The plot thickens

Mohamed Abu Shaar , Tuesday 28 Mar 2023

Israel has entered its most serious and delicate political phase in decades, after Prime Minister and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu decided on Sunday to dismiss fellow party member and Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant.

The plot thickens


Gallant had called for a halt to legislative measures interfering in Israel’s judicial system and a more broad dialogue with the opposition.

Gallant’s call was triggered by the broad political, economic and security repercussions caused by the governing coalition’s push for judicial reform, which has been opposed by many circles in Israel. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s coalition partners believe judicial reform is the government’s first practical programme, which should not be retracted.

In response to Gallant’s dismissal and the government’s pursuit of judicial reform, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in several cities. Widespread civil disobedience also began affecting Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s Stock Exchange, the medical, educational and transportation sectors, as well as trade unions and labour bodies, resulting in full paralysis in Israel.

Netanyahu was able to persuade his right-wing partners to freeze legislation related to judicial reform, but the wider political impact caused by this crisis could be seen both  among his coalition partners and in the cohesion of the Likud Party.

In a televised speech on Monday evening, Netanyahu said he would “postpone judicial amendments until the next parliamentary session [starting in mid-May], out of a desire to end divisions and reach a broad consensus.”

The Israeli opposition cautiously welcomed Netanyahu’s speech but viewed it as continued commitment to judicial reform, and an attempt to absorb the anger of the street before pursuing it again later once conditions were more conducive. At the same time, the opposition has said it is ready for dialogue in the house of the Israeli president.

“The crisis triggered by the judicial reforms is the most serious in the country’s history,” declared opposition leader Yair Lapid. “We will make sure first and foremost that there is no deception. If Netanyahu tries to manoeuvre, he will once again find before him hundreds of thousands of Israeli patriots determined to fight for our democracy.”

The leader of the National Camp and former defence minister Benny Gantz stated: “We will go to the residence of President Isaac Herzog for talks, and we will not compromise on the principles of democracy and a comprehensive and inclusive Basic Law.”

Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman said, “the statements prove that Netanyahu is more determined than ever to finalise all legislation, including the Basic Law for the Judiciary, and takeover of the Supreme Court. He has no intention of starting real negotiations; his intention is to wait for an appropriate time, and blame it all on the opposition for not agreeing to the settlement.”

The crisis portends the collapse of the fragile government coalition headed by Netanyahu, and Israel’s return to elections once again. So far, Israel has held five parliamentary elections in four years.

Alif Sabbagh, a specialist in Israeli affairs, believes that Israel has been going through a governance crisis for years, and what is happening now is an attempt by the Israeli right to radically alter the basic system through several strategic axes.

Sabbagh told Al-Ahram Weekly, “the current coalition seeks to be the sole influential player and ruling party without any partners. The Supreme Court is the body that creates balance, and undermining it would create a new system. There are some 126 legislative amendments that not only change the face of Israel, but also change the content of the political system in Israel.”

He continued: “If this happens, there are two main risks. First, the army and its officers will be subject to prosecution by international judicial bodies; secondly, the US, which was legally protecting Israel, will not be able to continue this task.”

The US, which has pressured Netanyahu to hold dialogue to end the crisis caused by judicial reforms, welcomed the decision to freeze plans, and called on Israeli leaders to reach a settlement as soon as possible.

The political crisis left by possible judicial reforms threatens to collapse the Israeli government, according to Palestinian political analyst Naji Al-Battah. Al-Battah told Al-Ahram Weekly that “Netanyahu’s government coalition is on its way to disintegration, and Netanyahu is now aware that the judicial reform plan cannot pass in its current form.”

Al-Battah predicted that Israel would be facing a major political crisis and new Knesset elections in the coming period, adding, “Israel’s current crisis can only end with new Knesset elections and Netanyahu’s departure from the leadership of the Likud Party.”

Al-Battah did not rule out the scenario of Netanyahu forming a new government with centre-right parties, away from dissidents within his party. He stressed that this would be in return for softening the judicial reform plan and reaching a deal that would end his trial issue.

According to Sabbagh, Netanyahu is currently walking a tightrope of moderation and wants to continue with judicial amendments, but he does not want a severe confrontation with the opposition. This is especially the case in light of the turmoil that Israel witnessed following recent decisions, because completely halting legislation would mean the collapse of the government.

On Monday, the Israeli government survived a no-confidence motion submitted by the opposition to the Knesset in protest of the judicial reform plan, after 59 out of 64 Knesset members in Netanyahu’s coalition voted against the proposal.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s right-wing partners in the incumbent government coalition have taken a less hardline stance towards judicial reform, but this will cause them great embarrassment with their right-wing voters.

The leaders of right-wing parties resorted to pressure from the street. Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir called for preventing “the theft of election results” and appealed for demonstrations in support of the government’s efforts to pass judicial reform adopted by right-wing parties.

Security and political circles in Israel fear domestic clashes between supporters of the two political blocs would amount to a “civil war”, which is a scenario that prominent Israeli officials have warned against.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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