Israel Middle East
New Atlanticist March 27, 2023

Experts react: Netanyahu just delayed his judicial overhaul after mass protests. What’s next for Israel’s democracy?

By Atlantic Council experts

Score one for the streets. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has delayed, for at least a month, his plan to strip powers from the country’s Supreme Court. The agreement struck with National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir followed accelerating mass protests, with a general strike that included blocking departures from Ben Gurion Airport. The situation escalated considerably after Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Galant on Sunday for his criticism of the judicial plan. What’s next for Israel and its relations with the world? Our experts offer their insight below.

Daniel B. Shapiro: Netanyahu’s agenda depends on a compromise on this plan 

Jonathan Panikoff: This is a fight for Israel’s future as a democratic state

Alissa Pavia: This movement is not just against the overhaul—but against Netanyahu himself

David Daoud: If Netanyahu presses ahead without changes, the fallout will be severe

Tuqa Nusairat: Where are the protests against the government’s treatment of Palestinians?

Yulia Shalomov: Netanyahu further strains the Abraham Accords with more right-wing concessions

Richard LeBaron: While Netanyahu’s government reels, the US should continue to shun extremists

Shalom Lipner: ‘Israel is in desperate need of a new social contract’

William Wechsler: Netanyahu should seize the opportunity to fundamentally reassess his approach

Carmiel Arbit: The protestors are sending a message to the world—democratic backsliding must stop

Ariel Ezrahi: Doubts are rising about Israel’s ability to be a reliable, stable partner in the region

Netanyahu’s agenda depends on a compromise on this plan 

Netanyahu’s firing of Galant was a tipping point. Spontaneously, hundreds of thousands of Israelis poured into the streets to protest overnight. Numerous members of Netanyahu’s own coalition were sufficiently spooked by the outrage—more so than by the planned demonstrations of recent weeks—that they called on him to suspend the legislation. A general strike was called and the country shut down as they waited for Netanyahu to announce the suspension.

Netanyahu now faces a dilemma. It is clear the legislation cannot advance. At best, he can return to it in a few weeks and try to negotiate a watered down, more consensus version of judicial reform. But some members of his government, and some of his political base, now feel abandoned and may protest the decision.

When Netanyahu took office in December, he said his government would focus on expanding relations with Arab states, dealing with the threat posed by Iran, and providing relief to the rising cost of living. For three months, his government has done nothing on those issues as the country has been engulfed in a chaos around this one issue. The extreme overreach by Netanyahu, and the coalition partners that he is completely dependent on, led to this crisis. 

US President Joe Biden has consistently emphasized that the US-Israel relationship has always been based on the common values and institutions of our two democracies. He has been right to call for the Israeli government to pause judicial overhaul legislation that threatens Israel’s stability, security, democracy, and economy, and seek a compromise version. That process, although belated, can begin now. Israel’s stability, security, and economy depend on it.

If it doesn’t, Israel will continue to be distracted from addressing the significant threats it faces from Iran and its proxies, and seizing its real opportunities to expand relations with the Arab states. And if Netanyahu’s coalition partners will not let him relinquish the agenda that brought Israel to this point, the potential for significant civil strife increases dramatically.

Daniel B. Shapiro is director of the N7 Initiative, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs, and a former US ambassador to Israel.

This is a fight for Israel’s future as a democratic state

The draft judicial laws being protested in Israel, while problematic in their content, are a symptom of the broader underlying issue. At a more basic and fundamental level, the protests, driven by the anger and the fear felt by many Israelis over the draft legislation, reflect an uncertainty about Israel’s future identity. For most Israelis, the country is a majority Jewish, democratic state. The fight to ensure its survival as a Jewish state—the only one in the world, born out of the ashes of the Holocaust—is the primary driver of its national security and foreign policy, whether toward the Palestinians or Iran, or when fighting terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Setting aside the many criticisms of how Israel goes about safeguarding its national security, in Jerusalem’s view, strengthening and ensuring the survival of the world’s only Jewish state has been the priority of lawmakers across the Israeli political spectrum throughout the country’s history.

The focus has always been on the survival of the Jewish state because Israel’s other fundamental basic tenet, being a democratic state, has never been viewed by many Israelis to be at risk—or at least not in such a direct and fundamental manner as it would be under the revised judicial laws. Israelis, unlike Americans, generally don’t vote on economic issues or judicial ones; Israelis vote on national security. Understanding that gives meaningful insight to understand the consistent warnings about the real danger the judicial reform poses to Israeli national security. For most Israelis, their military service (and then follow-on service in the reserves) is generally considered to be the most important responsibility they have in their careers. For Israelis to refuse to show up for their military service doesn’t just reflect the intensity of the protests; it goes to the very soul of what it means to be an Israeli.

The pause in going forward with the legislation is meaningful as an opportunity to give time for Israelis to catch their breath, so long as it also leads to genuine negotiation over the draft laws’ content. That is unclear given Netanyahu’s current coalition and even internal Likud views on the matter. If a pause ends up to simply be a tactical maneuver, then Israelis will be back out protesting—and shutting down the economy. There will be no other option, as millions fight to ensure that Israel at its core is not just a Jewish state, but a democratic one.

Jonathan Panikoff is the director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and former deputy national intelligence officer for the Near East.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the intelligence community, or any other US government agency.

This movement is not just against the overhaul—but against Netanyahu himself

Protesters have been demonstrating on the streets of Tel Aviv for several weeks now, chanting “demokratia” and demanding an end to the Netanyahu administration. Thousands of Israelis from all walks of life have joined forces in what is being considered the biggest revolution in Israel’s history. They are accusing the government of being corrupt, racist, and autocratic—and they are showing no signs of backing down. The protesters view this as an attack by an authoritarian government intent on destroying its people and are equating it to the Arab world’s attempt during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 to wage war against Israel. Well-known historian Yuval Noah Harari, who has become a leading figure in the protests, equated Netanyahu to the Egyptian pharaoh of biblical times and said: “After two thousand years, we still remember pharaoh. And we will remember you… But we will tell the story of the man who tried to enslave us and failed.”

Even after Netanyahu’s postponement of the controversial law in an attempt to save face, it is unlikely that the protests will subside. This movement is not only against the judicial overhaul but also a mass protest against Netanyahu himself who, since taking office, has incited violence in the West Bank against Palestinians and nominated extremists in his government. This has caused anger among the general population, and we are witnessing the consequences of that today. Although his Likud party won the most votes in Israel’s general elections in December, there is still a significant majority that opposes Netanyahu in the country.

With departures blocked at Israel’s main airport, embassies on strike, and a mass revolt taking place, Netanyahu has no choice but to resign. Biden should clarify whether he supports the ongoing protesters who are calling for an end to the Netanyahu era or whether he wants to see a compromise reached. However, with nearly 7 percent of Israel’s population protesting and Israel’s army reserves on strike, this is not the time for compromise. Netanyahu needs to stand down.

Alissa Pavia is the associate director for the North Africa Program within the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs.

If Netanyahu presses ahead without changes, the fallout will be severe

Israel has been at a fateful crossroads for months. Since returning to power, Netanyahu and his new government—which is, apart from Likud, comprised entirely of ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties—have been proceeding at breakneck speed to overhaul the Israeli judiciary. They argue the reform is necessary to check the unlimited power of the judicial branch, particularly the activist Supreme Court, which has routinely intervened in political matters. Limiting its power, they claim, will bring Israel in line with other Western democracies and thus make the country more democratic.

But many Israelis are unconvinced. Hundreds of thousands—from all walks of life, including reserve soldiers, air force pilots, former generals and security branch heads, and even right-wingers and settlers—have been protesting the overhaul, rightly fearing that it is a smokescreen for crippling Israeli democracy. The street’s revolt has now spread into Likud itself. Netanyahu fired Galant for objecting to the overhaul over its negative impact on Israeli security. That action led the Histadrut, the airport workers’ union, and the federation of Local Authorities—Likud-dominated bodies—to call a general strike, shutting down the country’s economy.

As matters now stand, Netanyahu has responded to public and internal Likud pressure and agreed to halt the judicial overhaul legislation until as late as July. Ideally, during this time, the government will negotiate compromise legislation with the opposition that will enshrine Israel’s liberal norms—embedded in the Declaration of Independence and decades of jurisprudence—in constitutional law and balance the check on the judiciary’s power with a simultaneous one on the legislature. The crisis will have thus been turned into an opportunity.

But if the overhaul passes unchanged, the impact for Israel will be severe. Its direct effect will be to cripple Israeli democracy, effectively ushering in a majoritarian tyranny through the legislature, for the judiciary’s unlimited power is currently the Israeli system’s only check on the equally unlimited power of the Knesset. But the damage to Israel will be broader. Israeli societal rifts will deepen and widen, particularly the resentment of the secular majority towards the ultra-Orthodox—who refuse to serve in the army, enter the workforce, or teach core curriculum studies in their schools, and are backing the judicial overhaul to prevent the Supreme Court from forcing them to do so.

As Galant warned, Israeli security will be harmed. More Israelis will refuse to report for reserve duty, feeling that their government has failed to uphold the commitment to democracy necessary to maintain a “people’s army” like the Israel Defense Forces. That, along with domestic instability, will prove too tempting an opportunity for Israel’s many enemies—including Iran and Hezbollah—to forgo.

The economy will also suffer. Human capital flight, particularly from the critical high-tech sector, is almost guaranteed. That, along with societal instability, will also lead to the withdrawal of foreign investment. 

An unstable, insecure, and questionably democratic Israel will also prove a less desirable diplomatic partner. Arab countries with whom Israel has recently established ties can be expected to downgrade relations. Most critically, Israel’s relationship with the United States—based on mutual benefit but underpinned by shared values—can be expected to change and for the worse.

David Daoud is a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Programs and a research analyst on Hezbollah and Lebanon at United Against Nuclear Iran.

Where are the protests against the government’s treatment of Palestinians?

Tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets over the last few weeks to protest Netanyahu’s proposed changes to the judicial system, one of the demands championed by some of his most extremist ministers. Yet the extremism against the Palestinians that these same individuals have championed has not resulted in any such opposition by the majority of Israelis. Since Netanyahu’s government took office, incidents of settler violence have doubled, much of them motivated by racist rhetoric from Netanyahu’s allies. Now that this right-wing wave is directly impacting Israel’s security, the core of its democratic experience, and its relations with its newly friendly Arab neighbors, the damage the coalition has done and could continue to do is making headlines with widespread protests that culminated in a national strike on Monday. 

Over the past several months, Netanyahu’s ministers have engaged in provocative visits to the grounds of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, called for the wiping out of Palestinian villages, and most recently called the Palestinians “an invention.” Netanyahu’s push for unprecedented “judicial reform” cannot be considered without this context. It speaks to a disconnect between how actions by the same entities that threaten Palestinian lives and Israeli lives are perceived and reacted to differently. Indeed, Palestinians will be the primary victims of the “compromise” that Netanyahu just announced hours ago when he decided to hand Ben-Gvir, who was previously convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization, even more resources and authority to attack Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. As Israelis have rightfully come out to demand that Netanyahu not threaten the country’s judiciary and separation of power, they should take an equally strong stance against their country continuing to be an occupying power to millions of Palestinians and subjecting Arab citizens of Israel to second-class treatment. Demanding any less of their government will only highlight the double standard of rallying for democracy for one population at the expense of another. 

Tuqa Nusairat is the director for strategy, operations, and finance at Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs.

Netanyahu further strains the Abraham Accords with more right-wing concessions

After weeks of nationwide protests and growing international censure over Israel’s proposed judicial reforms, Justice Minister Yariv Levin—the reforms’ architect—announced a belated concession to “respect” Netanyahu’s decision to halt the judicial overhaul. This comes on the heels of spontaneous demonstrations and shutdowns that erupted over the weekend after the ouster of Galant, the defense minister, following his call for a pause in the judicial reform process. Netanyahu now finds himself in a delicate balancing act, looking to satisfy growing dissent within Likud ranks and the far-right wing of his coalition spearheading the judicial reform process. His announcement of the suspension was delayed as Netanyahu worked behind the scenes to hold together his coalition—promising an extension on the reform bill until the next Knesset session in May in exchange for more concessions to his right-wing partners, namely the creation of a civil national guard unit to be placed under the direction of Ben-Gvir, the national security minister. 

Yet while Netanyahu might have allayed concerns at home, the past weeks’ events underscore the liability of Israel’s domestic politics for its regional aspirations. Netanyahu’s sustained efforts to appease his right-wing partners, often at the cost of raising tension and violence in the West Bank, have created visible strains on regional alliances that are unlikely to abate under the current government structure. The Abraham Accords countries have shown greater hesitancy to engage publicly with Israel, for example delaying the second annual ministerial meeting of the Negev Forum, originally expected to have taken place in March, amid decreasing public support for the Abraham Accords in the region. The accords’ signatories have also voiced increasing unease over the practices of the new government—both via public condemnation and private bilateral meetings—calling into question the continued advancement of diplomatic or economic relations. As Netanyahu looks to maintain control at home by relinquishing ever more concessions to right-wing factions in the government, he will need to weigh carefully the toll they will continue to take on Israel’s relationships in the region and his own legacy in expanding normalization between Israel and its neighbors.   

Yulia Shalomov is an associate director for the N7 Initiative within the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

While Netanyahu’s government reels, the US should continue to shun extremists

Since he formed his most recent government, Netanyahu has assured all comers that he is in control, despite embarrassing examples of his ministers freelancing on critical policy issues. The extraordinary protests of the last several weeks, and especially the spontaneous protests of Sunday night and Monday morning, have put the lie to this notion of Netanyahu in charge. 

The protestors won this round, and the government is reeling. Right-wing elements of Netanyahu’s government are likely to make matters worse by launching their own protests against the protestors. Freezing consideration of the judicial “reform” bill is very unlikely to pave the way for a useful dialogue about appropriate reforms. Israel’s friends, especially the United States, will need to constantly reiterate the need for genuine dialogue and should continue to shun extremists in positions of power in Israel. US and Israeli leaders often speak of shared values—now is the time to make sure that actions on both sides are informed by those values.

Richard LeBaron is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs, former deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Israel, former US ambassador to Kuwait, and former director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

‘Israel is in desperate need of a new social contract’

Judicial reform has been an unmitigated, self-inflicted disaster for the Netanyahu government. Falling victim to hubris, ruling coalition members—by their own admission—mismanaged the legislative process. Their shock and awe approach, dashing to overhaul the entire system in a few short months, resurrected a fragmented opposition from the ashes of its defeat in last year’s election and brought hundreds of thousands of dissenters into the streets. It mobilized IDF reservists from critical units to stop volunteering for duty and spurred the flight of capital from Israeli banks. The fallout spilled beyond Israel’s borders as well, with Netanyahu becoming the target of criticism from foreign leaders.

The March 27 attempted reboot—coinciding with the massive demonstrations triggered by Netanyahu’s dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Galant—offers an opportunity to lower tensions, but success is far from guaranteed. Netanyahu has pledged to defer passage of the judicial appointments bill—which would allow the government to stack the Supreme Court—in order to work toward achieving consensus, and his political rivals Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz have responded positively to the prime minister’s overture. However, trust between the sides is virtually nonexistent. Moreover, many of the multiple constituencies represented among the protestors, which are not all aligned around identical objectives, have committed to continuing their fight.

Of greater concern for Israel’s future, however, should be the underlying fissures within Israeli society which the judicial reform tug-of-war has now laid bare. Fault lines between haves and have-nots, between liberals and conservatives, and between secular and religious Israelis will not dissipate instantly—if and when the conflict surrounding the judiciary is resolved. In its seventh-fifth year, Israel is in desperate need of a new social contract.

Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow for the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, and has served seven consecutive Israeli premiers over a quarter-century at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu should seize the opportunity to fundamentally reassess his approach

If Netanyahu had not become prime minister once again at the end of 2022, he would have been remembered—even by those who oppose him politically or dislike him personally—as a uniquely successful, electorally dominant, strategically cautious, and tactically brilliant leader who left Israel more prosperous, more secure, and more welcome in the region than it had ever been before. In only three months, however, he has gone a remarkably long way toward undoing much of this legacy. 

Netanyahu set aside his congenitally risk-averse nature for a rash attempt to force through sweeping legal reforms, and his failure so far has left an impression of a fundamentally weak prime minister being forced to follow directions from an extremist minority—after repeatedly promising that he would control them, not the other way around. The resulting chaos has seriously undermined Israel’s economysecuritystability, and foreign relations, while proving electorally disastrous for the Likud party and its political allies. No external advisory could have done so much damage in such a short time.

Netanyahu should seize the opportunity that his new “freeze” on the judicial overhaul allows him to fundamentally reassess his approach and to take control of his government, even if that eventually requires changes in the coalition. This would mean accepting President Isaac Herzog’s effort to find a compromise solution to legal reform that could win widespread support. This would mean prioritizing the government’s focus on Israel’s most critical strategic threats—Iran and its proxies—on its most important strategic opportunities—deepening and broadening the Abraham Accords—and reinforcing its inherent strengths—its economic vitality and its underlying, quiet consensus on many issues. Failure to do so will mean that when the time has come to write Netanyahu’s obituary, the impressive achievements of his previous terms will be relegated to mere footnotes after the immense failures of his final one.

William F. Wechsler is senior director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.

The protestors are sending a message to the world—democratic backsliding must stop

For over two months, Israel has experienced unprecedented upheaval in response to Netanyahu’s proposed weakening of the judiciary. The mainstream of Israeli society—including entrepreneurs, tech CEOs, reservists, diplomats, and civil servants—have all joined in the streets, blocking roads, shutting businesses, and paralyzing cities and towns to oppose reforms that would undermine liberal democratic values foundational to Israel. 

Today’s announcement of a delayed vote is a significant milestone for protestors everywhere. The Israeli protest movement has demonstrated its ability to delay—and hopefully to ultimately stop—an illiberal trajectory. If successful, it will send a message around the world that democratic backsliding must be stopped and that vibrant, active civil societies in stable democracies can defy these trends. Perhaps, against all odds, Israel can serve as a model for other countries facing similar attacks.

But the story is not over. The vote has been delayed, not dissolved, and the ambitions of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition to chip away at liberal values have not been quelled. For that reason, the protestors are likely to remain in the streets until the government falls. And allies must take note as well: At a time when the transatlantic community is facing unprecedented challenges, the last thing it needs is for the only stable democracy in the Middle East to go rogue. If a growing divide between democracies and authoritarian regimes and a global battle for values define modern-day geopolitics, liberal democracies must stand with pro-democracy movements when shared values are under attack. The United States and its allies must make clear to Israel that they will not tolerate democratic backsliding—particularly among their closest friends.

Carmiel Arbit is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

Doubts are rising about Israel’s ability to be a reliable, stable partner in the region

While cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors has generally not been optimal, developments in recent years have offered an alternative vision for the region.

A regional alignment around common external threats from Iran to climate change, through to a desire to see a reliable supply of energy and water in the region, have led to several important milestones. The settlement of the maritime dispute between Israel and Lebanon, the European Union-Qatari funded Gas for Gaza project, and Project Prosperity are but a few examples.

But sadly, even these and other milestones that have been achieved could be at risk. Israel’s neighbors and the international community at large are beginning to question the wisdom of the strategic alliance with this Netanyahu government. Israel may find that it is seen more as a liability than an asset in tackling some of these regional and global challenges. Saudi Arabia’s alignment with Iran is no coincidence in this regard.

If Israel follows in the direction and trajectory of Lebanon, its ability to share desert irrigation technologies or export natural gas to its neighbors or raise finance for new climate tech, for example, will be limited as Israel’s neighbors question whether it will implode—or whether it can be seen as a stable, reliable partner that has a vision for its rightful place under the sun together with its Palestinian neighbors as well as its Emirati ones.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, and the potential for regional conflicts will only increase as access to energy and water resources become more challenging. The present and real threats from climate change are increasingly becoming national security threats as border conflicts and migration increasingly become the norm in a thirsty and very hot part of the planet. If Israel ceases to be a reliable, stable partner for its neighbors in tackling some of these threats, the challenges for all the peoples of the region will only increase.

Ariel Ezrahi is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and the architect of the Gas for Gaza project.

Further reading

Related Experts: Daniel B. Shapiro, Jonathan Panikoff, Alissa Pavia, David Daoud, Tuqa Nusairat, Yulia Shalomov, Richard LeBaron, and Ariel Ezrahi

Image: Israelis protest near Israel's Supreme Court during a demonstration after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the defense minister and his nationalist coalition government presses on with its judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. REUTERS/Ilan Rosenberg