Netanyahu’s government backs off for now amid protests.
The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed comments on the MENA region’s most significant issues and trends. Today we focus on Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial reform of the judiciary system has plunged the country into one of the deepest political crises in its history.
Israel is witnessing one of the worst institutional crises in its recent history. On March 27, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the postponement of the controversial judicial reform that his government has advocated for the past three months. In Bibi’s own words, this decision was taken to ease (at least temporarily) the tensions created by months of mass protests. This controversial reform would give the government decisive powers in appointing Supreme Court judges and introduce a clause that would allow the Knesset to override the decisions of the Court. For the protesters, the reform would alter the current system of checks and balances and compromise the foundations of Israel’s democracy. The protests reached their peak last Sunday, when Israelis took to the streets in unprecedented numbers after Netanyahu dismissed his Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, who opposed the reform. Inevitably, Israel’s unstable situation has also alarmed regional and international partners, who have expressed their concerns about the civil unrest and the threat to the Israeli democratic system. US President Joe Biden, in particular, has been vocal on the issue, pressing Netanyahu to “walk away” from the reform plan. It is clear that the Palestinian issue, despite its importance, so far has been left out of this debate. In this context, while the protests show no sign of abating, it is still unclear what the future holds for Israel and its government coalition.
The experts of the ISPI MED network react to the postponement of the judicial reform in Israel and its consequences.
These events will leave Israel even more divided and vulnerable
“Israeli society is divided among religious, national, ethnic, and socio-political lines, with recent events illustrating how deep and overlapping these divisions are. Most of those who demonstrated against the judicial reform are educated, secular, of Zionist origin, Ashkenazi-Western, centre-left, and of middle-upper socio-economic status. They are Israel’s elite defending their standing, the independence of the courts and the nature of the state’s regime. Instead, liberal democracy, equality for all citizens, and the end of the occupation of the Palestinian lands are not part of their slogans. Accordingly, only a minority of Arab citizens protested against the reform as they would not necessarily benefit from demonstrating. Instead, the success of the legal reform legislation will undoubtedly harm the status of the Arab citizens of Israel, especially if the government and the Knesset appoint judges. The Arab public is deeply concerned that a legal reform could further harm Arab citizens in Israel. When these events calm down, they will probably leave Israel more divided and vulnerable than before.”
Ali Nohad, Senior Research Fellow, Samuel Neaman Institute
Not a postponement, but a “strategic retreat”
“More than a victory for the protest movement, the postponement of the judicial reform appears to be a strategic retreat by Netanyahu. The Israeli PM will now have a few weeks to plan his next moves, while the Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben Gvir, will get the National Guard he has so long advocated for. Yet, it is still unclear how Bibi intends to break the current deadlock without tearing the country further apart or losing his parliamentary majority. What is clear is that the creation of a new police force, controlled by a politician with Ben Gvir’s track record, cannot be considered a sign of détente. The stakes are high, and the confrontation is only postponed.”
Mattia Serra, ISPI MENA Centre
Arab neighbours are closely following Israel’s political crisis.
“Arab officials are monitoring the judicial reform in Israel attentively, some are pleased while others are concerned. Israel’s adversaries, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran, celebrated the recent unrest in the country considering it a sign of weakness and a lack of unity. Meanwhile, Israel’s Arab partners are worried about the possible implications of the reform on the legal rights of the Palestinians, as well as by the potential spill-over of pro-democracy protests into their own countries. Although the Knesset hasn’t approved the reform as of now, Arab commentators are already speculating on whether Israel will remain a reliable partner to Washington and whether the country will retain its status as a “start-up nation” for Gulf states’ investments. Nonetheless, the widespread protests, and their temporary success in curbing the reform, demonstrated to both Arab and international spectators that Israel is much more than just PM Netanyahu and his right-wing government.”
Ofir Winter, Senior Researcher, Institute for National Security Studies (INSS); and Lecturer, Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Tel Aviv University
Western allies will not back down on Israel’s democracy, whatever the cost
“The Israeli government has been pressured by its main western allies to keep liberal democratic norms, which are an essential basis of mutual relations. US President Joe Biden put an unusual open and blunt pressure on the Netanyahu government, saying Israel “cannot continue down this road”. This underscores that the US knows the struggle for Israel’s democracy is far from over but now it faces a crucial phase. For its allies, this fight is about Israel and the global threat of democratic backsliding into illiberal, majoritarian systems –threats that many governments see also within their countries, especially in the US. Should the Israeli government decide to push through with its reform, its relations with allies will be tainted. While it is unlikely that it would immediately affect security cooperation, support in international bodies like the UN or the ICC very well might dwindle.”
Peter Lintl, Head, “Israel and its regional and global conflicts: Domestic developments, security issues and foreign affairs” Project, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)
The judicial reform threatens the US-Israel relationship
“Over the past months, US-Israel relations have become increasingly cold. In late January, Secretary of State Blinken’s visit highlighted how the distance exists on many issues, including the two-state solution to the Palestinian issue. The proposed judicial reform worsened the situation. President Biden and his top officials warned Prime Minister Netanyahu that moving ahead with the changes threatened the ‘shared values’ of the US-Israel relationship. Congress took an equally strong stance. Such an unprecedented position resulted in Israel’s harsh reaction, with Prime Minister Netanyahu stating he does not make decisions based on pressure from abroad. Putting the reform on hold could reduce tensions in the short run but not defuse the root problem. Its revival in its current form risks exacerbating a significant drift between Jerusalem and Washington, similar to the tensions during the second Obama presidency.”
Gianluca Pastori, Associate Professor, Faculty of Political and Social Sciences, Catholic University of Milan
This week’s MED This Week has been edited by Francesco Schiavi