Israel erupted as Netanyahu was forced to retreat, leaving it "injured and hurting."
With a combination of skill and ruthlessness, Benjamin Netanyahu has controlled Israeli politics for nearly 20 years, outmaneuvering his competitors to become the longest-serving prime minister in the nation's history.
But after throwing the nation into its worst crisis in decades on Monday, the cunning politician was forced to change direction — at least temporarily — on his far-right government's campaign to restructure the judiciary. After receiving months of public pressure, Netanyahu gave down after his intention to fire his defense minister for opposing the plan sparked a new round of unrest and a countrywide strike that put the country in danger of being paralyzed.
Tens of thousands of Israelis poured into the streets to express their outrage as word of the dismissal spread late on Sunday. Israel was closing down as a result of trade union calls for workers to stop working, with banks, embassies, ports, and even Ben Gurion Airport ceasing operations as a result of the opposition.
After holding the people waiting for hours, Netanyahu ultimately agreed late on Monday to postpone the reform until the following parliamentary session. And although the compromise prompted the unions to call off the strike, rallies persisted into Monday night, with organisers saying that they would continue until the changes were eventually rejected.
Following Netanyahu's partial retreat, opposition leader Yair Lapid declared, "The State of Israel is injured and hurting. We don’t need to put a plaster over the injuries but to treat them properly."
The crisis, which some have named the worst in Israel's 75-year history, began as a fight for the Jewish state's soul following the November parliamentary election.
In order to gain support from far-right organizations led by the once-fringe ultranationalists Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, Netanyahu and his ultraorthodox allies formed an alliance while facing corruption allegations and alienating his previous mainstream allies. After serving in opposition for 18 months, the maneuvering resulted in a four-seat majority and brought the contentious Netanyahu back into office.
The fierce desire to control the judiciary was one thing that brought the government, the most rightwing in Israeli history, together. A radical reform that would give the government and its allies more control over judge selection and restrict the supreme court's ability to overturn legislation became a top priority.
The modifications, according to supporters, were required to tame an overly aggressive court that had abused official authority to advance a partisan leftist agenda.
However, detractors saw the reform as a serious threat to Israel's system of checks and balances that would weaken minority protections, encourage corruption, and hurt the country's economy.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis protested the plans by taking to the streets. Importantly, they gave rise to a warning from thousands of military reservists that they would boycott training.
Yoav Gallant, Israel's defense minister, was dismissed because of his warning that the proposed overhaul's polarization posed a "clear, immediate, and tangible threat" to Israel's national security.
Some analysts believe that Netanyahu's decision to allow his government to take such a drastic course is a continuation of the development that has been taking place since he was indicted in 2020 on allegations of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Netanyahu has consistently refuted the accusations and characterized them as a political witch hunt.
Netanyahu became "a lot more aggressive and belligerent vis-à-vis Israel’s judiciary and law and enforcement agencies" following his indictment, according to Yohanan Plesner, president of the think tank Israel Democracy Institute. "He also increasingly allied himself to the most marginal and extreme elements of Israeli society."
Others view Netanyahu's attempt to drive significant changes through parliament soon after entering office as a miscalculation that highlights how much his coalition allies, not himself, are in charge of the government's direction.
Aviv Bushinsky, a former Netanyahu adviser who is now a political commentator, stated, "I don’t think he’s changed. Maybe he thought after this victory in the elections that he’s stronger than he is."
Netanyahu's former employee and current senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, Shalom Lipner, claimed that by assuming he could control Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, the prime minister had decided to "ride the back of the tiger."
But the end result, he claimed, was that the far-right coalition risked undermining Netanyahu's legacy, which included stability, a booming economy, and better relations with Arab nations that the veteran prime minister has long courted. This coalition has already stoked tensions with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and soured relations with Israel's neighbors.
Notwithstanding the turmoil and the tensions within the coalition that have recently come to light, observers said it was too soon to declare the government to be ineffective because neither Netanyahu nor his allies had better options.
"The rightwing parties will hardly get another chance to have 64 [seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament] in the near future. Netanyahu knows it, they should know it," said Roni Rimon, a political consultant who ran the campaign that kick-started Netanyahu’s second term in 2009.
Plesner cautioned against underestimating Netanyahu and noted that there were unlikely to be any challenges for the Likud leader from within his own party. "I’ve heard so many political eulogies for Netanyahu that it would be way too early to try and predict the end of his career," he remarked.
Even though Plesner was clear that the judicial reform legislation "in the scope and the way they wanted to pass it is dead," the battle would reopen if the key elements were kept in a later effort when parliament reconvened in May.
"It would mean we’re not entering internal peace within Israeli society, but rather a one-and-a-half month ceasefire."
By fLEXI tEAM