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Israeli PM Netanyahu, under pressure from military brass, delays judicial overhaul

The dramatic developments in Israel in the past 48 hours seemed to have pushed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to put a pause on the judicial changes.
Mounted Israeli police stand guard as protesters gather outside Israel's parliament in Jerusalem amid ongoing demonstrations and calls for a general strike against the hard-right government's controversial push to overhaul the justice system, on March 27, 2023. (Photo by HAZEM BADER / AFP) (Photo by HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images)

TEL AVIV — Tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated Monday afternoon outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the judicial overhaul advanced by his government. Israel’s major labor union Histadrut called Monday morning for a general strike across the country.

On Monday evening, Netanyahu finally decided to pause the legislation’s progress, according to a statement by the nationalist Jewish Power party, one of the coalition partners. Ynet reported earlier in the day that associates of Netanyahu had already informed the US administration of Netanyahu’s intentions.

According to a statement from Jewish Power, the legislation would be delayed until the next legislative term.

Israel has never experienced such incredible scenes, not even on the night of the decisive UN vote approving the establishment of the state 75 years ago. That historic decision sent tens of thousands of jubilant soon-to-be-citizens into the streets. Now the children and grandchildren of those joyful celebrants are back in the streets — not to dance, but to protest the hard-line government of Netanyahu that they fear is crushing the hard-won democracy established by those founders.

Mass demonstrations have rocked Israel for almost three months in protest of what the government calls judicial reform and what opponents argue is a government attempt to take control of the Supreme Court. Tension has been building ahead of the final Knesset vote on a key element of the legislation scheduled for this week. The dam burst Sunday night when Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for his public warning about the disastrous consequences of the impending legislation on Israel’s security and urging Netanyahu to stop the legislative blitz.

In a spontaneous burst of fury, thousands abandoned their couches, beds, barstools and restaurant tables to storm the streets and highways to march for their country’s democracy. Within half an hour of Gallant’s dismissal, thousands massed at the main venue of the weekly pro-democracy protests at the intersection of Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street and the Ayalon highway.

A carpet of blue and white flags, the signature of the pro-democracy protests, spread as far as the eye could see. The more daring poured onto Ayalon, the Tel Aviv metro area beltway, setting bonfires. Everyone was represented: bankers, fighter pilots, Holocaust survivors, students, children, artists, blue-collar workers, IT workers, athletes — a cross-section of Israeli society. They seemed to sense victory over the dark forces seeking to crush the liberal principles enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. It seemed a moment of inevitable triumph.

Under the influence of his nationalist, religious-messianic political allies as well as his own family members, Netanyahu has shaken the political, social and economic underpinnings of the state and its liberal values in less than three months in office. Many observers have wondered whether Netanyahu is really in control, as he had repeatedly promised the Biden administration and many others who voiced concern over the direction his government was heading.

Gallant and the heads of the military and security agencies have all been warning Netanyahu about the discontent among the repercussions of the moves by his government and Knesset coalition.

Last Thursday evening, Gallant scheduled a prime-time announcement to publicly voice what he has been telling Netanyahu behind closed doors. Netanyahu reportedly fobbed him off with a promise that he was about to deal with the crisis himself. That night, Netanyahu left for London — his third recent weekend foray to a European capital — where he was met by stormy demonstrations and a markedly unenthusiastic reception by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

But Saturday night, while Netanyahu was still in London, Gallant took the stage in Tel Aviv. He had given Netanyahu 48 hours and would wait no more. As minister of defense, Gallant has been privy to information indicating a worrying erosion in Israel's deterrence capabilities, alarming preparations by Israel's enemies to take advantage of its domestic weakness. Most worrying was the army reservists' resistance followed by signs of spreading disobedience among the ranks of the regular and career army.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior Israeli military official discussed tensions with Hezbollah after it placed a bomb at a central Israeli crossroads with Al-Monitor. "Two weeks ago, we were verging on a major war on our northern front," the official said. "The captains of state do not understand the situation, do not listen to our warnings, continue to raise the stakes and ignore reality."

This was the backdrop of Gallant’s risky political decision to go public that cost him his job.

The spontaneous protests that swept the country after Gallant’s dismissal seemed to have convinced Netanyahu of the seriousness of the crisis he had set off and the price of his arrogance. The Monday call by the Histadrut for a general strike shut down the country’s main airport and naval ports, public health and education services and shopping malls filled with shoppers stocking up on gifts and clothes for the upcoming Passover holiday (Apr. 5). The universities also announced a shutdown. Meanwhile, thousands of demonstrators massed anew in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and as far south as the Red Sea port of Eilat. Israel, the regional military, economic and technological power, was girded to fight for its democracy.

Netanyahu has become a lame duck almost overnight. One by one, leading Knesset members and Likud ministers broke their silence and admitted that the legislation should be stopped or at least suspended.

Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies have gone silent. The only ones who were still insisting on continuing the legislative push were Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the entire disaster, and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the Jewish Power party. Netanyahu had reportedly planned to halt the legislation before noon Monday, but appeared to have had a change of heart as the day wore on and the demonstrations swelled. The all-powerful leader seemed cowed by Ben-Gvir’s threats to walk out and topple the government. Yet late Monday, Ben-Gvir announced he would not leave the government if the legislation was paused.

Nothing is certain as Israel, an island of relative stability and prosperity until a few months ago, heads for this saga's dramatic conclusion in a finale worthy of "House of Cards" or "The Godfather."

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