Call Him ‘Solomon’ Netanyahu: Bibi Vows Not To Cut Israel in Two

The prime minister postpones second and third readings of the judicial reform bill, and labor calls off its general strike. Now for the hard part.

AP/Ariel Schalit
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan outside the parliament at Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. AP/Ariel Schalit

Prime Minister Netanyahu, presenting himself as a Solomonic arbitrator, will temporarily halt a legislative process meant to overhaul Israel’s judiciary, a move likely to lead to a temporary — and uneasy — halt to the crisis that has engulfed the country for nearly three months. 

“I postpone the legislation’s second and third reading” in the Knesset, Mr. Netanyahu said in a televised address. He called for negotiations over the proposed overhaul, adding, however, “one way or another, we will reform the judiciary.” The Knesset is scheduled next week to recess for a month and reconvene in June, following the spring holidays of Passover and Independence Day.   

Demonstrations for and against the government continued even after Mr. Netanyahu’s speech, and in some cases protesters clashed with the police. Yet, some of the country’s leading opposition politicians tentatively called for a halt to protests to allow negotiations.  

Mr. Netanyahu spoke at the end of a day in which the entire country was paralyzed following his firing Sunday of the defense minister, Yoav Gallant. Hundreds of thousands flooded streets in demonstrations, while the  country’s umbrella labor organization, the Histadrut, announced a general strike.

Most businesses, the universities, many unionized government bodies, and even embassies abroad were closed, as was Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. Following Mr. Netanyahu’s speech, the Histadrut announced an end to the strike. Top opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz cautiously welcomed the premier’s initiative.

The two said they were willing to use the legislation postponement period for joining Mr. Netanyahu in attempts at compromise under the auspices of President Herzog.

Another opposition leader, Avigdor Liberman, said, however, that the protest must go on. Mr. Netanyahu “has no intention of promoting real negotiations,” Mr. Liberman tweeted. “His intention is to wait for a convenient time, lower the protest levels, and blame the opposition as the party that wouldn’t compromise.”

Mr. Lapid also warned about a “bitter past” and a history of unmet agreements with Mr. Netanyahu. Yet, he said he was willing to “extend a hand” to negotiate a “new constitution based on the declaration of independence.” Since its founding in 1948, Israel has had no written constitution, as the country’s founders were concerned that attempting to write one would usher a battle between religious and secular Zionist factions.    

In his speech, Mr. Netanyahu said he was determined to prevent a breakup between his supporters and opponents. He raised the biblical story of the two mothers who came to King Solomon, each contending a baby was hers. “Citizens of Israel,” he said, “I’m not willing to cut the country in two.”   

Ignoring Mr. Lapid, who heads the Knesset’s second-largest party, the premier commended Mr. Gantz, the leader of a center-right opposition party. “We will go to the president to negotiate with no preconditions or ultimatums,” Mr. Gantz said afterward. While promising to remain in opposition, Mr. Gantz turned to Mr. Netanyahu’s followers, saying, “I’m not here to defeat you, but to find ways to live together.” 

According to a poll issued by the public broadcaster Kann, Mr. Netanyahu’s latest moves cost him much national support. In contrast, Mr. Gantz, who has long called for compromise, was the only politician to show stronger public support than his numbers following last November’s election. 

In the poll, 62 percent of Israeli voters said Mr. Netanyahu was wrong to fire Mr. Gallant on Sunday night. The firing followed the defense minister’s warning that military readiness would be hurt unless the judicial reform legislation is postponed. The entire episode remains in limbo, as the minister’s firing has not been finalized, and could be reversed.

Mr. Gantz denounced the firing and called on Mr. Netanyahu to reverse it immediately. Like the prime minister, Mr. Gantz also denounced army reservists and recruits who refuse to serve for political reasons. Mr. Netanyahu called it “a horrible crime,” and said, “Israel cannot survive without the army and the army cannot survive if people refuse to serve.”

Mr. Netahyahu’s speech followed an hours-long face-to-face meeting with the far-right internal security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who had earlier threatened to resign his post and bolt the government if the legislation is put on ice.

Fearing for the survival of his ruling coalition, Mr. Netanyahu promised to establish a new security apparatus, a national guard, that would answer directly to Mr. Ben-Gvir, rather than to the nation’s police commander. Critics immediately said that such a body could put too much enforcement power in the hands of  a man who had been convicted in the past for incitement to racism. 

In another concession to Mr. Ben Gvir, Mr. Netanyahu reportedly vowed that if negotiations over the judicial reform are unsuccessful before the end of the next Knesset session, in July, the initial reform plan would be brought to a vote. 

In Israel, such political promises rarely materialize. At the same time the odds for a successful completion of a compromise over the judicial reform are slim, as the sides are too far apart. Prospects for an end to the crisis, therefore, are dim.  

The New York Sun

© 2023 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  Create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use