With hundreds of thousands of protesters on the street and a general strike in motion, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu pulled back from the brink on Monday, ordering a temporary halt to his right-wing government’s controversial plans to shift power away from the judiciary.
In doing so he prevented the country from descending further into chaos and bought precious time: four months to be exact.
Representatives from Netanyahu’s coalition will now sit down with negotiating teams from the opposition in an effort to forge a compromise, in a dialogue facilitated by president Yitzhak Herzog. The task will not be easy. To say there is bad blood between the sides is an understatement. Some opposition parties are refusing to even join the dialogue, arguing that any engagement with Netanyahu is a waste of time.
Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman warned that Netanyahu has no intention of holding any dialogue in earnest. Rather he wants to break up the protest movement and to blame the opposition for the failure to reach a compromise.
Labour party leader Merav Michaeli said the struggle against the constitutional coup and the protests must intensify, and she urged demonstrators not to fall for Netanyahu’s “tricks”.
The initial meeting was scheduled for Tuesday night but reaching an agreement will take all the diplomatic and legal skills the veteran politician and former lawyer Herzog can muster.
Any compromises Netanyahu makes will have to be endorsed by his own Likud party Knesset members and his right-wing and religious party coalition partners. All of them believe that shifting the balance of power from the judiciary to the Knesset (which is controlled by Netanyahu) is the key to all the other radical legislation they want to pass.
The coalition parties view the judiciary as a non-elected and self-perpetuating bastion of left-wing elites. The far-right parties see the supreme court as an obstacle to their West Bank settlement enterprise: the religious parties fear the courts will block moves to exempt the ultra-Orthodox from the compulsory military draft and a host of other measures, such as enforcing Sabbath restrictions.
Netanyahu has a majority of 64 in the 120-member Knesset parliament. The coalition will lose its majority if any one party quits. On Monday, before announcing a freeze on the judicial overhaul, Netanyahu spent the whole day in talks to prevent Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) party, from resigning in protest.
After weeks of chaos and hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters on the streets, the latest polls paint a gloomy picture for Netanyahu. For the first time since the November election the polls point to a majority for the opposition parties (without the radical Arab Hadash-Ta’al party). And for the first time the polls show the public favour another politician over Netanyahu for prime minister – former defence minister Benny Gantz, the leader of the centrist National Union.
This leaves Netanyahu with very little room in the dialogue over the judicial reform: he cannot risk the stability of his coalition and new elections: he has become the prisoner of his extremist coalition partners.
Even if he genuinely seeks a compromise (and many would doubt this) he cannot make significant concessions. The cosmetic changes he is likely to offer will fall well short of the minimum the opposition, boosted by the biggest protest movement in Israel’s recent history, can accept. In all likelihood Israel will be back to square one in a few months’ time.