The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Netanyahu has defused a crisis. Now he should seek middle ground.

Demonstrators protest plans by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. (Oded Balilty/AP)
3 min

Ceding to months of escalating pressure from both Israel’s domestic opposition and its international friends — including the Biden administration — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frozen parliamentary consideration of his ill-considered and polarizing overhaul of Israel’s judicial system for a month to allow time for negotiations. Almost as remarkable as Mr. Netanyahu’s about-face was the reason he gave when he announced it on Monday. “When there is a possibility to prevent a civil war through negotiations,” he said, “I will give a timeout for negotiations.”

Indeed, Israel seemed at the brink of a violent internal collision in recent days, as bitter divisions penetrated even elite reservist units of the Israel Defense Forces. When Mr. Netanyahu’s defense minister, citing that growing danger, urged the prime minister to pause the legislation on Saturday night, Mr. Netanyahu fired him, triggering more protests in the streets, a general strike and, eventually, Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to do what the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, had recommended.

Mr. Netanyahu’s course correction is a welcome development, albeit of the “better late than never” variety. His new conciliatory posture elides his own responsibility for launching the judicial overhaul — a pet project of ultraright parties upon whom his prime ministership depends — in the first place. Still, his opponents should engage, as the leaders of the two largest opposition parties in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament— Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz — have said they will do.

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Whether they can actually hammer out an acceptable compromise is another question. Superficially, the issues Israel faces are technical, related to the composition, jurisdiction and role of its Supreme Court, in a system that has no written constitution or other formal checks and balances on a parliamentary majority. What makes Mr. Netanyahu’s proposal so explosive, however, is that it would have limited the power of a court that many of Israel’s secular Jews and Arab citizens see as a bulwark against demographically and politically ascendant ultrareligious and nationalist segments of their society. They fear for their individual rights in a country where far-right parties such as those that helped form Mr. Netanyahu’s government would enjoy untrammeled power over daily life. Given the religious right’s equally firm belief that the court, dominated by secular Jews, has repeatedly ruled against it based on the court’s own policy preferences, it’s not clear how consensus can be formed — especially given the clout the religious right still has in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition.

What Israel really needs is a written constitution. That is a bridge too far, practically speaking, in the current moment. The more Israelis focus on actual nuts-and-bolts issues over which there is room for reasonable disagreement, however — such as how to select members of the court — the better their chances of easing this crisis. Even before he paused the measure, Mr. Netanyahu asserted it would not allow “a small Knesset majority” to override the court’s rulings, as one of its more contentious provisions had appeared to provide. On Monday, he promised a “broad consensus” and a “strengthening” of individual rights. The Israeli opposition has forced Mr. Netanyahu to make these pledges; now, it must hold him to them.

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