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Netanyahu Is Beholden to the Israeli Far-Right on the Judicial Overhaul Plan

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suspended but not abandoned a plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary following mass protests. Netanyahu agreed to delay the proposal, which appeases far-right parties, only after his controversial national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir signed off on it.

Ben-Gvir, a far-right extremist with a record of anti-Arab rhetoric, was long considered an outcast in Israeli politics but was pivotal in Netanyahu’s return to power last November. A coalition of far-right parties, including Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power Party, gave Netanyahu what proved to be the decisive margin. Now, Netanyahu can’t back away from the proposed judicial reforms entirely without risking Ben-Gvir’s critical political support. “If Netanyahu loses Ben-Gvir, he loses his government and he has to pacify him,” says Tomer Persico, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a Rubinstein Fellow at Reichman University in Israel. “He is the most volatile, unpredictable and extreme element of Netanyahu’s coalition, so he’s the loose cannon that has to be reckoned with.”

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Netanyahu announced Monday that he had agreed with Ben-Gvir that the judicial reform, which would weaken Israel’s Supreme Court, would be passed by the end of the Knesset’s summer session. Ben-Gvir gave up very little in that negotiation, notes Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College: “It’s like kicking the can down the road,” Magid says.

Netanyahu also agreed to create a new security force to report to Ben-Gvir, which some experts worry could be used against protesters the next time the judicial overhaul will be up for a vote in the Knesset. “It’s unbelievable, you’re basically giving a minister, a right-wing radical minister, the right to establish his own national guard that can be used to police protests under his authority,” says Magid.

Tens of thousands of Israelis protested outside the parliament Monday, decrying the proposal to severely weaken Israel’s legal branch as antidemocratic. Flights at the main international airport were grounded, workers launched a nationwide strike and so many military reservists vowed to strike over the plan that the Defense Minister called for it to be withdrawn; Netanyahu dismissed him.

Read More: Israelis Are Taking to the Streets Because Our House Is on Fire

The proposed law would give parliament the ability to override the Supreme Court’s decisions. “This reform would have collapsed the separation of powers in Israel,” Perisco says. In Israel’s system, the only check on the power of the legislature, which is ruled by the coalition, is the Supreme Court, notes Natan Sachs, Director of the Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy.

The bill could pave the way for more extreme legal changes, such as outlawing Arab parties, a plan the far-right in Israel has previously proposed. Even if the Supreme Court rules such a change is illegal, a simple majority in parliament could override that decision, says Shibley Telhami, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. The judicial overhaul would also personally benefit Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption in three cases.

That Ben-Gvir and the far-right are now calling the political shots is in part due to a rightward shift for young Israelis, Telhami says. “It isn’t just that these guys are outliers; it’s that they now have a reservoir of public support.” He points to a 2016 Pew Poll in Israel that found almost half of Israeli Jews supported expelling Arabs from Israel. (Some 20 percent of Israelis are Palestinian.)

Israel’s far-right parties have greatly benefited from having Netanyahu in power. “They have never had so much power… you can’t imagine that they will just dump him because they would lose all influence,” Telhami says. As well as national security, another right-wing extremist, Betzalel Smotrich, controls the finance ministry.

For Magid, these protests have gone beyond judicial reform and democracy. They’re also about the nature of Zionism—the belief in a Jewish state—and national identity. The protests have exposed deep fault lines between Israel’s secular and hardline religious population. “It has been brewing under the surface of Israel for decades,” Magid says. Many secular and centrist Israelis “fear that settlers are stealing the country.”

Israel’s occupation of Occupied Palestinian Territories, which international human rights groups have termed as apartheid, or Israel’s treatment of its own Palestinian citizens, have barely featured in the protests. Telhami says it’s unlikely, but possible, that the protests might provide an opportunity for introspection “Will that get them to empathize with the fact that the Palestinians have been under a military rule for more than a half a century with no end in sight?… Will that inspire Israelis to start empathizing with them and demanding, not just freedom for themselves and democracy for themselves, but also democracy and freedom for the Palestinians?”

There’s no indication of that for now, he adds.

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