Discover more from Diplomatic, by Laura Rozen
U.S. welcomes pause in Israel judicial overhaul spurring massive protests
But diplomats and analysts see it only as a temporary truce. “Netanyahu announced a truce tonight,” Israeli columnist Chemi Shalev said. “The fighting will most likely resume on April 30.”
The United States welcomed a pause in passing controversial legislation to overhaul Israel’s judiciary announced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, following massive demonstrations and strikes that partly shut down the country and sparked concern for its internal stability.
Protests that have convulsed Israel since January escalated overnight following Netanyahu’s firing of the Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday, after Gallant urged the controversial legislation be paused because opposition to it particularly within the Israeli Defense Forces was so intense that it posed a threat to Israel’s security.
“We welcome this announcement as an opportunity to create additional time and space for compromise,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told journalists at the department press briefing Monday (March 27). “And compromise is precisely what we have been calling for, and we continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible.”“Fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest base of popular support,” Patel said.
Warning of a potential civil war, Netanyahu said he would call for a pause in rushing through the legislation until the next Knesset session starts at the end of April. In the meantime, he offered to have a dialogue on the issue with opposition politicians to try to get wider consensus for the legislative proposals, which critics say threaten to turn Israel into an illiberal democracy.
“When there is a possibility of preventing a civil war through dialogue, I, as the prime minister, take a time out for dialogue,” Netanyahu said in a remarks Monday.
“We’re not going to give up” on the judicial overhaul, Netanyahu told his supporters. But “we will make an attempt to achieve a wide agreement, as citizens of Israel.”
Several Israeli analysts and diplomats said the pause defers, but does not solve convulsive Israeli divisions over the proposals.
“I think it gives everyone a chance to exhale,” former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro told NPR.
“It's been…a fever pitch of tension of protests,” Shapiro, now with the Atlantic Council, said. “So the announcement that that legislation is now being postponed, at least gives time to breathe.”
But the pause “doesn't necessarily solve the crisis,” Shapiro said. Netanyahu “still has pressure from members of his coalition, who badly want to see… the court significantly weakened. And they are parties that he depends on to stay in power and to maintain his coalition.”
So “it may be that the same crisis Israel has been through returns over the summer,” Shapiro said.
Longtime Israeli columnist Chemi Shalev offered a similar assessment.
“In terms of war, Netanyahu announced a truce tonight,” Shalev, with Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote on Twitter. “He did this when his back was against the wall… following his delusional decision to fire Gallant.”
“If there are no unexpected developments…the fighting will most likely resume on April 30, with the opening of the [Knesset] summer session, because the chance that anything will come out of the ‘negotiations’ tends, in my humble opinion, to zero,” he wrote.
Former Israeli deputy national security advisor Chuck Freilich marveled that a militarily and economically powerful country and vibrant democracy like Israel could be reduced in the space of only a few months to such upheaval and divisions, that some Israelis have expressed concern about the potential for civil war.
“Three months ago, Israel’s economy was booming,” Freilich wrote in the Jerusalem Post March 26. “Israel was a vibrant democracy and viewed its approaching 75th anniversary with optimism.”
“Israel is now convulsed by self-inflicted divisions that are wracking its society and economy, undermining its democracy and threatening the pillars of its national security,” Freilich wrote. “Reservists from Israel’s most hallowed military units are in a state of near rebellion and what starts in the reserves will rapidly spill over into the regular army.”
“Israel is on the verge of coming apart,” he said.
Israeli Defense Minister Gallant, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, called on Saturday for a pause in the judicial overhaul legislation, saying why he himself supported the proposed changes, domestic controversy over them within the ranks of Israel’s military and reserves threatened Israel’s security.
“The deepening split is seeping into the military and security agencies,” Israeli Defense Minister Gallant said in brief, televised remarks on Saturday. “This is a clear, immediate and real danger to Israel’s security. I will not facilitate this.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office, in response, announced on Sunday that Gallant was fired, sparking massive, spontaneous protests that went on overnight, as well as a general strike on Monday that shut down many flights from Israel’s Ben Gurion airport, closed Israeli universities, some Israeli embassies, and even McDonalds.
After Netanyahu announced a pause in the legislation Monday, the Israeli Defense Ministry issued a statement saying Gallant welcomed the decision. The Times of Israel’s military correspondent Emanuel Fabian reported that Gallant had not yet received an official letter notifying him of his dismissal and was still in place, although it was not clear for how long.
Michigan Democratic congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, who previously served in the Pentagon, White House and CIA, expressed alarm Sunday at Gallant’s firing for offering his professional security assessment.
“Watching the dramatic events unfolding in Israel tonight. The state’s focus on security can’t be overstated, so for senior defense officials & military personnel to be fired or refuse to serve is unprecedented,” Slotkin wrote on Twitter.
“I urge Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, to listen to the overwhelming public opposition to these planned changes,” Slotkin urged. “Continuing on the current track is unsustainable, as the events of this weekend have made clear.”
Several major Jewish American groups welcomed the suspension of the legislation on Monday, and urged the parties to use the time to build consensus.
“The last three months have been painful to watch and yet a textbook case of democracy in action,” the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America said in a joint statement. “As a next step, we encourage all Knesset faction, coalition and opposition alike, to use this time to build a consensus that includes the broad support of Israeli civil society.”
But the president of left-leaning J Street said both the U.S. administration and American Jewish groups should be supporting the Israelis demonstrating to preserve Israeli democracy, not urging some halfway compromise.
“There are moments of history when one is on the right side of history, or the wrong side of history, and there is not a Solomonic compromise,” Jeremy Ben-Ami said on a J Street Zoom call on Monday. “One side in this debate has put forward a series of proposals that would eliminate the core structures of Israeli democracy. The other side…are defending Israeli democracy.”
“Going to the 50 yard line and having half a democracy is not a good thing,” Ben-Ami said. “You can’t go half way…You don’t compromise over constitutional rights.”
“All that Netanyahu has done is kick the can down the road for a few weeks,” Ben Ami said. “Let’s not have any illusions.”
Diplomatic is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.