Benjamin Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics for nearly two decades, using a combination of ruthlessness and savvy to outmaneuver his rivals to become the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history.
But on Monday, the shrewd politician was forced to reverse it – at least temporarily – in the wake of his far-right government’s push to overhaul the justice system after plunging the country into its biggest crisis in decades. After months of protest, Netanyahu bowed to public pressure after his decision to fire his defense minister over criticism of the plan sparked a new wave of unrest and a general strike that threatened to paralyze the nation.
As news of the firing spread late Sunday, tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets across the country to voice their anger. Israel soon came to a standstill as unions called on workers to down tools, causing dissent to ripple through the country’s institutions, with banks, embassies, ports and even Ben Gurion Airport suspending services.
Netanyahu finally agreed late Monday to postpone the renovation until the next parliamentary session, after keeping the country on hold for hours. Although the concession prompted unions to call off the strike, demonstrations continued into Monday night, with organizers warning they would continue until the changes were ultimately rejected.
“The state of Israel is hurt and hurting,” opposition leader Jair Lapid said after Netanyahu’s partial ouster. “We don’t need to put plasters on injuries, we need to treat them properly.”
The seeds of the crisis — which some have called the worst in Israel’s 75-year history — were sown after November’s parliamentary elections and quickly became a battle for the soul of the Jewish state.
Fighting corruption charges, Netanyahu, shunned by his estranged former mainstream partners, and his ultra-Orthodox allies allied with far-right groups, led by once-far-right ultra-nationalists Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. The maneuvering resulted in a four-seat majority and the divisive Netanyahu returned to office after 18 months in opposition.
The issue that united the right-wing coalition in Israel’s history was a burning desire to curb justice. A radical overhaul — which would give the government and its allies more power to appoint judges and limit the Supreme Court’s ability to overturn legislation — has become a priority.
Supporters argued that the changes were needed to rein in an overly activist court that used powers it was never formally granted to advance a partisan leftist agenda.
Critics, however, saw the renovation as a fundamental threat to Israel’s checks and balances, which would weaken protections for minorities, promote corruption and damage the economy.
Opposition to the plans has led hundreds of thousands of Israelis to take to the streets to protest. Significantly, thousands of military reservists were also induced to threaten to refuse training.
That’s why Defense Minister Yoav Gallant issued the warning that got him fired: the polarization generated by the planned overhaul poses a “clear, immediate and tangible threat” to Israel’s national security.
Some observers say Netanyahu’s decision to let his government take such a radical path is part of an ongoing evolution since he was indicted in 2020 on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu has always denied the allegations and dismissed them. a politically motivated witch hunt.
After his indictment, Netanyahu “became much more aggressive and belligerent toward Israel’s judiciary and law enforcement and enforcement agencies,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank. He allied himself more and more with the most extreme and marginal elements of Israeli society.
Others say the plan to make radical changes to parliament within months of taking office is a mistake, highlighting that Netanyahu’s partners, not him, are in control of the government.
“I don’t think it’s changed,” said Aviv Bushinsky, a former Netanyahu adviser turned political analyst. “Maybe he thought after the election victory that he was stronger than him.”
Shalom Lipner, who worked under Netanyahu and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, said the prime minister decided to “ride the back of the tiger” by betting that he could control Ben-Gvir and Smotrich.
But the bottom line, he said, was that the far-right coalition, which had already fueled tensions with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and damaged relations with Israel’s neighbors, threatened Netanyahu’s legacy: stability, a booming economy and better relations with Arab countries. that the veteran prime minister had been courting for a long time.
Despite the turmoil and coalition tensions revealed in recent days, analysts say it is too early to write off the government, as neither Netanyahu nor his partners have a better alternative.
“The right-wing parties will hardly get another chance at 64 [seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament] in the near future. Netanyahu knows, they should know too,” said political consultant Roni Rimon, who managed the campaign that launched Netanyahu’s second term in 2009.
Plesner cautioned against underestimating Netanyahu, pointing out that the Likud leader is unlikely to face any challenges within his own ranks. ,” he said.
While Plesner was confident the justice reform bill was “dead in the scope and manner they want to pass,” if the main components are retained in a later push when parliament returns in May, the fight will begin again.
“This would mean not entering the internal peace of Israeli society, but a month and a half ceasefire.”