Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday halted his attempt to weaken Israeli courts and boost his own power after public protests swelled to include strikes by thousands of government workers.
Netanyahu said he would engage in “honest talks” over his judicial plans ― but also indicated a hard line in any negotiation by accusing his critics of representing an “extreme minority that is ready to tear the country to pieces and ignite a civil war.”
Earlier in the day, Israeli officials in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, New Delhi, Rome and Lisbon closed their embassies in accordance with a strike call from Israel’s biggest labor union, the Histadrut. Their decision reflected how alarmed many Israelis have become about the direction of their country. Israeli diplomats are some of their nation’s staunchest defenders, championing controversial policies like Israel’s crackdowns on Palestinians and its settlements in the occupied West Bank. But many influential Israelis came to believe Netanyahu’s plan will undermine their national security by hurting Israeli unity and permitting far-right policies that could destabilize the country.
Yoav Gallant, a senior member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, warned on Saturday that public uproar was splintering the ranks of Israel’s military. “For the sake of Israel’s security, for the sake of our sons and daughters, the legislative process must be stopped at this time,” Gallant said.
In response, Netanyahu fired Gallant as defense minister — demonstrating his commitment to the power grab and sparking fresh outrage that culminated in the Histadrut’s decision to go on strike.
More Israeli officials became outspoken over the weekend. “Sending love to friends, family and colleagues in Israel this evening,” Yiftah Curiel, Israel’s ambassador to Guatemala and El Salvador, tweeted on Sunday, above a video of street protests. “Israeli democracy will prevail.”
Along with the embassy closures on Monday, local governments in Israel shut down services, Israel’s main doctors union said its members would not be working and multiple private companies gave workers paid leave to join the general strike.
In capitals where Netanyahu’s speech came during regular working hours, Israeli embassies reopened after the news of his pause, Israeli Embassy in Washington spokesman Elad Strohmayer told HuffPost.
Netanyahu regained Israel’s top job in December 2022 by forming a coalition government with several hard-right parties. Their alliance argues that Israel’s judiciary has a liberal bias and excessive power. Their proposed changes would allow Israel’s Parliament to appoint judges, overturn Supreme Court decisions and resist judicial oversight of laws.
Yet independent analysts and opposition politicians noted that the judicial overhaul could personally benefit Netanyahu and some of his allies who face criminal charges by allowing them to empower friendly judges. And many Israelis worry that the changes would allow dramatic upheaval in how their society operates, for instance by letting ulta-Orthodox politicians institute hardline religious policies like limits on work on the Sabbath or by further diminishing the rights of Palestinians living in Israel or the West Bank.
Israeli businesses, notably the country’s influential tech sector, also questioned the changes and said they might hurt the nation’s economy. “Everything that diminishes Israel as a democracy is going to have a negative impact on companies ... on our ability to do business here, and on our ability to do business globally,” Talmon Marco, an entrepreneur who leads a hydrogen fuel startup called H2Pro, told HuffPost earlier this year.
Israel’s foreign partners have repeatedly urged scrutiny of Netanyahu’s proposed changes.
“We urge you to use all diplomatic tools available to prevent Israel’s current government from further damaging the nation’s democratic institutions and undermining the potential for two states for two peoples,” 92 House Democrats wrote in a March 8 letter to President Joe Biden. “The proposals … would jeopardize Israeli democracy, which in turn would undermine the very foundation of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Stripping the judiciary of its check on the governing coalition would empower far-right lawmakers seeking to entrench settlement of the West Bank and advance a pro-annexation agenda, undermining the prospects for a two-state solution and threatening Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state.”
“As Israel has seen massive and sustained protests against the plans, it is crucial that the Israeli government live up to the democratic ideals on which it was founded and avoid a constitutional crisis,” continued the group of lawmakers.
The Biden administration is closely monitoring the situation in Israel, White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters in a Monday press conference.
“We remain deeply concerned by recent developments which further underscore in our view the urgent need for compromise,” Kirby said. He declined to say whether Netanyahu will still address a Summit for Democracy meeting that Biden plans to host later this week.
Despite the pause, Netanyahu’s government is extremely unlikely to fully abandon its effort, which represents a rare opportunity for historically fringe politicians who are now in power.
News of the halt first came from national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir — a far-right settler who has been convicted for supporting a Jewish terror group and was long isolated before Netanyahu gave him his current powerful post.
“We must not give in to anarchy,” Ben-Gvir recently said of the protests.
As part of the agreement to pause the judicial changes, Netanyahu agreed to establish a new national guard force under Ben-Gvir’s leadership, the minister claimed. Such a policy would likely provoke additional anger among the thousands of protesters.
Netanyahu repeatedly summoned his own right-wing demonstrators to the streets on Monday to defend his proposal, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported. A poster circulated digitally by his party echoed narratives by fellow far-right leaders globally: “Emergency ― going up to Jerusalem! They won’t steal our elections!”