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

Israel’s opposition leaders have rejected changes to Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reforms announced late on Sunday night.

What happened

  • The ruling coalition proposed a mild watering down of its effort to ensure the government’s control over judicial appointments.
  • President Isaac Herzog announced a much-awaited alternative judicial reform package last week. It was accepted by the opposition but swiftly turned down by the government.
  • Media reports on Monday suggest that defence minister Yoav Gallant is threatening to resign if the judicial overhaul goes ahead in its current form.
  • Mass demonstrations continued throughout Israel on Saturday night as the protest movement enters its 12th week.
  • Joe Biden voiced his concerns about Netanyahu’s plans during a call between the US president and prime minister on Sunday.

“Trying to topple the foundation of democracy”

The coalition announced tweaks to its proposals to reform the Judicial Appointments Committee.

  • The government will attempt to push the amended plan through the Knesset before its Passover recess next month. All other parts of the judicial reform package will be put on hold until the parliament’s summer session.
  • Under the new proposal, the Judicial Appointments Committee will consist of 11 members: three Supreme Court judges, three ministers, three government MKs and two opposition MKs. The first two new judicial appointments will require only a simple majority, but, for additional appointments, the majority will need to include an opposition MK and a judge.
  • In effect, the government would have complete control over the first two Supreme Court appointments which open up during its tenure, but, in order to make further appointments, they would need the support of at least one opposition MK and one judge on the committee.
  • Before the cabinet decided on its tweaks to the reforms, Netanyahu reportedly warned that Gallant is threatening to quit. The defence minister – who is known to be deeply concerned by widespread opposition in the military and security establishment to the judicial reforms – has told Netanyahu he is worried about the lack of consensus among the Israeli public and the opposition.
  • Labor leader Merav Michaeli branded the changes “spin”. “There is neither compromise nor softening [in the proposed amendments]. This was their primary goal from the beginning – trying to topple the foundation of democracy. We cannot stop the protests. We cannot allow this hostile takeover.”
  • The leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, similarly attacked the proposals as a “blueprint for a hostile political takeover of the judiciary”.
  • The changes were also panned by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel and the Israel Democracy Institute.
  • Despite temporarily pausing some aspects of the judicial reforms, the government still plans to bring forward legislation before the recess to prevent Netanyahu being removed from office, allow him to use donations to fund his legal defence, and ensure Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, can return to the cabinet despite being barred by the Supreme Court in January because of a criminal case.

Mass protests continue …

Over 260,000 Israelis took to the streets for the 11th consecutive weekend on Saturday night. Analysis showed there were 175,000 people in Tel Aviv, 20,000 in Haifa, 4,000 in Netanya, 11,500 in Herzliya, 18,000 in Kfar Saba, and 6,000 in Beersheba. The northern city of Or Akiva, a Likud stronghold, saw hundreds of protesters for the first time, while, in another apparent first, Bedouin Israelis joined Jewish Israelis at a protest at the Hura junction in southern Israel. There were numerous reports of violence against protesters by right-wing pro-government supporters. The prime minister and his family have been accused of inciting attacks on demonstrators. Among those addressing rallies were Jacob Frenkel, a former head of the Bank of Israel, ex-IDF chief Dan Halutz, and Lapid, a former prime minister. Mass protests last Thursday are also set to be repeated on Thursday when a “national day of paralysis” has been declared.

… as hundreds of reservists threaten a no-show

The coalition’s problems increased over the weekend as more than 250 Israel Air Force reservists – including over 180 pilots, 50 controllers and 40 drone operators – said they will stop reporting for training this week. “The most impactful steps I can take to stop this unilateral process is taking action where my personal contribution to the country and its safety is most needed,” one reservist said. “That’s why I won’t come to my squadron this week and will take part in the protests at the Knesset and meet with lawmakers.” The air force reservists, who train weekly, join around 650 IDF intelligence reservist who have said they won’t be showing up for training, either. A further 1,300 other reservists signed a letter backing their colleagues and warning the government: “This is just the beginning.” The reservists were attacked by Netanyahu but defended by former IDF chief Benny Gantz. The leader of the centre-right National Unity party served as defence minister prior to the change of government in January.

Herzog’s “smart, balanced” proposals

Herzog used a television address to the nation on Wednesday evening to unveil his plans for judicial reform.

  • The president, a former leader of the Labor party, has been meeting with all sides to try and broker a compromise. He said the “deep and worrying crisis” provided an “opportunity for a balanced, smart constitutional arrangement” which could command the support of most Israelis.
  • The president’s plans – which he dubbed a “people’s framework” – would ensure that no branch of government has a majority on the Judicial Appointments Committee and require a two-thirds majority of the Supreme Court to strike down Knesset legislation. The court would be barred from overturning Israel’s semi-constitutional Basic Laws, but the Knesset would have to vote four times to pass a Basic Law – and on the fourth occasion a super-majority of 80 MKs would be required. The president’s plan didn’t include Netanyahu’s controversial proposal for an “override clause” which would allow the Knesset to overrule Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority.
  • Herzog warned: “The abyss is within touching distance… A civil war is a red line. At any price, and by any means, I won’t let it happen.”
  • Netanyahu rejected the president’s proposals, saying they hadn’t been agreed by the coalition.
  • However, the president’s proposals were welcomed by opposition leaders, former prime minister Naftali Bennett and the leaders of the protest movement.

Likud split as coalition plunges in the polls

As poll for Kan News after Herzog’s speech showed the coalition losing 12 MKs and dropping to 52 seats in the Knesset if new elections were held, media reports indicated that Netanyahu is seeking a compromise. But while some member of Netanyahu’s Likud party – such as David Bitan – have urged the government to compromise further, hardliners have joined the far-right in railing against Sunday night’s minor changes. Media reports have consistently indicated that the author of the reforms, justice minister Yariv Levin, is threatening to quit and destabilise the government if Netanyahu pauses or waters down his package.

Biden warns Bibi

Biden told the prime minister in a call on Sunday evening that the government should seek “as broad a consensus as possible” for its reforms and backed Herzog’s efforts to “forge a compromise”, a White House readout of the conversation suggested. “The president underscored his belief that democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship [and] that democratic societies are strengthened by genuine checks and balances,” it added. The president has pointedly not yet invited Netanyahu to Washington.

What happens next

Experts believe that the Supreme Court will gut the judicial reforms if Netanyahu succeeds in getting the plans through the Knesset. That will set up perhaps the most serious constitutional showdown in Israel’s history, with some urging the government to ignore the court, and questions about how the police and military will respond to potentially unprecedented civil disobedience.