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How Israel’s protesters brought a temporary halt to Netanyahu’s judicial assault

The prime minister is pausing his plan to overhaul the judiciary following mass protests.

Protesters hold up a sign as thousands of Israelis attend a rally against Israeli Government’s judicial overhaul plan on March 27, 2023, in Jerusalem, Israel. 
Amir Levy/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Mass protests broke out in Israel Sunday night after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his defense minister for opposing his months-long plan to overhaul the judiciary. Monday, he agreed to postpone — but not abandon — the change.

Though the plan is widely unpopular and has driven months of protests, tensions peaked in the lead-up to an initial vote on the overhaul plan that was slated for Wednesday, but will now take place after Parliament resumes session next month. As a condition for agreeing to the delay, National Security Minister Itmar Ben Gvir required that he be allowed to preside over a new national guard to combat crime.

Tens of thousands of people demonstrated Sunday across Israeli cities, with police in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem using water cannons to disperse protesters who blocked highways and lit bonfires. Thousands showed up outside Netanyahu’s home in Jerusalem, where they broke through a police barricade.

Workers across industries have also staged walkouts initiated by Histadrut, Israel’s largest trade union federation. The public sector, health care, the central bank, the stock exchange, transportation, universities, museums, shopping malls, and even McDonald's have all been affected. Airports were halted briefly but resumed on Monday.

The overhaul plan would give the legislature almost unchecked control over judicial appointments and limit judicial review of governmental policies and laws. Netanyahu, who is facing corruption charges that put him at the mercy of the courts, has argued that the reforms would provide a much-needed check on what he perceives is an out-of-control liberal judiciary. His critics maintain the changes are an effort to keep power and to bring the independent judiciary under the control of Netanyahu’s right-wing government.

Israel’s allies have expressed concern about moving forward with the overhaul plan, which they have indicated threatens the underpinnings of Israel’s democracy. The White House has called for compromise and emphasized that shared democratic values are foundational to the US’s relationship with Israel. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said earlier this month that the “independence of the judiciary is a precious democratic asset.”

Why is this happening now?

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, also of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, delivered a televised speech on Saturday calling for the government to pause the overhaul because it “created an internal rift” in the military that “poses a clear and immediate threat for Israel’s national security.” Some in the military reserves, in which every Israeli citizen is required to serve for several years and which the government often draws upon for operations, have not shown up for duty in protest of the proposal.

Netanyahu’s decision to fire Gallant, the most senior official to speak out at the time, sparked Sunday’s protests, which were some of the largest in the country’s history. But outrage had been brewing long before then.

In 2019, Netanyahu became the first prime minister in the country’s history to be charged with corruption for acts committed while he was on the job following a years-long investigation. He was accused of receiving more than $300,000 in gifts in exchange for expanding a tax exemption for Israelis who return to the country after living abroad, helping to orchestrate a TV channel merger, and aiding a Hollywood producer in renewing his US visa.

He was also accused of seeking favorable coverage in a major Israeli newspaper in exchange for agreeing to push legislation to clamp down on one of its rival newspapers. And he allegedly accepted favors from a telecom mogul in exchange for protecting his business interests.

Netanyahu has denied all of the allegations, instead framing the case as evidence of a broad conspiracy against him by the left, and ignored calls for him to resign. He can continue to serve as prime minister if he is not been convicted. The trial has been delayed multiple times, and there have been concerns that judges on the case are dragging their feet, with no end date in sight.

Following his reelection last year, Netanyahu announced his overhaul plan, which was seen as a transparent attempt to shape the judiciary to his advantage in his corruption trial. Under the plan, the nine-member committee that currently selects judges would be altered so that the ruling party would have a majority of seats, and Parliament would be able to pass laws that Israel’s Supreme Court had previously struck down.

Protesters organized weekly demonstrations opposing the plan that gradually increased in size and intensity as Netayahu’s government pressed on, with public opposition reaching a fever pitch last weekend.

What might come next?

Though his government survived a no-confidence vote on Monday, Netanyahu has faced intense pressure to reverse course from at home and abroad.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog, whose role as head of state is mostly ceremonial and does not involve intervening in politics, urged the government Monday to stop the judicial overhaul for “the sake of the unity of the people of Israel, for the sake of responsibility.”

Netanyahu has not given any sign that he’s abandoning the reforms altogether. But it seems that he has agreed to resume the conversation after Parliament’s recess for Passover next week. A statement by Jewish Power, one of the right-wing parties in Netanyahu’s coalition, announced that they would then endeavor to “pass the reform through dialogue.”

There has been no word from Netanyahu so far, other than a request that protesters avoid violence, even though he was reportedly scheduled to deliver an address on Monday.

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