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The pictures from Israel are incredible: seas of protesters rising up across the country.
A general strike interrupted daily life and threatens to cripple the economy.
The country’s defense minister has been sacked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The flashpoint for all of this is Netanyahu’s controversial plan to change the country’s judicial system, weaken its Supreme Court and give Israel’s parliament – the Knesset, which is currently controlled by his government – more say over appointing justices.
Netanyahu’s government acknowledged the pushback and hit a monthlong pause on that judicial overhaul plan late Monday, perhaps trying to cool things down without abandoning the plan.
Read updates from throughout Monday.
Frustration with the court extends beyond Netanyahu, but his effort just so happens to coincide with his trial for corruption. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and any link between the judicial changes and his trial – but not everyone takes his denials at face value.
“He’s embraced this judicial reform movement – it’s actually a revolution movement – to try to give him the ability to stack … the Supreme Court in a way that people, Israelis generally, suspect is designed to protect him from the consequences of the prosecution, the trial that he’s now going through,” former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk noted on CNN on Monday.
“So, it looks like it’s more of a personal agenda than a national agenda that he’s pursuing.”
Netanyahu has defended the plan, which he argued in a recent interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper maintains the judiciary’s independence without allowing it to be “unbridled.”
Indyk noted that other members of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition have their own reasons for wanting to overhaul the country’s Supreme Court.
Far-right allies of Netanyahu don’t want the court to protect Palestinian land rights in the West Bank, Indyk said, and religious parties don’t want the court to force their orthodox religious students to serve in the army like other Israelis.
CNN’s Hadas Gold, who has been reporting all day from the protests, has an in-depth look at the judicial overhaul effort, who supports it and why it has created so much controversy. Read her story.
The protests have been building for months, but it is a general strike that shut down daily life and the firing by Netanyahu of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant that appear to have changed the situation.
“It’s clear that he’s lost control of the country,” Indyk said. “There’s never been a general strike like this, which is shutting down the ports, the airport, the hospitals, schools.”
Netanyahu has few options to pull back from the judicial overhaul plan, Amir Tibon, a senior editor at the Haaretz newspaper, said on CNN International on Monday.
“On the one hand, he’s got a coalition that is based purely on Israel’s right wing, ultra-religious, far-right nationalistic political elements,” Tibon said, noting that those elements have long wanted to curb the power of the Supreme Court, which they see as a liberalizing force in Israel that has pushed for LGBTQ and women’s rights in the country.
“On the other hand, the people protesting in the streets in Israel against this judicial overhaul, this is really the backbone of the Israeli economy,” Tibon said. “It’s the high-tech industry, it’s academia, a lot of people are from the high ranks of the military.”
Gallant, before his firing, warned the country’s military could dissolve if there is a perception it is sliding away from democracy.
Tibon envisioned another flare-up in a month if the judicial overhaul plan returns, and worried that the Knesset could be on a collision course with the courts.
“Israel’s enemies are watching this and rubbing their hands in glee,” Indyk said. “And that affects American national security interests as well because we depend on Israel to stabilize the region.”
President Joe Biden, who Indyk noted has a long history with Netanyahu, “needs to adopt the ‘friends don’t let friends drive drunk’ approach, put his arm around Bibi (a commonly used nickname for Netanyahu) and say, listen old pal, you need to back off and you need to do it quickly – not just for the sake of Israel, which we care about deeply. But also for the sake of American national security interests.”
Netanyahu may bristle at Americans trying to influence the judicial overhaul plan, but he has similarly gotten involved in domestic US politics. He actively campaigned in the US against the Iran nuclear deal during the Obama administration and got very close to former President Donald Trump, who ended it. The relationship between Trump and Netanyahu has since soured.
Efforts by the Biden administration to reinstate the deal have so far failed.
The US subsidizes Israel’s security to the tune of billions of dollars. In addition to a 10-year agreement to give Israel $3.3 billion in financing annually, the US also spends $500 million per year on the country’s missile defense system. In fact, Israel is “the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II,” according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.
Biden, like most US politicians, likes to say that US support for Israel is absolute, but there is growing frustration with Israel among his Democratic Party.
In fact, Democrats’ sympathies are now more likely to lay with Palestinians over Israel for the first time since Gallup started tracking the issue in 2001. That shift is driven mostly by young Americans – millennials born between 1980 and 2000.
There is more vocal opposition to Israel’s policy moves among Democratic lawmakers.
“What Bibi is doing is alarming, appalling, and perilous for the relationship between our two countries,” Sen. Brian Schatz, the Hawaii Democrat, said on Twitter. “We stand for democracy.”
The Biden administration is set to convene its second virtual summit to promote democracy this week, an incredible coincidence as it watches a key democracy struggle. Israel has been invited to participate, and Netanyahu is scheduled to partake in the summit on Wednesday, though he is not listed on the public schedule of the event. US officials familiar with the planning told CNN’s White House team that there are no plans to change Netanyahu’s participation in the event as of now.
Ultimately, the stakes are much larger than the judicial overhaul push that has set the recent events off.
“It’s about what is the nature of Israel,” the former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Monday. “Will Israel remain a Jewish democratic state or (become) a nondemocratic … dictatorship or more religious country.”