'Survivor' Netanyahu caves on reform but still battles on

Israel's longest-serving PM is fighting for his political career as general strike and demonstrations oppose his judicial reform

Benjamin Netanyahu is facing growing pressure from protesters and industry leaders to cancel his judicial reform plans. AP
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Benjamin Netanyahu has the political strength and proven resilience to dig himself out of the pit in which he finds himself and survive the unprecedented turmoil gripping Israel, a former Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiator has said.

Mr Netanyahu, 73, on Monday caved into widespread pressure and announced that he would delay the process for discussions on the controversial judicial overhaul until next month.

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli government adviser, told The National that Mr Netanyahu has a strong chance of pulling through the turbulence but the path ahead will not be an easy one.

“We're in unprecedented terrain,” Mr Levy warned. “This is the end of phase one of this stand off. It’s way too early to know what phase two looks like, how governable the next phase will be, what the priorities of Netanyahu will be.

Israel’s longest-serving prime minister had for days resisted pressure to drop his shake-up, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets. His sacking of defence minister Yoav Gallant for criticising the plan and mutiny in army reservist ranks caused already high tensions to soar.

A statement from the far-right and coalition member party Jewish Power on Monday said the legislation would be pushed to the next session of Israeli parliament to "pass the reform through dialogue”.

Parliament will go on recess next week for the Passover holiday.

Israelis and the wider world had mobilised on Mr Netanyahu’s judicial reforms, with a general strike and nationwide protests.

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog had earlier waded into the debate and warned the Prime Minister of the building pressure. “The whole world is looking at you,” he said.

Ehud Barak, who served as Israel’s prime minister from 1999-2001, described the upheaval as the “most severe crisis that we have had in the last 75 years”. Speaking at an event in London, he said the threat posed to democracy was greater than any war or intifada in which Israel has been involved since the country’s creation in 1948.

“Netanyahu has been forced to retreat, his coalition is in crisis," Mr Levy added. "The members of the coalition understand that if they put themselves up for election this will not end well for them. So they are going to be in no hurry to bring down the government. But there are likely to be defections from the coalition.

“The economy and the military were what drove the success of the pushback,” he added. “Netanyahu has to try to reconstitute this.”

Israel protests - in pictures

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

The British-Israeli, president of the US / Middle East Project, noted the “remarkable” wave of opposition that rose up against Mr Netanyahu’s coalition government over its planned judicial overhaul. The plan, which critics see as a threat to democracy, would result in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and therefore the ruling parties, gaining new powers over the judiciary. They would be able to extend their reach to select judges, determine what on which laws the Supreme Court can rule and ultimately overturn the court’s decisions.

'Don't bet on Bibi's political demise just yet'

Mr Netanyahu’s next task will be to win back the support of Israeli voters as he prepares to stand trial accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

But having survived his fair share of political crises, Mr Netanyahu is well-placed to ride out this storm, Mr Levy said.

“Netanyahu’s survival is far from guaranteed. Netanyahu’s demise is also not something that one should bet on right now,” he 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 Barak told a London audience on Monday that the gravity of the security situation should not be underestimated and the enormity of the political crisis cannot be ignored.

“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. “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."

Mr Barak said the crisis was “self-made” by Mr Netanyahu’s government, and likened it to a “top down regime change using the legal tools of democracy facing a counter-revolution from bottom up”.

The former Israeli leader offered words of encouragement to protesters and others opposing Mr Netanyahu’s plan.

“We will win, I am confident of it because I know our people and we have empirical evidence for it,” he said.

“We are not going to accept it. It doesn’t fit into our basic values and our collective psyche.”

International concerns

Norway has condemned the proposals, with Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt saying she was “deeply concerned” over the planned changes that would “weaken democracy and the rule of law in Israel”.

The US said it was “deeply concerned by today’s developments out of Israel, which further underscore the urgent need for compromise”.

Mr Netanyahu was last week greeted by hundreds of angry protesters opposing his reforms when he visited London for a meeting with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The UK government was yet to respond to escalations on Monday, but following the bilateral meeting on Friday said Mr Sunak had “stressed the importance of upholding the democratic values that underpin our relationship, including in the proposed judicial reforms in Israel”.

Tzipi Hotovely, Israel's ambassador to Britain, was on Monday keen to emphasise the two nations' strong relationship. She retweeted a photo of Mr Netanyahu meeting Home Secretary Suella Braverman, thanking her for "all your support and co-operation on joint UK-Israel security and intelligence interests".

TV presenter Piers Morgan, who last week grilled Mr Netanyahu in London, said he "still hasn’t talked to the Israeli people about this unfurling crisis" so his interview is being aired in Hebrew.

In the programme, which was released on YouTube, Mr Netanyahu pushed back against criticism of his plan, calling it a "democratic reform" that would strengthen Israel's political system. He said he felt "quite confident" of overcoming challenges caused by a backlash.

"You have to reform things that get ossified and in Israel what we've had is the ossification of ... the imbalance between the three branches of government. That has to be corrected," he said.

Updated: March 27, 2023, 6:00 PM