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Why Netanyahu Faces His Biggest Political Challenge Yet

4 minute read
Ian Bremmer is a foreign affairs columnist and editor-at-large at TIME. He is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy, and GZERO Media, a company dedicated to providing intelligent and engaging coverage of international affairs. He teaches applied geopolitics at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and his most recent book is The Power of Crisis.

15 years, spread across three separate runs as Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has plenty of hard-won political experience. He’s never needed it more.

Deadly confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank have been building for the past year. As in the past, Israeli defense forces claim to have killed militants, while Palestinians charge that many civilians are among the dead. The result: the Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem has called 2022 the deadliest year in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in nearly 20 years, with an estimated 154 Palestinians killed. Palestinian attacks killed 25 Israelis and foreign nationals in the same period. So far this year, Israelis have killed 80 Palestinians, and Palestinian attacks have killed 14 Israelis.

Even more startling is the increasingly intense political battle among Israelis over changes proposed by Netanyahu to the authority of Israeli courts. His government has proposed a plan that would strip Israel’s Supreme Court of much of its power in three ways. First, it would allow the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to override court decisions with a simple majority vote. Second, it would end the Supreme Court’s right to strike down pieces of legislation that the court finds incompatible with Israel’s Basic Laws, which serve as the country’s constitution. Third, it would give elected officials a greater role in selecting the judges who serve on the court.

Supporters of the plan say it’s a long-overdue reform that will limit the ability of unelected judges to wield unchecked power over legislation created by the people’s chosen representatives. That’s especially true for those who say the court is dominated by activist judges who rule against them on immigration laws, West Bank settlement policies, and military conscription for the ultra-Orthodox. Critics charge that Netanyahu, who is on trial now for allegations of corruption, wants to remove checks and balances on his power, dangerously undermining Israeli democracy by allowing any government that can muster 61 of 120 Knesset votes to enact whatever it can pass.

A solid majority of Israelis oppose the reform. A February survey from the Israel Democracy Institute, for example, found that about two-thirds of respondents say the court should keep the right to strike down legislation that judges believe violate the Basic Laws. In fact, nearly half of voters who support Likud, Netanyahu’s own party, agree.

Read More: How Israel’s Far Right Is Prompting Outrage from the Jewish Diaspora

That might explain why anti-government protests of recent weeks have been so large and loud. On March 11, weeks of demonstrations culminated as hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in a display of anti-government fury unprecedented in Israel’s history. Adding to the drama, a showdown between the government’s National Security Minister and Israel’s Attorney General over how to respond underscored the depth of anger on both sides.

There are also fears that unless he makes major changes to the proposed judicial reforms, Netanyahu may soon be managing serious economic fallout. Venture-capital and tech firms have threatened to leave the country if the law is passed, and analysts both inside and outside the country have warned that judicial reforms could lower the country’s credit rating, sharply raise the cost of borrowing, and scare off foreign investment.

In recent years, Netanyahu has struggled to form majority governments without support from far-right parties and populist lawmakers that seek confrontation rather than compromise—including with Palestinians. The Prime Minister himself has proved an able political acrobat, one who can appease just enough people to keep the lights on and his government moving forward. But these are his biggest tests yet. •

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