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Is Israel's Netanyahu losing control of judicial overhaul battle?

The coming days will tell whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is controlling the push for the judicial overhaul, or whether is he being controlled by the more extremist elements within his coalition.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) walks during a hearing at the Magistrate's Court in Rishon Lezion, Israel, Jan. 23, 2023.

Leader of the opposition Yair Lapid said Monday night they will enter into negotiations with the government over the judicial overhaul it is pushing only once it suspends all legislation procedures for the reform.

A similar opinion was expressed during the day also by other leaders of the opposition.

Between 70,000 and 100,000 people demonstrated Monday near the Knesset against the judicial overhaul, fast-tracked through the Knesset by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. It was one of the largest demonstrations in the history of Jerusalem, but despite concern over violence, the event went off without a hitch. However, this does not portend continued calm between the two furious rival camps.

"Dictatorships revert to democracy only in the wake of bloodshed," Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai noted on Monday. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert added even harsher remarks, calling for the protests to “move to the next stage — the stage of war.”

All this time, and despite the demonstrations, the legislative process in the Knesset continues. On Monday, as protesters were massing outside, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee led by Simcha Rothman of the Religious Zionism party approved the first two articles of the reform amid vehement protest by the panel’s opposition members.

The first item changes the makeup of the judicial appointments committee, handing the governing coalition a decisive say in naming Israel’s judges and thus deeply eroding the independence of the judiciary. The second item prevents the High Court from conducting a judicial review of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, handing the government and parliamentary coalition unrestricted legislative powers.

These are the two amendments to current law that Netanyahu and the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party — Aryeh Deri — need to overcome their legal difficulties. They grant Netanyahu control of judicial appointments, potentially enabling him to influence the outcome of his ongoing corruption trial and the expected appeals process. They also pave the way for Deri’s return to the ministerial positions from which he was ousted last month by a Supreme Court ruling. If adopted, this legislation would enable the government to designate his return a “basic law” over which the High Court would have no say.

On Sunday evening, President Isaac Herzog delivered a rare speech to the nation pleading with both sides to negotiate and offering a five-point road map balancing the coalition's demands with the opposition's red lines.

Following Monday’s protests, the two bulldozers leading the reform — Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Knesset member Rothman — called on opposition leaders Lapid and Benny Gantz to accept Herzog’s suggestion and meet "without preconditions."

However, contrary to Herzog’s proposal, the duo refused to suspend the legislative process, saying the process, which includes further committee debates and three plenum votes, would take sufficient time to allow compromise discussions. As mentioned, Lapid and Gantz responded by saying that as long as the legislative process continues, there is nothing to talk about. On Wednesday, Rothman's committee is scheduled to approve additional clauses of their so-called reform.

Even renowned American jurist professor Alan Dershowitz, a Netanyahu confidant and supporter, offered a compromise proposal, calling on Israel’s political parties to embark on a series of debates in order to reach accommodation. Dershowitz, in an interview Monday with anchor Yonit Levy on Channel 12 News, said he had broached the idea to Netanyahu.

Dershowitz said that in their discussions, Netanyahu had used the words "balance" and "logic" over and over. "He has been a strong supporter of the Israeli Supreme Court for many years and I think that if there is a logical compromise, he will accept it. He wants balance and he wants logic and he wants to achieve such a solution," he noted.

Netanyahu of yore might have, indeed, been amenable to a compromise. Dershowitz was right, Netanyahu has defended the integrity of the nation’s top court in the past. But Netanyahu’s own integrity has been compromised by his legal woes and drive to survive. He is now a prisoner of his coalition partners, who support the regime coup for populist reasons, and of the extremists in his Likud party, led by Levin and new minister David Amsalem, who are pushing to deprive the judicial system of its independence. Netanyahu is also under pressure from family members, especially by his son Yair, who reject any compromise and are pushing for speedy Knesset adoption of the overhaul, as is.

At the moment, no one knows whether Netanyahu is the one running the show or being run by his partners. He may have decided to ride the tiger, but discovered belatedly that he could not control it. Is Netanyahu able to give the order to freeze the legislative blitz and discuss a compromise?

Netanyahu is a man torn. Being a skilled and experienced politician, he knows that the moves being led by his own side risk dismantling Israel from within and generating an economic, social and perhaps also political and military avalanche. On the other hand, he seeks to extricate himself from his trial and exact revenge on the law enforcement and legal and judicial authorities he blames for persecuting him. His decision is hard to predict, but one thing is clear: He will make it at the last minute, and be influenced by whichever side and whatever outcome scares him more.

Meanwhile, the heads of Israel's security agencies are observing the domestic upheaval with great concern. Israeli intelligence officials say they have detected a measure of glee among Israel's enemies, especially Hezbollah.

A former senior Israeli military official spoke to Al-Monitor in reference to a famous speech in 2000 by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah claiming that Israel was weaker than a spider’s web. "This speech has turned yellow with age. Israel has demonstrated resilience, strength and has continued to develop and flourish, unlike the devastation and disasters in Syria and Lebanon. Now everything is turned upside down," the source said.

"Hezbollah is monitoring what is happening here and celebrating. They are seeing disintegration, they are seeing dissolution, they are seeing cobwebs being torn from all sides, and it gives them energy and hope," the source added.

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