Almost nothing went on in Israel on Monday. Three months of protests against the planned judicial reform, then the umbrella union Histadrut went on a general strike – the political crisis was at its peak.
Emma Tukatly has been taking to the streets for three months to demonstrate against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan: “When I saw that the Histadrut was also taking part in the general strike, along with the many business people, I had goosebumps. I was sitting with my husband in front of the building TV and we both cried,” says Tukatly, who runs her own events company and is active in the protest group Pink Front.
Most flights have been canceled at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport. City councils, universities and many civil servants also took part in the strike. “It almost felt like a salvation, the feeling that everyone was there, that we could win, that in the evening everything would end and maybe even this government would fall apart,” says Tukatly.
Netanyahu is taking his time to announce a “time out” from reform
After many hours of waiting, Netanyahu finally appeared in front of the cameras at just after 8 p.m. He said he would seek a compromise with the opposition and postpone a decision on the reform until the next phase of Parliament at the end of April.
“If there is a way to prevent a civil war through dialogue, then as prime minister I will take this break for dialogue,” said Netanyahu. Rather unforgivingly, he claimed that there was “an extremist minority” ready to “tear our country to pieces.” He told supporters of the reform that it would be carried out “one way or the other”. Something similar was heard from Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners, who called for a counter-demonstration in favor of the reform on Monday evening.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is postponing judicial reform to the next session of parliament, the Knesset
Opponents of judicial reform had clearly hoped for more. “Now we’re basically looking at a one-month shift. It’s really hard to talk about. I could cry,” says Tukatly.
Shock dismissal of Secretary of Defense
Monday’s massive strike was also a reaction to Netanyahu’s decision on Sunday night to sack Defense Minister Joav Galant, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party. Shortly before, Galant had proposed suspending the judicial reform: The growing division in the country could endanger national security, also because a growing number of military reservists threatened to refuse training or service. A dramatic night followed, in which tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets
Amid mounting pressure on Netanyahu, his far-right coalition partner and Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has threatened a possible resignation. Only in the evening did Netanyahu seem to have all coalition partners on board. Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party has also agreed to postpone the reform until the next parliamentary session after the Passover holiday, it said. In return, the far-right minister should be allowed to set up a “national guard.”
Anti-reform protesters want to continue
The various protest movements want to continue. And political scientist Dahlia Scheindlin believes that is credible. “They don’t believe that Netanyahu really plans to end his attacks on the Israeli judiciary. And they will be prepared to keep up the pressure to achieve their goal: the end of this legislation,” Scheindlin told DW.
Various groups opposing judicial reform have been demonstrating across the country for more than three months
Nevertheless, the postponement of the reform represents a concession by the controversial prime minister. Until recently, he had promised to vote on the first core elements of the legislation this week – before the Knesset’s spring break. Nevertheless, the responsible Knesset committee presented the bill on Tuesday so that it can go into the final second and third readings at any time.
Accommodating or wasting time?
Israeli commentators were quick to describe this as nothing more than Netanyahu’s “tactical pause.” “To his credit he found fine words to turn a crushing defeat into a draw,” Nahum Barnea wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. “But that won’t change the facts. Nor will it change the fact that he lives in another universe: Israeli society is on fire and all he’s offering is a procedural solution.”
The conservative and Likud-leaning Israel Hayom wrote: “If the Likud wants to lead further, it must return to a pragmatic, moderate approach that has always characterized the party and forget the ‘ultra-right dream’.”
Proponents of the planned judicial reform have long criticized the Supreme Court in particular as a bastion of the political left and with disproportionate power to control the government. Critics fear the reform will allow the executive branch to overturn any Supreme Court decision. In addition, a politicized judicial system could help Netanyahu to evade prosecution. The Israeli prime minister is on trial on suspicion of corruption – allegations he has always denied.
New talks with the President
On Tuesday evening, President Isaac Herzog received government and opposition representatives for a first meeting. The Israeli President had already submitted a compromise proposal in mid-March, which the coalition government had rejected. The meeting was held “in a positive spirit,” said the Office of the President.
Observers remain skeptical. “I don’t think they will find a satisfactory compromise. The government has never deviated from its goal of reducing the independence of the judiciary,” says Dahlia Scheindlin.
“Best friends” exert “external pressure”.
Several government officials from friendly states have already expressed their concerns about the planned judicial reform, including Chancellor Olaf Scholz. US President Joe Biden used the clearest words to date and advised Netanyahu to refrain from judicial reform: “Hopefully the prime minister will try to act in such a way that he will work out a real compromise, but that remains to be seen,” Biden said let it be known that Netanyahu should not expect an invitation to the White House “in the near future”.
Netanyahu promptly replied: Israel is “a sovereign country, making its own decisions by the will of its people,” and not “based on outside pressure, even from best friends.”
Opponents won’t back down until Netanyahu gives up his proposed legislation, says Emma Tokatly: “We’re not stopping now!”