How crisis engulfed Israel

·6 min read
A demonstrator wears an Israeli national flag as he stands on a highway near several bonfires.
A demonstrator wears an Israeli national flag on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 26. (Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In an intense show of anger, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets on Sunday night to protest the judicial overhaul proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and supported by his ruling coalition of far-right nationalists and religious extremists. Israeli embassies shuttered across the world as Israelis in the country’s foreign service joined other government workers in striking in protest.

Airports closed, and so did universities, the nation paralyzed by a sweeping strike.

The protests, which had begun in January, appear to have shaken Netanyahu. On Monday evening, the embattled leader announced that he was delaying the divisive power grab, which requires legislative approval, until the next legislative session.

“I’m not ready to divide the nation in pieces,” Netanyahu said in a televised address on Monday evening that punctuated one of the most remarkable periods in Israel’s tumultuous history.

What precipitated Sunday’s protests?

Demonstrators holding Israeli flags surround a bonfire on the road.
Protesters block the Ayalon Highway on March 26. (Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Protests have been taking place since Netanyahu proposed to subject Israel’s judiciary to oversight by politicians, and may well continue even after Monday’s announced pause.

With the country’s politics moving increasingly to the right, the elimination of judicial review would curb the Supreme Court’s ability to block illegal settlements on Palestinian land and to limit the influence of religious conservatives who want to pass laws constraining Israel’s more secular culture.

On Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant took the unusual step of calling for Netanyahu’s proposal to be halted, citing protests from reservists refusing to serve. Gallant said active-duty soldiers and officers had voiced similar concerns.

“I hear their voices, and I am worried. The events taking place and the issues in Israeli society do not skip the Israel Defense Forces,” Gallant said. “Unprecedented feelings of anger, pain and disappointment have risen from all over.”

Netanyahu responded by firing Gallant on Sunday, leading to that evening’s mass protests.

“In an inspiring show of democratic strength and determination, Israelis flooded the streets,” wrote journalist Amir Tibon of the mainstream Haaretz newspaper. “Hundreds of thousands of people came out without any organization or preparation, responding immediately to a decision they perceived as a dangerous step in a frightening direction.”

Why are the judicial reforms so controversial?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Cabinet meeting with Justice Minister Yariv Levin.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, at his office in Jerusalem on March 5. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images)

If implemented in full, the “reforms” outlined in January by Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin would allow a majority in the Knesset, Israel’s single-chamber parliament, to override the Supreme Court. Politicians would also have much greater say in appointing judges, a process now overseen by the Israeli Bar.

The proposals have been decried as antidemocratic and counter to Israel’s identity as a liberal Western democracy: “Pure, unbridled majoritarianism,” in the words of Natan Sachs, a Middle East expert at the center-left Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Why does Netanyahu insist on these reforms?

Israeli protesters hold placards reading: Democracy is stronger than this government.
Israeli anti-judicial-reform protests entered their 10th consecutive week. (Eyal Warshavsky/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

After the first wave of protests in January, Netanyahu insisted that his agenda is not only popular but necessary to curb the expansion of judicial powers that took place in the 1990s.

He has also argued that his reforms would bring Israel’s government in line with that of Western nations. “Democracy is built on the proper balance between the three branches and this balance exists in every democracy in the world,” he said. (President Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron have condemned Netanyahu’s plan.)

But some Israelis believe that a more selfish concern motivates Netanyahu, who was indicted on three corruption charges in 2019 and could face prison if convicted. (The trial began in 2020; he has maintained his innocence.)

“My assessment and opinion is that Netanyahu wants to bring about a situation in which his trial does not come to an end in a proper manner,” former Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said last month.

Who supports Netanyahu?

A protester uses a megaphone during a gathering.
Protesters gather in Tel Aviv on March 27 amid ongoing demonstrations against the government’s controversial push to overhaul the justice system. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images)

As reports surfaced that Netanyahu was considering postponing the judicial plan, his far-right security chief Itamar Ben-Gvir threatened to resign from his Cabinet, leading to a potential collapse of Netanyahu’s government.

“The threat was delivered during a stormy meeting at the Knesset, during which Ben-Gvir could be heard screaming at the prime minister,” the Jewish News Syndicate, a wire service, reported.

As much as Netanyahu is facing pressure on his left in the form of nightly protests, he is hemmed in on his right by extremists like Ben-Gvir, who are able to exercise enormous influence in his administration. In order to keep Ben-Gvir in his Cabinet, Netanyahu appears to have promised the controversial security chief what critics have described as a “private militia.”

Netanyahu’s unlikely victory in last year’s election put him in office for a sixth term. The victory, though, came with a price. Although the returning prime minister remains a member of the center-right Likud Party, he needed the support of smaller, far-right parties like Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power and the Religious Zionist Party, whose Bezalel Smotrich was appointed finance minister.

Instead of tending to the threat of an Iran approaching nuclear capacity — Netanyahu’s longtime preoccupation — the prime minister has instead been guided by the imperatives of hard-liners whose views many Israelis do not share.

Israeli settlers living on Israeli land constitute a strong basis of support for disempowering the judiciary because they view the courts as hostile to their cause. The Supreme Court has sometimes ruled in favor of Palestinians’ rights and is “widely viewed on the Israeli right as an impediment to Jewish settlement in the West Bank and to an expansive vision of Greater Israel,” explained Susie Gelman of Israel Policy Forum.

Another faction in favor of curbing judicial powers is the Haredim, as ultra-Orthodox Jews are known in Hebrew. Their share of the population is growing rapidly, and they have become increasingly assertive about their political views, which include intolerance of women’s and LGBTQ rights.

The Haredim are exempt from military service, which is otherwise required in Israel. In 2017 the Supreme Court canceled their exemption, but the government (led by Netanyahu) continued to exempt the ultra-Orthodox from service.

Recent polls have found extremely high levels of support for the judicial reforms among the Haredi community, whose protections are much more likely to remain in place if Netanyahu ultimately prevails.

What’s next?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands at a microphone.
Netanyahu speaks to the media on March 16 in Berlin. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Netanyahu said on Monday that he would pause his efforts to pass his plan through the Knesset — but did not indicate that the reforms would be canceled outright, as the protesters have demanded. Also, in light of Netanyahu’s concessions to Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu’s detractors are unlikely to ease up.

“Protests will continue,” predicted Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer.