Benjamin Netanyahu > World Economic Forum / Manuel Lopez, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Benjamin Netanyahu has bowed to weeks of protests and halted his controversial judicial reforms after a dramatic weekend which culminated in the sacking of the defence minister.

What happened

  • On Monday evening, the prime minister announced a temporary pause to the legislation in order to allow dialogue on a compromise to take place.
  • The announcement came at the culmination of a day when Israel ground to a halt after unions and employers declared a nationwide general strike.
  • Netanyahu fired Yoav Gallant after the defence minister warned the reforms threatened the country’s national security.
  • 600,000 people, some 6.5 percent of the entire country’s population, took to the streets of Israel on Saturday night – the 13th consecutive weekend of mass protests across the country – and thousands protested against Gallant’s sacking on Sunday evening.

Bibi bows to pressure… 

  • Just days after announcing that the coalition would this week pass one of the most controversial elements of the judicial overhaul – effectively giving the government control over the body which appoints Supreme Court judges – Netanyahu used a television address on Monday evening to declare a “pause” to allow “a real opportunity for real dialogue”. The pause is expected to last until the Knesset’s summer session begins on 30 April.
  • President Isaac Herzog, who had urged the government to pause the reforms and presented his own compromise plans last week, welcomed the prime minister’s speech, saying it was “time for frank, serious and responsible discussion that will lead urgently to calming spirits and lowering the flames”.
  • Opposition leaders – who had refused to negotiate over the reforms until Netanyahu halted the legislative push – offered a cautious welcome. “If the legislation really does stop, genuinely and totally, we are ready to start a genuine dialogue at the President’s Residence,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said. But – in a clear dig at the notoriously slithery Netanyahu – Lapid continued: “If he tries anything, he’ll find hundreds of thousands of patriotic Israelis who are committed to fighting for our democracy standing opposite him, committed to be the fortification that protects the country and its democracy.”
  • Labor leader Merav Michaeli similarly warned about Netanyahu’s motives: “We’ve said all along, we’ll only accept a full removal of the dangerous coup bills. Netanyahu is not removing them, he’s buying time at the expense of our democracy,” she suggested.
  • Michaeli’s words were echoed by the leaders of the protest movement, who vowed not to lessen the pressure on the government.

The threat of pushing on 

  • During his speech Netanyahu vowed that “either way”, reforms that would supposedly “restore the balance” between the judiciary and the Knesset will be pursued.
  • To back up his threat, the coalition pushed its flagship bill on judicial appointments through a stormy session of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee in the hours before Netanyahu’s pause was announced. The bill now simply needs to be passed by the Knesset in a final vote before become law.
  • By reconfiguring the Judicial Appointments Committee, the bill gives the government alone the power to fill the next two Supreme Court vacancies. Two liberal justices, the court’s president, Esther Hayut, and Anat Baron, are due to retire in the autumn.
  • While Gallant’s sacking led a number of moderate Likud MKs to urge a pause to the reforms, Netanyahu’s far-right coalition allies urged him to fight on and will threaten to pull the rug from under the government if he concedes too much.
  • National security minister Itamar Ben Gvir said he had planned to resign on Monday because the decision to delay was “letting the anarchists win”. He was bought off by a pledge from Netanyahu to allow the establishment of a national guard force within his ministry.
  • Ben Gvir’s far-right ally, finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, is reported to have suggested: “We’ll only halt the legislation for a few months”, while justice minister Yair Levin said: “We need to be smart. We’ll pass the legislation later on.”
  • However, it remains unclear whether Netanyahu has the votes in the Knesset to push through the reforms. Aside from dissenters within his own party, his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners are reported to have become skittish about the overhaul. They do not like the manner in which the largely secular protest movement has come to focus on the multiple privileges – such as exemption from military service – enjoyed by the Haredi community.

Time to talk 

Herzog phoned Netanyahu and opposition leaders after the prime minister’s announcement, calling upon them to begin “immediate” negotiations under his auspices. Both Lapid’s centre-left Yesh Atid party and Benny Gantz’s centre-right National Unity party announced negotiating teams. Gantz also called Netanyahu to discuss opening negotiations, and is reported to have urged him to reinstate Gallant as defence minister. But any talks will take place against a fraught backdrop. While anti-government protests have passed off peacefully, demonstrations yesterday in favour of the reforms saw violence perpetrated by far-right groups.
Gallant: “a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state” 

Netanyahu’s decision to fire his defence minister is seen as a fatal miscalculation, precipitating a chain of events which led to the prime minister’s partial retreat. Gallant, a former senior army commander and Likud moderate, was known to been uneasy about the judicial reforms, in particular the growing number of reservists threatening not to show up if Netanyahu ploughed ahead. After he was reportedly preparing to speak out on Thursday, Gallant stepped back from the brink but then delivered a damning speech on Saturday night. Calling for the reforms to be paused, the defence minister said: “I see the source of our strength eroding. The growing rift in our society is penetrating the IDF and security agencies. This poses a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state. I will not lend my hand to this.” Netanyahu responded late on Sunday evening after his return from a visit to Britain by removing Gallant from his post. The move triggered further mass protests late on Sunday night. As of Tuesday morning, however, Netanyahu had still not signed the official letter giving Gallant 48 hours notice of his removal, prompting speculation he may perform another u-turn.

All out: a historic national strike 

For the first time since the British Mandate, unions and employers called an historic nationwide strike on Monday.

  • Arnon Bar-David, the head of the Histadrut, Israel’s equivalent of the TUC, declared the strike at a press conference attended by business leaders and public sector leaders.
  • While repeatedly calling for compromise, the unions have stood to one side from the protests. Gallant’s firing appears to have tipped the balance away from this cautious approach.
  • “We are all joining hands to shut down the State of Israel,” Bar-David said. “The malls and the factories will close.”
  • Within minutes of the announcement, unions at Ben-Gurion Airport began grounding flights. Mayors and local government leaders, the Israel Medical Association, universities and the National Student and Youth Council announced they were backing the action. Shopping malls, banks and tech companies, as well as civil service lawyers, also declared their support.
  • On Monday evening, the Histadrut and local council leaders welcomed Netanyahu’s announcement and the opening of talks, and said they were halting the strike.

Bibi sinks in polls

The political fallout from the judicial reform furore appears to have sharply dented the government’s poll ratings. Two polls released on Monday suggest the coalition would fail to gain a majority were elections to be held, while opposition parties would have the seats to form a government. The deeply unpopular judicial overhaul has tanked Netanyahu’s ratings, with match-ups showing him behind both Lapid and Gantz as Israelis’ choice of prime minister.
Looking ahead: Bye bye Bibi, again? 

Haaretz commentator Anshel Pfeffer believes it is “always presumptuous” to predict Netanyahu’s political demise, but the “implosion of the judicial overhaul” could be a sign pointing in that direction. “Netanyahu still has many supporters in Likud and allies in other parties, but his failure to deliver this key policy … means that his power is waning,” he writes today, “He is still prime minister, but he is becoming a liability.”