Protestors in Jerusalem (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

March 29, 2023   5 mins

When the newly appointed Justice Minister of the Netanyahu government, Yariv Levin, presented his strategy for “legal reform” six days after taking office, he looked unstoppable. The plan had been well-prepared, even years in the making.

Its first tranche alone would, among other things, prevent the Supreme Court from disqualifying laws it deemed unconstitutional, replace the legal counsels of government ministries with political hires loyal to their ministers, and give the coalition control over the appointments of future judges. In other words, in the absence of a written constitution and upper house of parliament, Israel would be left without any effective checks and balances on the government’s power. And this was just the first tranche.

From the start, Levin had the full backing of newly-elected Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who having spent 18 months in unaccustomed opposition, and facing a corruption case of his own, was back in power with a vengeance. No less important, the four parties of the new coalition, hard-Right and ultra-religious, shared Levin’s animosity towards the independent Supreme Court they viewed as a “progressive judicial dictatorship”. While they had a small but stable majority in the Knesset, the opposition was badly divided and wouldn’t put up much of a fight. Levin predicted he would pass the legislation by the end of the winter session.

Three months later, none of that has passed. The Knesset is about to go into its Passover recess and just one law out of Levin’s programme has emerged from the law committee, controlled by another staunch opponent of the Supreme Court. The Judicial Appointments Law is ready for its final readings, but it has been “suspended”.

On Monday night, Netanyahu announced a “pause” in the legislation, claiming that he was “not prepared to tear the nation”. He took his time, waiting almost until the last moment. But his reluctance is unsurprising: Netanyahu had just spent his first three months in office focusing nearly all his efforts on a policy that is unlikely to be passed into law any time soon. It was blocked by a protest movement that sprung up, nearly from nothing, and launched a campaign, revolutionary in nature but totally bloodless, that stopped his government in its tracks.

The first weekend of protests was not promising. They were organised on a Saturday night in Tel Aviv by a disparate group of Left-wing movements who focused on solidarity with the Palestinians, the first obvious victims of the nationalist government, and anti-corruption organisations who had led the protests against Netanyahu during his previous term. They couldn’t agree on a joint platform and the protests ended up splitting.

“It was clear that we couldn’t let either group lead the movement,” says one of the members of what became a coordinating committee of over 50 protest organisations. “There was no way that ordinary Israelis would join a rally where they were waving Palestinian flags, and the anti-corruption types are also seen by many as being obsessive cranks, with good reason.” A new set of organisers, military veterans and business leaders, took over.

“We realised that it wouldn’t be a good idea to start trying to take anyone’s flags away so the best answer was simply to flood the area with Israeli flags,” says Dan Halutz, a former chief of staff of the Israeli army. “We set up a flag factory overnight, and began bringing thousands of flags to every rally.”

“We got the message, though we didn’t like it,” says one veteran Left-wing organiser. “We sacrificed our own agenda so the middle-class would come.” Their compromise was to stand at one side of the rallies in “a bloc against occupation”, with signs, but no flags. The next weekend, 60,000 people turned up in Tel Aviv, despite the pouring rain, while other smaller rallies were held in cities across Israel. The numbers continued to grow.

But bringing people out onto the streets was only part of the campaign. The real pressure came not from the numbers but the way specific Israeli communities became political players. The first crucial addition to the protests was the tech sector — from the CEOs and investors who threatened to move operations abroad to the thousands of employees who not only went on marches, but built online networks and apps for coordinating impromptu protests outside the homes and events of cabinet ministers.

“I’ve been trying to get support from the tech people for years,” said a veteran Israeli activist. “They just weren’t into politics. Now, I have CEOs coming to me and donating money and resources for whatever we need, because they say they won’t be able to keep their businesses here if we fail.”

The next crucial group to mobilise for the protest were the reservists. Thousands of officers and pilots and intelligence analysts, who are on constant call for their military units, and are often their backbone, signed petitions stating that they would refuse “to serve a dictatorship”. This particular protest not only confirmed the “patriotic” nature of the movement, but rattled the security chiefs, who in turn warned Netanyahu of the implications. At this point, around a month ago, Netanyahu wavered, but Levin and other coalition leaders threatened to resign, and he refused to fold.

In the end, it was Defence Minister Yoav Gallant who broke ranks, saying that he wouldn’t vote for laws that were causing a risk to Israel’s national security. Netanyahu summarily fired him on Sunday night, immediately triggering a furious wave of more protests that very night, as well as a general strike, agreed upon by both the trade unions and employers, the next morning. By evening, he capitulated.

In theory, Netanyahu can still bring the Judicial Appointments Law, and the rest of the legislation, to vote in the next Knesset next month. But he is unlikely to want to risk bringing Israel back to the brink of chaos, risking its economy, security and international standing, just to fail once again. The protest movement doesn’t trust him and has no intention of disbanding while he remains in power.

It is a startling reversal of fortune which leaves Netanyahu’s party, Likud, plummeting in the polls, his image as a political winner tarnished, and his authority over his government greatly diminished. He has promised his coalition that this is just a temporary, tactical retreat, and that they will regroup to pass an essentially similar reform when the Knesset begins its summer session. He has also promised the Israeli people that he will hold a “true dialogue” with the opposition to reach “broad agreement” on the future constitutional changes. He can’t achieve both.

If he fails to bring the Supreme Court under government control, he will almost certainly lose his majority as key elements of the coalition rebel. If the reform isn’t acceptable to the opposition, the protests will resume, invigorated by their success in facing him down the first time around. Whatever happens, he has manoeuvred himself into a position where he has no good options.

Worst of all for Netanyahu, he has left some of his most faithful followers wondering whether, at 73, he has finally lost his touch, his uncanny feel for the Israeli public’s pulse. According to one poll this week, 53% of those who voted Likud in the last election said he was doing a bad job as prime minister.

Today, his only course of action is to play for time: to try and string out the constitutional negotiations being held under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog in the hope that his coalition partners eventually tire of the issue and other events divert their attention. Meanwhile, he will try to buy them off with vague promises, such as the one he gave far-Right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir — that he could form in his ministry a new “national guard”, effectively his own private militia.

But even this can’t mask the truth: Netanyahu is now weaker than he has ever been over the course of the 15 years he has served as prime minister. A prisoner, in office, of his radical coalition, beaten by a protest movement which has yet to say the final word.

Anshel Pfeffer is a senior correspondent for Haaretz and Israel correspondent for The Economist. He is the author of Bibi
The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.