Israel in 'uncharted waters' but Netanyahu still has a way out, say experts

Country 'has not seen protests like this in terms of magnitude or length'

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to sack Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday night for opposing his judicial reforms has pushed Israel into “uncharted waters” but the skilled statesman could still hold on to power despite a general strike, experts and analysts told The National.

Mr Netanyahu's proposed reforms, which would give the government control over appointing judges and limit the ability of the Supreme Court to overrule the executive and legislature, have galvanised opposition from a broad range of Israeli society and encouraged those who are not usually politically active to join the massive rallies and marches, said Adam Shinar, an associate professor in constitutional law at Israel's Reichman University.

Israel has seen a lot of protests in the past, but nothing to this extent whether in terms of magnitude or length. I think people feel that the country's future is really in jeopardy and not just about a particular policy,” Prof Shinar said.

“This is about the government making structural changes that would change the nature of the country itself.”

Shortly after Mr Netanyahu fired Mr Gallant for calling his planned reforms a “real danger to Israel's security”, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, marking a shift in the opposition even after 12 weeks of demonstrations against the judicial reforms.

“The spontaneity and intensity of the protests proved that these are not just regular demonstrations which the government can withstand or sustain for much longer,” he said. “A lot of the liberal groups of Israel were participating. You had centrist, centre left, liberal right-wingers, religious groups as well.”

Others, however, worry that the anger has put the country on a dangerous path.

“We are in uncharted waters in terms of the intensity of the crisis and the protests,” attorney and research fellow at the Israeli Democratic Institute Guy Lurie told The National.

Speaking outside parliament on Monday morning, Amai Proteins chief executive Ilan Samish explained why he is protesting.

He said he was worried about the reforms eroding democracy.

“I need to have a democracy that will not be tampered with and will not be threatened by an executive branch that already has control of the legislative branch. This is something that is not possible,” he said.

“The public understands well that the intent of the government is really to transform the character of Israel and undercut its democratic character.”

He said that Israel's lack of a constitution and an upper house meant it already had fewer checks and balances on the government than other countries, which is why he felt the need to protest to protect the judiciary.

“Today, the prime minister — who is accused of corruption — together with some right-wing extremists, is trying to take over the judicial system. That judicial system is our checks and balances.”

Former Canadian attorney general and justice minister Erwin Cutler, who was in Jerusalem on Sunday evening, said he was “inspired” by a sign he saw at the rally.

“I am inspired by a sign I saw at the demonstration last night which said, 'Democracy is in our soul. In the long run, the people will triumph',” he said.

Pro Shinar said that while the movement had brought diverse voices from across Israel, there hadn't been a significant call from Palestinian and Arab citizens of the country.

“Palestinian citizens of Israel already see themselves as second-class citizens and face systemic discrimination,” he said.

“They don't see a promise of equality and ending the occupation in the opposition demonstrations. If you're a Palestinian citizen of Israel, you might feel alienated from the flag.”

But despite the massive opposition, Daniel Levy, a former Israeli government adviser, said the Prime Minister still had options.

“Netanyahu’s survival is far from guaranteed. Netanyahu’s demise is also not something that one should bet on right now,” Mr Levy said.

“No one should underestimate the political smarts of Netanyahu, who has been in this game much longer than virtually anyone else who's in this arena at the moment. But he is in the end corridor of [ascertaining] how does he juggle the managing of the country… with resolving his own personal legal issues. And that is the problem for Netanyahu.

“I think he has a challenge of reasserting leadership here,” Mr Levy said.

Mr Levy, the son of Labour grandee Michael Levy, served as an adviser to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak (1999-2001) and was a negotiator in peace talks between the Palestinians and Yitzhak Rabin’s government.

His former boss Ehud Barak took a starker view.

“It is, in a way, the most severe crisis that we have had in the last 75 years,” he said in a speech at Chatham House in London. “Seven wars, two intifadas and an infinite number of operations in between, mainly dealing with threats from the outside.

“Now, we’re facing the most severe crisis, a real threat to our democracy, to our way of life, our security because we are still living in a tough neighbourhood."

Updated: March 28, 2023, 5:06 AM