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

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TEL AVIV – Thousands of Israelis demonstrated Monday evening outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, asking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop the judicial overhaul carried out by his government. Israel’s major Histadrut labor union called for a nationwide general strike on Monday morning.

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

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

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

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

In a spontaneous outburst of anger, 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 gathered at the main center 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 bolder poured into Ayalon, the Tel Aviv metro area zone, 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 have defeated the dark forces trying to push forward the liberal principles enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. It seemed a moment of inevitable victory.

Under the influence of his nationalist, religious-Messian political allies and his own people, Netanyahu has shaken the political, social and economic foundation of the state and its liberal values ​​in less than three months in office. Many observers have wondered if Netanyahu is really in charge, as he has repeatedly promised the Biden administration and many others have expressed concern about the direction his government was heading.

Gallant and the heads of all the military and security agencies have warned Netanyahu of the discontent amid the consequences of his government and the Knesset coalition.

Last Thursday evening, Gallant planned a prime-time announcement to publicly convey what he was saying to Netanyahu behind closed doors. Netanyahu reportedly lured him with a promise that he was about to deal with the crisis himself. That night, Netanyahu left for London – his third recent weekend trip to a European capital – where he was met with stormy demonstrations and a wildly ambivalent reception from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

But on Saturday night, while Netanyahu was still in London, Gallant took the stage in Tel Aviv. He gave Netanyahu 48 hours and he would not wait any longer. As defense minister, Gallant had the information that indicates a worrying erosion of Israel’s deterrence capabilities, alarming preparations by Israel’s enemies to take advantage of its domestic weakness. The biggest concern was the resistance of the army reserves and later signs that disobedience was spreading among the regular and career armies.

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

This was the background to Gallant’s politically risky decision to go public which cost him his job.

The spontaneous protests that swept the country after Gallant’s dismissal seemed to convince Netanyahu of the seriousness of the crisis he was leading and the price of his arrogance. Monday’s call by the Histadrut for a general strike closed 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 Passover holiday (April 5). The universities also announced shutdowns. Meanwhile, thousands of demonstrators appeared 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 created 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 still insisted on continuing the legislative pressure were the Minister of Justice Yariv Levin, the architect of the whole disaster, and the Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the Jewish Power party. Netanyahu had reportedly planned to stop the legislation before noon on Monday, but appeared to have a change of heart as the day wore on and the demonstrations intensified. The all-powerful leader appeared to have been threatened by Ben-Gvir to walk out and overthrow the government. But late on Monday, Ben-Gvir announced that he would not leave the government if the legislation was suspended.

Nothing is certain because Israel, an island with relative stability and prosperity until a few months ago, is ahead of the dramatic conclusion of the saga in the finale even “House of Cards” or “The Godfather.”

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