To watch Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of late has been to watch a game of escalating recklessness played out on a national scale. Desperate to extricate himself from his corruption trial, he has formed an unprecedentedly hardline coalition, which on one hand has given power to bigots and extremists long confined to Israel’s fringe and on the other is pushing radical judicial reforms that risk tearing the country apart—both socially and democratically.
Erstwhile known in Israel for his cautious governance, Netanyahu has unleashed a judicial reform package so far-reaching, with his coalition pushing it through at breakneck speed, that it has sparked accusations of a “judicial coup” and mass nationwide protests. A raft of catastrophic warnings from myriad corners of Israeli society have simultaneously flooded in, ranging from senior military and security officials, to leading economists, to Israel’s historically apolitical president, who last week decried the reforms as “oppressive.”
But despite the external impression that the Jewish state is teetering on the edge of disaster, Netanyahu appears to be softening his stance on the proposed judicial reforms at the heart of the unrest—to not only be more palatable to the Israeli mainstream but to, in fact, strengthen Israel’s democracy.
There is clear consensus support in Israel for judicial reform. Israelis know the courts are too powerful and that long-overdue, constructive changes to the system would enhance Israel’s democratic status. Indeed, a recent poll from the Jewish People Policy Institute found that only 16 percent of Israelis oppose the idea of judicial reforms. The uproar in Israel is not born out of opposition to reforms per se, but rather a combination of widespread distrust of Netanyahu’s coalition, and the proposed reforms’ radical nature, which as they stand would essentially neuter Israel’s Supreme Court.
Netanyahu understands this, and after being caught off guard by “the vehemence of the resistance [and] the vehemence of the anger” at the reforms, as The Times of Israel’s Haviv Rettig Gur put it, he is now trying to drag his coalition back from the edge.
The signs have been there for weeks. On Feb. 15, Israeli media reported that Netanyahu had sought to water down the reforms, at which Justice Minister Yariv Levin—who, alongside MK Simcha Rothman, is the reforms’ key proponent—threatened to resign and topple the coalition. One week later, in a social media post, Netanyahu declared: “Citizens of Israel, it’s time to talk,” while also emphasizing the need “to reach agreements or at least reduce the disagreements between us.”
Then again, on March 3, reports emerged that the prime minister had abandoned a plan to announce a temporary halt to the reforms after Levin again threatened to quit “if the legislation was paused for so much as a day,” according to The Times of Israel. On March 13, in a transparent call for dampening the reforms, he tweeted a Wall Street Journal editorial on the issue. “The right may have to compromise. The left may have to calm down,” the subheading read.
Bibi, it seems, has begun to confront this mess that he brought upon himself and is desperately trying to fix it before it’s too late.
He “shot himself in both legs,” says veteran Israeli commentator Ehud Yaari, and is “limping as fast as he can towards a compromise.” He’s even called in the reserves. In yet another signal of his desire to block legislation that would damage Israel’s democracy, Netanyahu has reportedly tasked long-time confidant and former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer with solving the crisis.
While much of his party has remained publicly silent over their alleged concerns, Netanyahu is not alone in attempting to bridge the divide. Earlier this month, senior Likud MKs Yuli Edelstein and Danny Danon signed an open letter calling for dialogue and a negotiated compromise. On Tuesday, the Kohelet Policy Forum, which was instrumental in formulating the current legislation, publicly called for compromise in order to reach a “broad consensus,” and suggested that the “override clause”—widely viewed as the most dangerous of the reforms—could be scrapped altogether.
Even Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich—who is not exactly known for political moderation—predicted on Tuesday that the legislation will be softened to something acceptable to Israel’s “mainstream.”
None of this is a given, of course. Not only is there immense pushback against compromise from coalition figures such as Levin, but, as Rettig Gur explains, “Every single party in the coalition actually has a different aspect of this reform that it cannot let go of.” Even if most coalition members are willing to alter the legislation, opposition from just one party in Netanyahu’s fractious government could bring it all crashing down.
Such internal pressure, according to Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer, is exactly why Netanyahu rejected President Isaac Herzog’s long awaited proposal which aimed to serve as a foundation for widely accepted judicial reforms. “Netanyahu himself, frantic to defuse this crisis which is sapping his government of public support and endangering the Israeli economy, would have taken it,” Pfeffer writes. “But not his cabinet colleagues and coalition partners.”
There are no shortcuts in the path ahead for Israel’s longest-serving premier. A public discussion about the power imbalance between the courts and government was long overdue, and rather than approach it in a responsible manner, Netanyahu let his coalition partners exploit a genuine issue to push an agenda that threatens Israel’s very democratic and social fiber. But he’s now desperately working to find his way back. If he succeeds, he may well help pass “a reform that would leave Israel not just not weaker and less democratic,” Rettig Gur says, “but actually by reaching a middle ground would leave it stronger and more democratic than before.”
Now that would be one hell of a coup.