Israel is Going Through It Right Now.
This seems like a big deal.
The hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World has been reluctant to write about developments in Israel for quite a long time. That was particularly true after Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition won last November’s election. Netanyahu’s cabinet elevated some truly odious politicians into positions of power. With 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, however, it seemed that Bibi’s sixth term in office would enable him to pursue steps to evade the corruption trial he faces and erode the countervailing checks on Bibi’s power. In other words, it seemed as thought Netanyahu had fully embraced his inner populist.
This sense accelerated on January 4th of this year, when Netanyahu’s minister of justice Yariv Levin proposed some legal reforms. Writing in Lawfare, Amichai Cohen and Yuval Shany described the package that Levin introduced as including “laws limiting the power of the Supreme Court to strike down Knesset legislation, limiting the power of the Supreme Court to review administrative acts, increasing the influence of the executive and legislative branches on judicial appointments, and overhauling the process for appointing government legal advisers and reducing their legal powers.”
Read their whole article to get a sense of how this differs from the legal status quo in Israel.As the Washington Post’s Steve Hendrix notes, this wasn’t a key element of how Netanyahu campaigned: “Netanyahu did not campaign on overhauling the courts in last fall’s election, which resulted in a four-seat parliamentary majority for his coalition of conservative, ultra-Orthodox and nationalist parties. He did not mention judicial changes in his inaugural address, which focused on pledges to counter Iran, befriend Saudi Arabia and modernize infrastructure.”
Their planned moves triggered a lot of civil society protests inside Israel and a lot of consternation outside Israel among its democratic allies. Reservists were refusing to report for duty, reducing military readiness in a state that understandably cares an awful lot about military readiness. Things came to a head on Saturday night when Yoav Gallant, Netanyahu’s minister of defense, publicly called for a postponement of the vote due to the civil society pushback. This was the first crack from within Netanhyahu’s governing coalition.
Netanyahu was out of the country when Gallant made his statement on Israeli television. When he returned on Sunday, Netanyahu dismissed Gallant and indicated he was pressing ahead with the bill in the Knesset. And with that move, Netanyahu unleashed a social mobilization that threatens his government. The New York Times’ Patrick Kingsley explains:
Mr. Gallant’s dismissal unleashed chaotic late-night demonstrations in and around Tel Aviv, where protesters blocked a multilane highway and set fires in at least two major roads, and in Jerusalem, where crowds broke through police barriers outside Mr. Netanyahu’s private residence.
As midnight approached, it also prompted the heads of Israel’s leading research universities to collectively announce that they were closing their class rooms for the immediate future; Israel’s consul-general in New York to resign; and Histadrut, the country’s largest workers’ union, to warn that it may announce a general strike on Monday in conjunction with leading businesses….
If Mr. Netanyahu’s goal in firing Mr. Gallant was to muscle through the judicial changes, presenting his country with a fait accompli and neutralizing the opposition, it may have backfired. As unruly as some of the protests have been to date, none matched the intensity of the ones that materialized spontaneously late Sunday within minutes of the prime minister’s announcement….
The protests were so fierce that governing lawmakers, who hours earlier had seemed confident of voting in their changes in the coming days, began to express doubts that they could do so.
Indeed, Likud ministers soon started calling for a delay in voting on the legislation. And it is difficult to blame them, given the depth of the social mobilization:
Worse for Netanyahu, the United States is starting to weigh in. NSC spokesperson Adrienne Watson released a statement that was not difficult to parse:
We are deeply concerned by today’s developments out of Israel, which further underscore the urgent need for compromise. As the President recently discussed with Prime Minister Netanyahu, democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support. We continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible.
That’s a statement in support of pluralism rather than populism.
Ha’aretz’s Anshel Pfeffer served up a blunt assessment:
This is Netanyahu like he’s never been before. Gone is the risk-averse and pragmatic prime minister who even his rivals admitted didn’t “play games with national security.” Benjamin Netanyahu at 73 is now the pyromaniac-in-chief of a government of arsonists prepared to set the country alight just so they can bulldoze the hated judiciary and establish their own hegemony.
Netanyahu has been cornered before and yet managed to stay in power; perhaps this challenge will be easier for him than most. Still, it is difficult to weaken social mobilization once it gets to this level. The simple recognition by many that so many others are willing to take to the streets causes a shift in equilibrium.
Even if Netanyahu backs down in the short run, this is a rift that is not going away. Demographics favor the ultra-orthodox, and they are the ones most displeased with a secular judiciary. Still, firing Gallant does seem to be a sign that Netanyahu might be losing his political touch.