Israel: Judicial reform on hold but country remains on edge
After three months of rapidly growing nationwide protests by opponents of the government's controversial judicial overhaul, Israel's political crisis boiled over on Monday and nearly shut down the country.
Emma Tukatly is one of those who has been out in the streets demonstrating for the past three months against the planned legislation. She expressed joy that the country's largest and most influential trade union, the Histadrut, had joined a general strike to protest the contested changes to limit the powers of the nation's Supreme Court.
"When I saw the Histadrut coming into the strike, besides all the business people of Israel, I get goosebumps even now. I was in front of the TV with my husband and we were crying," Tukatly, who runs her own business and is an activist in the anti-government protest group "Pink Front," told DW.
At Ben Gurion Airport, Israel's main gateway to the world, most of the flights were cancelled. Local municipalities went on strike, universities closed and civil servants joined the action.
"It felt like redemption, really. It felt like everybody is in this and we're going to win and it's going to end in the evening — and that the government might even fall apart," says Tukatly.
Netanyahu takes his time to announce 'time-out'
But opponents of the judicial overhaul are certainly not yet satisfied, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responding to the protests and strikes with an announcement that the overhaul would be postponed.
After much delay, Netanyahu stood in front of the cameras shortly after 8 p.m. local time (1700 UTC) on Monday. He said that he would seek a compromise with his political opponents and delay the overhaul to the next parliamentary session, which starts at the end of April.
"When there is a chance to prevent civil war through dialogue, I — as prime minister — will take a time-out for dialogue," Netanyahu said in the televised address. "There is an extremist minority that is prepared to tear our country to pieces."
And in a deliberate nod to his supporters, he said that he would pass the reform "either way." This was echoed by his far-right coalition partners, who headed a large counterprotest on Monday night in Jerusalem to show support for the legislation.
Tukatly was among those rather dismayed than pleased at the announcement.
"Now we are looking at a postponement of a month only … it's really hard for me to speak about it. Really. I am like, I am crying," she said.
Shock firing of defense minister
The latest unrest was triggered by Netanyahu's decision on Sunday night to fire Defense Minister Yoav Gallant of the Likud party.
Gallant had suggested pausing the judicial plans 24 hours earlier, citing the deepening divisions in the country and describing the growing number of military reservists who have threatened not to report for duty or training if the legislation was passed as a "threat to national security."
A dramatic night of spontaneous protests against Netanyahu's decision to sack Gallant followed across the country. This put the prime minister under growing pressure to address the crisis.
But he initially appeared to struggle to get his coalition partners to consider any compromise, especially the far-right minister for national security, Itamar Ben Gvir of the Jewish Power party, who threatened to quit the coalition.
Eventually, shortly before Netanyahu's announcement on Monday night, he struck a deal with Jewish Power in which they agreed to a postponement of the legislation until the next session of parliament. In return, Netanyahu reportedly promised Ben Gvir the establishment of a "civil national guard."
Anti-legislation protesters vow to continue to demonstrate
"It seems that the protests may downshift a little bit, but they won't stop," political scientist Dahlia Scheindlin told DW. Protest leaders had announced on Monday night that demonstrations will continue.
Many opponents of the legislation simply don't trust Netanyahu, she said: "They don't believe that he actually plans on ending this attack against the Israeli judiciary. And I think that they will anticipate the need to keep constant pressure to achieve what they really want, which is an end to this legislation altogether."
All the same, the postponement marks an unexpected concession by the embattled prime minister, who just last week vowed to press ahead with a Knesset vote on the legislation's first core element as early as this week, just before the Knesset goes into recess for the Passover holidays.
And despite the announcement, on Tuesday the Knesset committee preparing the bills still submitted the draft to the Knesset for a final reading so it could be voted on at any time.
Israeli commentators were quick to call Netanyahu's move a tactical pause. "To Netanyahu's credit, one can say that he knows how to use beautiful words to turn a stinging defeat into a laundered draw. But that won't change the facts. Nor will it change the fact that he lives in an alternative universe: Israeli society is burning, and the most he has to offer is a procedural solution", wrote Nahum Barnea in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily on Tuesday.
In the conservative newspaper Israel Hayom, a commentator wrote that "if Likud wants to continue to lead, it must return to the to the pragmatic, moderate approach that has always characterized the party and forget about the 'fully right-wing' dream."
Swift push to implement a controversial overhaul
Plans to change the judiciary were introduced almost immediately after the new government, made up of a coalition that includes far-right and ultrareligious parties, was sworn in last December. Supporters of the reforms consider the Supreme Court a far too powerful bastion of the political left. They also argue that there should be more balance between different branches of government.
Critics say the overhaul would erase the government's system of checks and balances while affording politicians too much power in a country without a constitution. For example, the so-called override clause could allow lawmakers to potentially override any of the Supreme Court's decisions.
As some point out, the potential leverage of lawmakers over the Supreme Court could help Netanyahu evade prosecution as he stands trial for several corruption charges — all of which he continues to deny.
Renewed talks at the president's residence
On Tuesday night, President Isaac Herzog, whose attempts to find a compromise were rejected by the government earlier in March, held a first round of talks between opposition and government coalition leaders to find a workable framework. "The meeting was conducted in a positive spirit," read a statement by the presidency.
But analysts are skeptical as to whether such a compromise is feasible. "I don't think that they will come to a satisfactory compromise. The government has never wavered from its goal of continuing in this direction of constraining the independence of the judiciary," says analyst Dahlia Scheindlin.
An opinion poll commissioned by the daily newspaper Ma'ariv on Tuesday and published on Wednesday showed that 52% of respondents said there was no chance of reaching an agreement, while 41% said that a compromise on the judicial reform could be reached.
The overhaul has also put US-Israel relations on shaky ground. On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden issued his sharpest remarks yet as to the prospect of a compromise. He urged Netanyahu, in what was widely seen as a rebuke, to "walk away" from the judicial overhaul.
"Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he can try to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen," Biden said. He also denied that Netanyahu would be invited to the White House "in the near term."
Netanyahu answered in a late-night statement that "Israel is a sovereign country that makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends."
Once the Knesset comes back from its recess, the judicial overhaul will be back on the table.
For Emma Tokatly, the most important thing is to keep up the pressure: "We are not stopping, because Israel's biggest problem is that we don't have a constitution. So, for 75 years, from all parties, they couldn't make this terrible situation right. The only thing we can do to stop this situation is to ask for one thing: A constitution."
Edited by: Timothy Jones