What’s Next for Netanyahu’s Judicial Overhaul?

After a protest surge and the delay of Netanyahu’s plan to gut the judiciary, +972 Magazine editor Edo Konrad discusses the prime minister’s likely next moves—and how the popular opposition relates to the fight for Palestinian freedom.

Alex Kane
March 28, 2023

Anti-Netanyahu protesters burn tires near Beit Yanai, Israel, as part of demonstrations against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plan on March 27th.

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

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On Monday night, as hundreds of thousands of opposition protesters rallied in the streets, and Israel’s largest trade union executed a general strike in response to a right-wing push to gut the power of the judiciary, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he would delay a pivotal Knesset vote on legislation key to the judicial overhaul. Instead of holding the planned vote this week, Netanyahu said he would engage in negotiations with the Israeli opposition to reach consensus on a judicial plan. At the same time, in order to keep his far-right coalition intact, Netanyahu struck a deal with Jewish Power party head and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir: In exchange for delaying the judicial overhaul, Netanyahu agreed to give Ben-Gvir the power to create a “national guard” under his control—a prospect that critics feared would empower extremists who target Palestinians and dissidents.

Netanyahu’s decision came after three days of dramatic developments. On Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, called for the government to halt the judicial overhaul because a growing number of Israeli reservists threatened to boycott army service if the plan went through, which Gallant said posed a “clear and immediate and tangible danger to the security of the state.” The next day, Netanyahu said he had decided to fire Gallant; spontaneous protests erupted, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting, blocking Tel Aviv’s major highway and lighting bonfires. (Gallant has not yet received an official notice of being dismissed, so his future is in limbo for now.)

To explore the consequences of these developments, Jewish Currents caught up with Edo Konrad, the editor-in-chief of +972 Magazine, an Israel/Palestine-based publication that has been closely following the protests. We discussed Netanyahu’s decision, the significance of the opposition demonstrations, and whether the protests could lead to a more radical change in Israeli society. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alex Kane: How do you understand Netanyahu’s decision to delay the vote on the first part of the judicial overhaul until the next Knesset session?

Edo Konrad: It’s a classic Netanyahu move. He always has another rabbit to pull out of his hat. There is an intense amount of anger and rage among many in the protest movement. But Netanyahu knew that he could get the Histadrut—the largest trade union, which declared the strike—to flip and stop the strike, and start to sap the institutional power out of the protest movement, which is in many ways grassroots, but also has the support of large corporations and the tech and finance sector. By saying that he’s postponing, he’s able to buy himself time. This is what Netanyahu has been doing for years, ever since he was indicted for corruption. He’s also offering Ben-Gvir his own private militia, which the police have already said they’re extremely concerned about. It’s unclear whether Ben-Gvir will get his militia, whether there will be enough money put toward it, and whether there will be enough people who sign up for it. But Netanyahu has persuaded Ben-Gvir, the final holdout in the coalition, to go along with this delay.

AK: Opposition protests have been going on since January, but Monday was particularly dramatic, with the Histradrut strike accompanying a massive wave of protests. Why do you think Netanyahu’s firing of Gallant touched such a nerve?

EK: Sunday night was even more unprecedented, because you had tens of thousands of people pouring into Ayalon Highway, the central highway that bisects Tel Aviv, and one of the busiest highways in Israel. I was there with the protesters, and you could see that the passion and the fury were very real.

What caused people to go out into the streets wasn’t necessarily intense feelings toward Gallant; people don’t see him as some kind of savior. He comes from the security establishment. He was the head of the Southern Command during Operation Cast Lead in 2008–2009, which killed over 1,400 Palestinians. A few weeks ago, he was just another member of the coalition, though perhaps a little bit more level-headed. He is not one of those people who wakes up every morning and says, “How am I going to get the judicial coup legislation passed?” For a lot of protesters, he was the last person standing between Netanyahu and the judicial overhaul. Gallant’s refusal to go along with it also led to Yuli Edelstein, another Likud member, saying that he wouldn’t go along with it. Netanyahu quickly said he’d fire Gallant to show his coalition who’s in charge—though Gallant hasn’t officially been fired yet, and Netanyahu is still potentially trying to find ways to keep him around, especially now that he has called for “compromise.”

For the protest movement, the announcement of Gallant’s firing was the straw that broke the camel’s back. These protests have been happening for a long time, but the spontaneity and anger and sense of hope were on display Sunday night. It really got totally out of Netanyahu’s control. Even in the eyes of his biggest detractors, the prime minister has always been seen as both cunning and rational. Now the feeling is that the person who is supposed to be in charge has completely lost it, and this is bringing people out.

AK: What is the chance that actual consensus on the judiciary plan between the opposition and Netanyahu will be achieved, considering that Netanyahu is relying on far-right partners who don’t want compromise?

EK: President Isaac Herzog—who recently proposed his own compromise plan to solve the impasse—has said the presidential residence is open for negotiations on judicial legislation; Yair Lapid, the head of the opposition, has said that he is going to enter discussions with the coalition, though he said he will make sure that he’s not being fooled. But I don’t think that much is going to come out of this—I don’t think the coalition has any good faith. I don’t think Netanyahu’s going to be able to give the opposition what it wants without completely unraveling his coalition. Yariv Levin and Simcha Rothman, the two guys who are behind much of this legislation, are 100% set on the judicial overhaul happening, because their interests are the interests of the far right. They want to maintain far-right minoritarian rule over the country in order to annex the West Bank, and in order to institute some kind of religious rule over Israeli daily life. So Netanyahu is delaying the inevitable; he’s biding time to cool off the protests. On Tuesday, one of the coalition’s most controversial bills—the one that would give the coalition almost complete control over the appointment of judges—was submitted to the Knesset, effectively creating a situation that would enable it to be brought for approval at any time in the future. In this way, the government will be negotiating with a loaded gun to the opposition’s head.

AK: Some anti-occupation groups are celebrating the protests, while some critics have expressed frustration with seeing so many Israelis flood the streets to protect “Israeli democracy” when, they argue, Israel has never been a democracy for all its citizens. Can these protests lead to more radical change? Is there potential for a reckoning with Israeli apartheid and how Palestinians have always been excluded from democracy?

EK: Many people are feeling awestruck and excited by what’s happening, which is completely understandable. The fact that this is happening in the first place, the speed at which it’s been organized, and the ferocity with which it’s been taking place—these are things that we just don’t see in Israeli society from the middle and upper-middle classes. This is not typical.

Yet the odds are stacked against the protesters making that leap into seeing Palestinians as humans who are part of this land and who should have equality, because Palestinians are seen as subhuman. These recent demonstrations show that the protesters, who represent a significant chunk of the Israeli public, have the capacity to effectively freeze the entire country in their demands for democracy. If they wanted to, they could have shut down the economy, refused to serve in the army, and demonstrated in the hundreds of thousands—the very same tactics they are employing now—in solidarity with Palestinians who have been denied their rights for 75 years. The fact that they haven’t done this is expected, given that Israeli “democracy” was built, from its very inception, at the expense of Palestinians. But it reveals just how little hope there is for a real democracy to sprout as a result of these protests. Part of the problem is that Israelis have a very limited conception of what democracy is. I’m happy to see that it’s broadening, but it feels like we’re very far away from even beginning to talk about dismantling the structures of apartheid and settler colonialism, which give Israeli Jews immense privileges and benefits.

That’s not to say that this moment of chaos is meaningless for the Palestinian struggle. There’s a bloc of left-wing Mizrahi feminist activists who are protesting for social justice and an end to the occupation. And while calls for equality aren’t necessarily the dominant theme among the protests, over the last two weeks they have become a far more central slogan for the more mainstream protesters—though there’s a question of what exactly they mean when they demand equality. There have also been calls for a constitution, which Israel does not have. But for the most part, these things are happening at the margins of the movement.

Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents.