted itself in the streets, it will dissipate during the Passover holiday, enabling the coalition to proceed with its plan after a pretense of negotiation.

Is Bibi right? The protests have only grown since January, fueled by people-to-people organizing in WhatsApp groups and social networks. Many Israelis who previously eschewed politics have thrown themselves into the fray, and even show signs of coalescing into an actual opposition with specific goals. This movement has already forced Netanyahu to throw his coalition into chaos by halting its signature legislation. In his overreach, Netanyahu may have created a new adversary.

The question now is not only whether the protesters can keep their movement alive through the coming weeks, but whether they will prove able to build a true pro-democracy movement, expanding its aims beyond this bill to address Israel’s other long-standing deficits. Whatever the next days bring, one thing is certain: The struggle for Israeli democracy is just beginning.

Source: The Atlantic


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