Bibi Blinked: Can Netanyahu Survive After Backing Down On Judicial Putsch?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu has backed down in the 11th hour on his plans to push forward on a major judicial reform bill that had sparked massive protests.
Benjamin Netanyahu played the sorcerer's apprentice and lost. By announcing Monday night the suspension of his judicial reform, which has deeply divided Israeli society and brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the nation's streets, he signed his defeat.
One thing we know about the Israeli prime minister is that he has not said his last word: the reform is only suspended, not withdrawn. He promised a "real dialogue" after the Passover holiday.
Netanyahu is not one to back down easily: he had clearly gone too far, first by allying himself with extreme right-wing forces from the fringes of the political spectrum; but above all by wanting to change the balance on which the Jewish State had lived since its foundation in 1948. His plans threatened to change the nature of the state in a patently "illiberal" direction.
This prime minister, who holds Israel's record for longevity in power, had not anticipated the unprecedented mobilization of secular, liberal, productive Israel. This "other Israel" has been demonstrating for 12 weeks against the prime minister's project, and has not let go.
The fatal mistake of the prime minister was Sunday evening's dismissal of his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who had dared to ask for the "freezing" of the judicial reform bill. To use the expression of the daily newspaper Haaretz, "he opened the Pandora's box of Israeli public anger and rage."
Netanyahu overestimated his strength
Tens of thousands of people spontaneously took to the streets, in front of the parliament and the prime minister's residence, until late at night; followed on Monday by a general strike.
Netanyahu overestimated his strength after this autumn's victory in the fifth legislative elections in four years. And he underestimated the reaction of a good part of the population who had certainly turned away from sterile political games in recent years; but who perceived that there was something fundamental in this reform, risking to forever change the face of Israel. It had become untenable.
People wave Israeli flags during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned overhaul of the legal system in March 2023.
Coalition in crisis
Can Netanyahu still pass his reform? It seems difficult after such a setback. If he reads the polls, Netanyahu will also realize that his coalition would lose its majority if elections were held today, and his political credibility is largely damaged.
He will first have to manage the aftermath of this debacle. Monday night, incidents pitted furious far-right protesters against opponents. This extremist fringe, which relies on the pool of settlers in the West Bank, had thought its time had come — and is now left disappointed.
The coalition itself has teetered. Far-right leaders had threatened to resign if the reform was suspended, before negotiating to stay.
Returning to power was supposed to prevent Netanyahu from answering charges of corruption before the courts; but the price to pay was the most right-wing coalition in Israel. In doing so, he triggered what may be the most serious domestic political crisis the Jewish State has ever known. It is an explosive situation. "Bibi, king of Israel," his supporters used to sing, invoking his nickname: the "King" has lost his grip.
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