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Analysis: Israel's protests, Netanyahu and the crisis his government unleashed

Tracy Wilkinson and Laura King, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON — Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is a legendary master of political survival. For once, he may have overplayed his hand.

As he frantically plots a strategy to emerge from the worst domestic crisis in Israel’s 75-year history, Netanyahu must find a way to keep his radical, ultra-Orthodox coalition partners on board while attempting to pacify the hundreds of thousands of angry Israelis filling the streets in the name of defending democracy.

If he fails, his government could easily dissolve. If that were to happen, it is unclear who would fill the void or what new unrest could be ignited.

Israel has long been synonymous with conflict, but for the moment, the most serious existential threat it faces comes not from its Arab neighbors but from its own internal divisions.

Netanyahu late Monday announced he would postpone — but not cancel — his plans to overhaul Israel’s Supreme Court and judiciary in a way that would make judges more beholden to politicians. He said he was acting “to avoid civil war.” Critics say the plan would destroy the checks and balances that have made the courts an important pillar of Israeli democracy.

“When there’s an opportunity to avoid civil war through dialogue, I, as prime minister, am taking a timeout for dialogue,” Netanyahu said in a nationally televised address.


The vote in the Knesset, or parliament, will be delayed until after the Passover break, which starts next week.

It was not clear, however, whether postponement would placate the opposition, which has swelled from the left to include Israelis of all political persuasions as well as the military, the Mossad spy agency and high-tech entrepreneurs.

After 12 weeks of regular demonstrations, a far larger segment of Israeli society was galvanized over the weekend when Netanyahu abruptly fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who became the first government member to openly criticize the judicial overhaul. The retired major general warned that the plan had already weakened Israel’s national security by alienating legions of military personnel, from elite combat pilots to army reservists who refused to report to duty in protest.

Israel burst into rolling chaos Monday. The country’s largest trade union — the umbrella organization Histadrut, with some 800,000 members — called on members to observe a general strike. That forced a partial shutdown of the international airport — which Israel has prided itself on keeping open through numerous crises — with outgoing flights canceled and thousands of passengers stranded.


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