Despite Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to delay the planned judicial reforms that have so destabilised Israeli society, the country’s crisis of democracy is far from over.
Protests at Netanyahu’s plan, which have rocked Israel for weeks, redoubled in intensity last weekend after Netanyahu sacked his Likud colleague and defence minister, Yoav Gallant, for calling on him to freeze the reform.
Within hours Netanyahu announced that the plan would be delayed until May. But he ignored advice from the US president, Joe Biden, to “walk away” from the judicial overhaul, insisting he doesn’t make decisions based on pressure from abroad.
The government’s plans to weaken the powers of Israel’s supreme court have been savaged by opponents as a major attack on the checks and balances within Israel’s unwritten constitutional system – an attack in democracy itself.
This forced pause is a significant gain for the mass protest movement, which has seen not merely public demonstrations but also refusals by reservists to participate in training exercises and threatening not to turn up for service generally. In a country where army service is the norm, this has gone to the heart of Israeli identity.
Netanyahu has blamed everyone but himself for delaying the judicial reforms. Listening to him announce the pause, it wasn’t the provocative nature of the changes that his far-right government wanted to steam-roller through the Knesset (parliament) that was to blame for the protests. Rather it was what he called “a minority of extremists that are willing to tear our country to shreds … escorting us to civil war and calling for refusal of army service, which is a terrible crime”.
The speech was part seduction, part threat. He would consult on the constitutional reform, he would protect human rights, but he insisted that the elected government had a right to implement its programme.
The speech had been delayed from the morning as the prime minister first needed to secure his coalition’s support. The ultra-Orthodox parties had already fallen behind Netanyahu, but it was his far-right flank that proved more difficult.
In the end, Bezelal Smotrich, the finance minister and leader of the Religious Zionist party caved in, realising that his resignation could end the coalition and with it the far-right’s first taste of power. National security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the Jewish Power Party, held out for more: the creation of a national guard under his command, something many have described as a “private militia”.
Netanyahu will be hoping that freezing the judicial policy will demobilise the mass protests. His decision comes as Israel is about to enter a holiday period beginning with Passover (or Pesach) on April 5 and culminating in the 75th anniversary of Israel’s creation as a state on April 25.
The prime minister will hope this acts as a distraction. But it is unlikely that the groundswell of opposition will dissipate over the holidays.
Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, has called a meeting of the government and opposition leaders to negotiate a way forward. Yair Lapid, who is the leader of Israel’s main opposition party Yesh Atid, and Benny Gantz, a former defence minister and leader of the National Unity Part,y will also attend.
But it seems that the minister of justice, Yariv Levin – the architect of the constitutional changes – has not been invited. Nor has Netanyahu, who has been banned from intervening in judicial matters by the attorney-general, due to his ongoing criminal cases.
Long-term Netanyahu confidante, the strategic affairs minister Ron Dermer, will represent Likud. How talks with the key figures in the government missing will work is a moot point. Nor is it clear what kind of compromise could be agreed.
The government also hopes to mobilise its own supporters in favour of its constitutional changes. On Monday night, tens of thousands of right-wing and settler demonstrators turned out in Jerusalem and were addressed by Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. Netanyahu wants to see more of these.
On the surface the constitutional changes look very similar to action taken by populist governments in Hungary and Poland. But in Israel the conflict combines the populist politics that in many ways Netanyahu pioneered with a fundamental battle over two visions of Israel.
The broadly liberal democratic outlook of the protesters, the opposition parties – even some in Likud – clashes with those who want to see an Israel more in tune with their particular interpretations of Judaism.
Clash of cultures
The 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence did not create a Jewish theocracy but a democratic civil state with rights for all irrespective of religion or ethnicity. The far right, and some in the religious Orthodox parties, are not comfortable with these values. So, the battle over the supreme court exposes deep fissures in Israeli society.
Netanyahu referred to a possible civil war in his speech on March 27 and many are concerned that changing the constitutional checks and balances disturbs the political and cultural consensus established from 1948.
Israel was created by the left. And international support for its establishment came from the Soviet bloc as well as broadly social democratic politicians in the west. But Israel’s founders, particularly the first prime minister David Ben Gurion, were keen to balance their socialist outlook with respect for the religious community.
That balance meant not drafting a constitution. Instead, Israel created a piecemeal approach to constitutional issues and in the process forged a strong legal system and an internationally respected judiciary. This is now imperilled by the proposed reforms.
The tensions in Israeli society that the judicial reform policy has unleashed are unlikely to diminish over the next month. Netanyahu presides over a country which is not only violently confronting its Palestinian neighbour – but is increasingly at war with itself.
John Strawson is Honorary Professor of Law and director of LLM programmes, University of East London.