JERUSALEM — As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put his contentious judicial overhaul plan on hold this week, he vowed to pass the package through parliament “one way or another.” But he may have a hard time keeping that promise.
This week’s about-face has left him weakened and coming up against a wall of opposition he has never before faced in a three-decade political career.
For nearly three months, hundreds of thousands of people have repeatedly taken to the streets week after week to demonstrate against the plan, crippling major highways and city streets as they accused him of pushing the country toward dictatorship.
Influential business leaders and security men came out against him. The country’s main trade union declared a general strike. Perhaps most worrying for Israel, key military reservists, first and foremost Israeli fighter pilots, threatened to stop reporting for duty. Key international allies voiced concerns and objections.
While Netanyahu has the support in parliament to push through the plan, the prospect of continued unrest along with economic, diplomatic and security damage proved too much for him to handle.
“He understood that he’s in a dead end,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.
Plesner said that Netanyahu’s pause this week did not mark a “domestic peace accord” between Israelis. “Rather it’s a cease-fire, perhaps for regrouping, reorganizing, reorienting and then potentially charging ahead.”
As Netanyahu tries to regroup, those obstacles show no sign of disappearing. If anything, his opponents appear to have been emboldened by the success of their protests.
“The protesters who take to the streets are not stupid,” the grassroots protest movement said Tuesday. “The government will not be able to pass the judicial coup because the millions of citizens who have protested until now, will not give up.”
While other protest groups said they would suspend their activities, they also said they were ready to spring back into action if necessary.
Much of Netanyahu’s predicament is rooted in his own legal woes. Since he was indicted on corruption charges in 2019, a string of former partners and allies have abandoned him, plunging the country into five rounds of elections in under four years.
When Netanyahu finally was able to secure a parliamentary majority after the most recent vote last November, he required the support of ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist parties to form the country’s most right-wing government in history.
These partners have antagonized the United States and other Western allies, as well as Israel’s new Arab allies in the Gulf, by aggressively pushing for West Bank settlement construction and making controversial statements about the Palestinians. The nonstop crises have distracted Netanyahu from his traditional focus on security and diplomatic issues.
Domestically, these partners have alienated large swaths of the Israeli public, primarily secular, middle-class taxpayers, with demands widely seen as religious coercion or infringing on the rights of LGBTQ people, Palestinian citizens and other minorities.
Ultra-Orthodox partners, for instance, want to strengthen a system that grants them exemptions from compulsory military service in order to study religious texts. On Tuesday, Netanyahu’s coalition pushed through a law allowing hospitals to bar the entry of bread into their facilities during the Passover holiday, when religious Jews do not eat leavened foods.
But the government’s most controversial move so far has been the introduction of its judicial overhaul. Among its key components are proposals that would allow the ruling coalition to control the appointment of judges and give it the authority to strike down Supreme Court rulings it dislikes.
Netanyahu’s conservative allies say the bill is needed to rein in a system of judges who are unelected and overly interventionist in political issues.
But his opponents say the overhaul is a power grab that would weaken a system of checks and balances and concentrate authority in the hands of the prime minister and his extremist allies. They also say that Netanyahu has a conflict of interest in trying to reshape the nation’s legal system at a time when he is on trial.
The protests have brought Israel’s largest cities to a standstill, disrupted Netanyahu’s overseas travel and even forced his wife to flee a Tel Aviv hair salon under heavy police protection.
The public anger boiled over on Sunday after Netanyahu abruptly fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who had urged the prime minister to put the overhaul on hold, citing concerns about the damage to the military.
Within an hour, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across the country, blocking a major Tel Aviv highway and scuffling with police outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem home.
The unrest continued Monday when tens of thousands of people protested outside the parliament in Jerusalem, while the Histadrut labor union announced a general strike. It was the first time the union has taken such action over a political issue, causing flights to be canceled and closing offices across the nation.
Then, Monday night, Netanyahu officially put his plan on hold until the summer session of parliament, which begins at the end of April. In the meantime, he said he would seek a “broad agreement.”
“One way or another, we will enact a reform that will restore the balance between the authorities that has been lost,” he said.
The general strike was quickly halted. Gallant remained on the job, and negotiations began Tuesday night between Netanyahu’s government and the political opposition. President Isaac Herzog’s office, which is mediating the talks, said there was a “positive spirit” and meetings would continue Wednesday.
But a deal remains elusive and Netanyahu remains weak. New opinion polls released late Monday showed a sharp drop in support for the embattled prime minister — even with his Likud party.
A poll conducted for Channel 12 TV found that 58% of Likud voters opposed his firing of Gallant, compared to just 22% who favored it. Sixty percent of Likud voters supported the freeze of the overhaul plan, while 55% said Netanyahu’s performance as prime minister is “bad.” The poll surveyed 502 people and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist with the Haaretz daily, said that Netanyahu will struggle to revive the plan. He said the coalition is now divided over the merits of continuing, while the grassroots opposition remains motivated by its successes.
“The struggle for the future of Israeli democracy is far from over. There will be further rounds,” he wrote. “But the opposition has not just won this round by forcing Netanyahu to pause the legislation. They emerge stronger and more united than the coalition and fully prepared for that next round, whenever it arrives.”