- A judicial overhaul plan pushed by Netanyahu’s government sparked a major crisis in Israel.
- Netanyahu paused the overhaul amid mass protests, but Israel’s troubles are far from over.
- “The crisis was deferred, but definitely not resolved,” a former US ambassador to Israel told Insider.
A serious crisis has been brewing in Israel, and this week, it boiled over as outraged spiked and people flooded the streets in protest. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to hit pause on a deeply controversial plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary, but Israel’s problems are far from over.
“The crisis was deferred, but definitely not resolved,” Daniel Shapiro, a former US Ambassador to Israel and distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Insider.
Netanyahu announced on Monday that he was delaying his proposed plan — which threw his country into chaos and saw numerous people speak out against the government — until after parliament’s upcoming Passover recess in April to carve out time for debate and prevent what he said was a path to “civil war.”
The move came after he fired the country’s defense minister, a decision that was met with widespread backlash among officials and civilians.
Experts and former officials told Insider that Netanyahu’s push to overhaul the judiciary represents a “major threat” to the people of Israel and that the prime minister sent a “really bad message” by axing his defense chief. They said the crisis raised both economic and security concerns.
The divisive judicial plan, which Netanyahu’s far-right, nationalist government pushed for as he contends with an ongoing trial over corruption charges, would give the government more power in choosing judges and grant parliament the ability to overturn Supreme Court decisions. One piece of the plan has already been passed into law, narrowing the circumstances under which a prime minister can be deemed unfit for office.
Critics of the judicial reforms have slammed the plan as anti-democratic — warning that it would undermine important checks on the government’s power — and have accused Netanyahu of advocating for changes that would weaken the judiciary as he faces a corruption trial.
Netanyahu “wants power more than any other Israeli politician and will do just about anything in order to get it.” Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former State Department official, told Insider. “The trial has created an existential problem for him.”
‘A perfect storm that was gathering’
Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul Israel’s judiciary has prompted months of sweeping protests across the country and even led Israeli President Isaac Herzog in mid-March to gravely warn that the country was in a “profound crisis” and at risk of “civil war.” Police have used aggressive tactics to disperse demonstrators, such as stun grenades and water cannons.
“This was a perfect storm that was gathering,” Miller said of the government’s plan. “It represented, to hundreds of thousands of Israelis, a major threat — not only to the independence of the judiciary, but to the type of country that they envisioned for themselves, which was pro-western, pluralistic, democratic, humanist, and the region’s only democracy, however imperfect and flawed it is.”
The unrest escalated this past weekend after Netanyahu sacked Defense Minister Yoav Gallant — who had called for the Israeli leader to halt the judicial overhaul a day before he was abruptly fired.
Gallant, the first member of cabinet to call for a pause to the overhaul plan, had warned that the proposal was undermining the country’s national security. His move came after military reservists refused to report for duty, signaling their opposition to the right-wing government’s planned reforms.
“That was a really bad message,” Nimrod Goren, a senior fellow for Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute, told Insider, citing the immediate fallout that came as a result of Gallant’s firing. Universities shut their doors, air traffic came to a standstill at Ben Gurion International Airport, and embassies around the world halted operations.
“Nobody got it — it didn’t make any sense,” Goren added. “It’s not the way Israel is governed.”
‘You don’t need militias running around’
Though Netanyahu has since agreed to suspend the plan, that doesn’t mean Israel’s troubles are over or that he’s necessarily abandoning the reforms altogether.
“I believe many protestors are not letting their guard down,” Shapiro said, underscoring that the situation has raised both security and economic concerns for Israel. “There’s a lot at risk. It’s definitely not settled, and they’re definitely not out of the woods.”
Netanyahu announced that the planned overhaul was being postponed after National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the far-right Jewish Power party, agreed to the delay, the Times of Israel reported. But as part of this agreement, a much-sought-after national guard will reportedly be established under Ben-Gvir’s ministry.
Ben-Gvir, an ultra-nationalist, has been convicted of supporting a terrorist organization and incitement to racism. Goren said granting Ben-Gvir this power would be “very dangerous” because of his past provocations of Palestinians, Arabs, and people on the left.
“We need to make sure that it doesn’t happen, because if such a National Guard — which is independent from the other official institutions being set up under Ben-Gvir’s supervision — that’s not something we want to have in the current climate for sure,” Goren said. “You don’t need militias running around the streets in Israel.”
But it remains to be seen whether the National Guard plan actually comes into play, as Netanyahu has historically been cautious when it comes to the country’s security and military affairs.
A tricky situation for US leadership
The recent turmoil in Israel has also led to concern in Washington. “Like many strong supporters of Israel I’m very concerned. I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road,” President Joe Biden said to reporters on Tuesday. Biden also said that Netanyahu would not be invited to the White House “in the near term.”
The US-Israel relationship has faced strains in recent years, but both countries remain close and in January launched their largest joint military exercise ever. That said, the present situation could place Biden in an awkward position as he emphasizes the need to uphold democracy around the world amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and historic tensions with China. Biden is hosting a virtual Summit for Democracy this week, and Netanyahu was invited to speak on Wednesday despite Israel’s recent troubles.
Biden has emphasized that part of what makes the US-Israel relationship “special” and “what makes it function” is that they are “bound by the common values of two democracies,” Shapiro said. “That’s fundamental.”
But, Shapiro added, if a situation arose where many Israelis — including senior officials and others in important positions in Israeli society — said the country was moving away from “democratic governance and if many other countries in the family of democratic nations started to ask that same question — obviously it would be a strain on the US-Israel partnership.”