Netanyahu Delays Judicial Overhaul Plan, Backtracking after Unprecedented Strikes and Protests

REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Police surround demonstrators during the “Day of Shutdown” protest, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist coalition government presses on with its judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 23, 2023.

JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Monday night that he would delay his government’s plan to overhaul the judicial system, an effort that spurred months of mass protests and led to unprecedented nationwide strikes, including a shutdown of the international airport.

With tens of thousands of demonstrators on the streets of Jerusalem and much of the country at a standstill, Netanyahu finally spoke – capping a day of tense coalition talks, feverish speculation and warnings from police that protests could turn violent.

“Out of national responsibility, from a desire to prevent the nation from being torn apart, I am calling to suspend” the legislation, Netanyahu said, adding that a majority of his coalition had agreed to the decision. “When there is a possibility to prevent a civil war through negotiations, I will give a timeout for negotiations.”

The judicial overhaul, long sought by Israel’s ascendant right wing, would give the government more power to handpick judges. Supporters say the changes are needed to rein in the courts, which they believe are too liberal and too powerful. Opponents say the moves will eliminate one of the only checks on government power, tilting the country toward authoritarianism.

The controversy has forced Israel to confront long-standing questions over its national character, pitting liberal, secular Jewish Israelis against right-wing, religious conservatives. The debate has simmered for more than a decade amid the grinding violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the collapse of the U.S.-led peace process and a sharp rightward pivot by Israeli voters.

After Netanyahu spoke, protesters near his residence erupted in cheers, pumping fists and flags in the air and embracing. Someone set off a confetti bomb, showering a jubilant crowd with little paper hearts.

Netanyahu said that he was preparing to sit down for negotiations with Benny Gantz, the opposition leader, and would try again to advance the legislation in the next Knesset session, after the Passover holiday.

The White House welcomed the delay, with press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saying it would “create additional time and space for compromise.”

The judicial reforms were first announced three months ago, after Netanyahu’s new far-right coalition took power. Under the proposals, the judges chosen by the government could include those presiding over Netanyahu’s corruption trial. The prime minister faces three separate charges and potential prison time.

Over six terms, Netanyahu has managed to navigate Israel’s growing culture wars and burnish his reputation as an international statesman. But when more moderate parties abandoned him after the last election, he joined forces with both ultra-Orthodox parties and figures from the far-right settler movement. As his new allies forged ahead with their plan to remake the courts, alarm spread in Washington and European capitals, and the fears and frustrations of secular Israelis exploded onto the streets.

The debate even reached the ranks of Israel’s revered, and normally apolitical, military. As thousands of reservist soldiers said they would refuse to report for duty in protest, chief of staff Herzi Halevi warned repeatedly of a crisis in military readiness.

“This hour is different to any that we have known before,” the Israeli military said in a rare statement Monday. “We have not known such days of external threats coalescing, while a storm is brewing at home.”

On Monday, workers across Israel took part in the most far-reaching strike in recent memory, bringing the economy to a sudden halt. Universities, workers’ unions, hospitals, malls and Israel’s national carrier, El Al, shut down. Ben Gurion International Airport canceled outgoing flights, leaving travelers stranded.

As calls for Netanyahu to stand down came from across the government, business community and opposition, local media reported he would make a public statement on Monday morning. But the announcement was postponed as he entered emergency consultations with his coalition partners.

Among those Netanyahu needed to win over was far-right national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who had urged the prime minister not to “surrender to anarchy.” Netanyahu’s government holds a four-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset; Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power party has six seats, giving him the power to bring down the government and force new elections by pulling out of the coalition.

Before Netanyahu spoke, it was clear Ben Gvir had already won a concession – a letter circulated on social media said Netanyahu would propose the creation of a special “national guard” under Ben Gvir’s authority.

“The reform will pass. The National Guard will be established . . . No one will scare us. No one will succeed in changing the people’s decision. Repeat after me: de-mo-cra-cy!” tweeted Ben Gvir, mocking the chant of the anti-government demonstrators.

When Netanyahu did emerge, shortly after 8 p.m. local time, he made clear that his decision represented a pause, not a political surrender: “Our way is right. We will not give up the path for which we were chosen,” he said.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a key driver of the judicial overhaul, said in a statement Monday afternoon that he would abide by any decision made by Netanyahu, “knowing that the situation . . . may immediately lead to the fall of the government and the collapse of the Likud.”

By midday, tens of thousands of protesters had packed central Jerusalem, flooding the area around the Knesset, the prime minister’s office and the Supreme Court with a sea of Israeli flags and a cacophony of drums, horns and chants.

The street leading from the central rail station was a river of protesters as packed trains, some of them standing room only, delivered Israelis from around the country. The atmosphere was thick with a sense of impending crisis, or perhaps victory, as many of the demonstrators hugged and took selfies to mark the moment.

People alternated between chanting and checking phones, aware that just yards away, in this center of national government, deliberations that could determine Israel’s future were unfolding.

“This is our independence day; for sure we are going to prevail,” said Talia Gorodess, a researcher from the town of Givatayim, wearing face paint and carrying a snare drum. “The coalition is breaking apart. There is too much resistance.”

There were fears of violent clashes, however, as Netanyahu allies called for their own supporters to hit the streets.

“The elections will not be stolen!” tweeted Simcha Rothman, a Knesset member of the coalition bloc called Religious Zionism and a key architect of the plan. “The people demand a radical overhaul of the justice system.”

One far-right group known for violence, a Jerusalem soccer fan club known as “La Familia,” said it would travel to the center of anti-government protests in Tel Aviv. In the end, the crowds kept their distance and no major clashes were reported.

Every hour Monday brought announcements of new strikes and work stoppages.

Israel’s main doctors union said its members would suspend non-emergency health-care services. The country’s largest shopping centers closed and fast-food giant McDonald’s said it would shut down all of its branches. Israeli ambassadors and consuls-general joined the strike, shuttering embassies around the world.

The chaos gained new speed on Sunday night when Netanyahu fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, the first member of his cabinet to break with the coalition and call for a halt to the judicial legislation. The nighttime dismissal rocked a country already in turmoil, seeming to put Israel on the edge of catastrophe.

Within minutes, protesters rushed into streets across the nation, vowing to escalate demonstrations and public strikes until Netanyahu backed down. Police clashed with protesters at several sites, using water cannons, cavalry and other unusually aggressive tactics to push back thousands of demonstrators.

Isaac Herzog, the ceremonial president, pleaded with the prime minister to stop the legislative push.

“The security, the economy, the society, everything is threatened,” Herzog said in a statement. “The eyes of all the people of Israel are turned to you.”

After Netanyahu’s announcement on Monday night, there were signs that the crisis was receding: the country’s main labor union called off its strike, flights resumed at Ben Gurion Airport and Israeli embassies reopened.

But the crowds of protesters in Jerusalem were slow to thin. Not everyone was appeased: “We don’t want a ‘pause,'” said Michel Davis, an Israeli who divides her time between Jerusalem and Chicago. “We want [Netanyahu] to put it on the shelf and forget about it.”