Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided at the end of March to delay his government’s judicial reform and enter into negotiations in an attempt to reach broad consensus.
Netanyahu’s announcement came at the very last moment – before the completion of the reform legislation in the Knesset, a process that is tearing the State of Israel apart. Netanyahu was forced to announce the delay due to unprecedented pressure from the American administration and the wave of protests sweeping Israel.
For 17 weeks now – thousands of concerned Israeli citizens have been demonstrating against judicial reform, which they call a governmental coup and warn that it will turn Israel into a dictatorship. On the other hand, last Thursday the Israeli right managed to organize an impressive show of force – a demonstration with the participation of about 200,000 people at the government compound in Jerusalem.
Is the delay in the legislation real or is it a tactical pause designed to allow the coalition to regroup and push forward as soon as it is ready? That’s the question currently on the mind of many Israelis and observers around the world.
If you ask the Israeli opposition, there they are convinced that this is a tactical truce and that Netanyahu paused one step from the abyss after he realized that his government had lost legitimacy. Senior officials in the opposition estimate that Netanyahu is now putting all his energy into passing a two-year budget by the end of May in order to provide his government with relative stability for the next two years.
With a budget in place, toppling the government will become nearly impossible as it would require a minimum of 61 members of Knesset voting no confidence. And there is currently no chance for the opposition to garner 61 votes. Even if Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the right-wing Otzma Yehudit, leaves the coalition over differences with Netanyahu, he would never support a center-left move to bring down the government.
A senior member of the Israeli opposition estimates that Netanyahu will pass a budget and then attack on the judicial reform front with all his might.
Netanyahu, however, has himself said behind closed doors that he will not advance the reform this month, and will give more time to the talks at the President’s Residence. When asked what will happen in June, he said that even then there is no deadline to pass the legislation in the Knesset. At least outwardly, Netanyahu is giving a chance to talks and wants to reach a compromise.
On the other hand, Netanyahu has found himself between a rock and a hard place. He may want broad consensus, but his coalition partners to the right are breathing down his neck and demanding judicial reform now and without compromise. The demonstration last Thursday in downtown Jerusalem sent a message to Netanyahu that he cannot give up on the reform and that what is expected of him on the right is to promote it. In a certain sense, this demonstration complicated things for Netanyahu. If he had wanted to climb down from the judicial reform tree, the demonstration has made it far more difficult to do so, as he must keep the reform-minded right-wing partners appeased.
We must not forget the American position either. The Biden administration will not invite Netanyahu to visit the White House if there is not broad consensus on such an important issue. In the meantime, the talks at the President’s Residence are being conducted in a good and business-like atmosphere. But the truth is that after five meetings they still haven’t come to any conclusion and they are having an almost academic discussion about the various issues. President Isaac Herzog thinks that there is a rare opportunity here, in his words a defining moment to reach a mechanism that will bring Israel closer to finally having a constitution.
The coming weeks will determine where Israel is headed: whether to a broad consensus, or a return to conflict between the right and the left that could end in further division and even civil war.
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