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After Netanyahu’s judicial retreat, Israelis regroup for next round

By Shira Rubin and Steve Hendrix Washington Post

TEL AVIV - When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a temporary suspension of his government’s contentious judicial overhaul Monday, many Israelis breathed a sigh of relief. But few believe that the crisis is over.

As the government and opposition prepare to enter negotiations over the most controversial elements of the changes, such as giving Knesset members more power to pick Supreme Court judges, both sides are already bracing for failure - and preparing for round two of the fight. Israel’s long-standing social schisms - between religious conservatives and secular liberals, ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students and military reservists, West Bank settlers and residents of Israel proper - have deepened, analysts say, and will not easily be healed.

Critics of the judiciary plan, who say it would destroy Israel’s system of checks and balances and put the country on the path to dictatorship, have already returned to the streets of Tel Aviv, where the first mass protests began: “The government will not be able to pass the judicial coup because the millions of citizens who have protested until now will not give up,” protest leaders said in a statement Tuesday.

But supporters of the overhaul, who say it would finally break an elite stranglehold on the Supreme Court, are also digging in. “The right has stopped sitting on the sidelines and staying silent,” tweeted Itamar Ben Gvir, the far-right national security minister.

Netanyahu’s dramatic announcement Monday, after a day of fiery protests and nationwide strikes, created as many questions as it answered. While he agreed to negotiate with the opposition, he also pledged to keep moving the bills through the Knesset after the Passover break next month. He has not addressed the firing of his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, on Sunday night after Gallant urged him to halt the judicial overhaul. And he has said nothing publicly about the private deals made with members of his coalition to get them on board with the pause.

“One way or another, we will enact a reform that will restore the balance between the authorities that has been lost, by preserving - and I add, even by strengthening - individual rights,” Netanyahu said in his Monday speech. “We have the Knesset majority to do this alone, with immense support among the people.”

Many in the opposition believe Netanyahu is acting in bad faith.

On Tuesday morning, the coalition took several bureaucratic steps to advance the bill on the appointment of judges - which would allow it to be put to a vote within a day if negotiations collapse.

Opposition lawmaker Orna Barbivai, part of the centrist Yesh Atid party’s negotiation team, told Army Radio on Tuesday that her team would sit down with Netanyahu, but “not with closed eyes.”

“Me and Netanyahu - there’s absolutely no trust,” she said. “I don’t believe that man.”

On Sunday, the government is also planning to propose the creation of a “national guard” under the control of Ben Gvir, who received the promise after reportedly threatening to quit several times Monday, which could have brought down Netanyahu’s coalition.

The move would give one of Israel’s most extreme leaders a measure of military power, “a private militia to serve his political needs,” in the words of former Israeli police chief Moshe Karadi, who spoke at a news conference Tuesday.

Ben Gvir, a once fringe lawmaker with roots in the radical settler movement, has been convicted dozens of times on charges ranging from support for terrorist groups to racist incitement against Arabs, and has long sought an official armed force under his control.

When Jewish and Arab gangs clashed in Israel’s mixed cities in May 2021, Ben Gvir helped organize hundreds of West Bank settlers to “patrol” the streets, where they clashed violently with Palestinian Israelis.

Israeli police commissioner Kobi Shabtai said the “internal intifada” was partly the fault of Ben Gvir for goading on the renegade settlers. Shabtai now reports to Ben Gvir.

Netanyahu’s concessions to his national security minister may also be a sign that the prime minister is aiming to buy time rather than addressing the underlying concerns of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have taken to the streets this year.

For his part, Ben Gvir pledged that the push to remake the courts would continue: “No one will scare us. No one will succeed in changing the people’s decision,” he tweeted Monday. He later praised right-wing protesters who came out Monday night for not accepting “that our vote is second class.”

He did not comment on a string of violent attacks carried out by some members of that same group, including one in Jerusalem in which a Palestinian taxi driver was “savagely attacked by the rioters who chased him and caused heavy damage to his car,” according to an Israeli police statement.

But as calm returned to the streets, there were signs of international relief. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides told Army Radio, “There’s no question that the prime minister will come and see President Biden,” saying a Netanyahu visit to Washington would likely happen after Passover.

In Israel, though, the battle over the judiciary will continue in a political setting that has been changed by the upheavals of the past three months. The country’s electorate appears to be shifting, and Netanyahu’s popularity has plummeted.

For the first time in more than a decade, one of Netanyahu’s main rivals, former army chief of staff Benny Gantz, was rated “more suitable” to be prime minister, according to a poll released Tuesday by Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan 11. Only 30 percent of Israelis picked Netanyahu.

“I’ve never seen him that low,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv-based pollster and campaign consultant. “He’s definitely taken a hit.”

Netanyahu, 73, may not have to face voters for years, and his poll numbers will surely change. But the sudden awakening of Israel’s center-left could be enduring.

It wasn’t just people from coastal high-tech enclaves who turned out to protest. The crowds included middle-class residents from around the country, members of the military, Jews of Middle Eastern descent, and even some supporters of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party.

Many said they feared that Israel’s democratic norms were weaker than they had thought. Others worried that a weakened Supreme Court would lead to more religious control over public life or fewer protections for women, LGBTQ Israelis, Palestinian citizens of Israel and other minorities.

“I think there’s an emerging understanding that Israel can no longer wing it as a country without the constitutional foundations for a democratic society,” said Scheindlin, who has seen an increase in calls for the country to adopt its first formal constitution.

“With respect to the more secular and liberal constituencies in Israel, this was a wake-up call,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “There will be huge repercussions over time.”