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Israel Netanyahu buys time, but is still in a fix

March 28, 2023 at 8:30 pm

Hundreds of Israelis gather to protest against the Israeli government’s plan to introduce judicial changes, seen by the opposition as an attempt to reduce the powers of the judicial authority in favor of the executive authority in Tel Aviv, Israel on March 27, 2023 [Nir Keidar / Anadolu Agency]

Benjamin Netanyahu has delayed a reckoning over judicial reforms that plunged Israel into turmoil, but he remains caught between hard-right allies whose support he needs to stay on as Prime Minister and a tidal wave of opposition to their plans, Reuters reports.

On Monday, he bowed to mass protests, strikes and pleas from political leaders and foreign allies to postpone the signature policy of his nationalist-religious coalition: a law tightening government power over the judiciary.

But there is no sign either side is ready to back down when Parliament meets again next month, or that the 73-year-old Likud party leader can find a compromise that would keep him in power without tearing Israeli society further apart.

“Netanyahu is stuck,” said his unofficial biographer, Anshel Pfeffer. “He’s up against a level of opposition and protests that he never envisaged.”

It shows the dilemma facing Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, who managed a come-back last year, brushing aside an ongoing corruption scandal and the political obituaries written after his last coalition collapsed in 2020.

Announcing the delay of the judicial law on television, Netanyahu cited the wisdom of Solomon to say he would extend a hand for dialogue. “I am unwilling to cut the nation in two … we are not facing enemies but our brothers,” he said.

READ: Israel fired Defence Chief hangs on as Netanyahu hits pause

Yet, despite pushing a policy that polls show to be broadly unpopular, he then derided his opponents as an extremist minority who are “stoking civil war”.

Such fiery language does not only show the high stakes facing a Prime Minister hoping to extend his 15 years of power spread across six coalitions since the 1990s.

It also points to the problems facing Israel amid a new security crisis in the West Bank and with a coalition that has prompted alarm among old allies after coming to power in the fifth general election in less than four years.

With polls showing his coalition would lose any new election, Netanyahu can, meanwhile, count on little goodwill from old foes and former allies still sore from previous encounters.

“We’ve got bad experience from the past and so first we’ll make sure there’s no tricks or bluffing here,” opposition leader, Yair Lapid, a former coalition partner of Netanyahu, said of his legislative delay on Monday.

Limited options 

A former member of an elite special forces unit whose elder brother, Yoni, was killed, leading the 1976 Entebbe rescue of hijacked air passengers, Netanyahu has shown little interest in the decades-old vision of Palestinian statehood beside Israel.

US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian negotiations stalled in 2014 under his watch, and there is no prospect for now of resumption.

A security hawk, Netanyahu counts on appealing to the gut instincts of his voter base in gritty towns and settlements far from the bright lights of fashionable Tel Aviv.

But his options are limited. He must choose between trying to buy more time to get intractable coalition partners to back down, bulldozing the opposition with his parliamentary majority or persuading some of its wary leaders to replace his partners in a new government, Pfeffer said.

To complicate matters further, he is, himself, fighting corruption charges alleging he unlawfully received gifts and granted regulatory favours in return for positive news coverage.

Netanyahu describes the cases as politically motivated, denies wrongdoing and says they are not linked to his judicial reforms.

Unlike in his previous coalitions, he is not able to triangulate between factions to his left and right. Instead, the man seen as a scourge of liberal opinion for more than two decades is now on the left wing of his own government.

His coalition partners include hard-right supporters of Jewish settlers, who have dismayed Israel’s foreign allies with harsh statements about Palestinians.

In courting their support, Netanyahu has given them top cabinet jobs responsible for finance and policing, and has promised to create a National Guard unit that critics fear will become a right-wing militia.

But, as the way forward becomes increasingly difficult, he may now have little left to promise them.

READ: Israel government in chaos as judicial reform plans draw mass protests