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Here's why Netanyahu's court overhaul, now on hold, brought Israel to the brink

Protesters wave Israeli flags outside parliament in Jerusalem on Monday, part of a massive show of anger over the hard-right government's push to overhaul the justice system.
Ahmad Gharabli
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AFP via Getty Images
Protesters wave Israeli flags outside parliament in Jerusalem on Monday, part of a massive show of anger over the hard-right government's push to overhaul the justice system.

Updated March 27, 2023 at 1:59 PM ET

Israel is in a pivotal moment of crisis, triggered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to weaken the independence of the country's judicial system and make its judges more subject to political control.

Netanyahu postponed the final vote of the legislation that had been slated for Monday. In a national address lasting around seven minutes, he said he would hold discussions and bring the legislation up for a vote sometime after lawmakers return from a recess at the end of April.

The prime minister said he took the step to avoid causing a rift in his country. But as Netanyahu himself recently acknowledged, a rift already has formed.

Three months of protests grew even more frenzied Sunday after Netanyahu fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant — the only government minister who publicly opposed the judicial overhaul. Many thousands of protesters blocked highways and burned bonfires in Tel Aviv's main artery all night long.

Protesters thronged the streets around parliament on Monday as the right-wing ruling coalition prepared to hold a final vote on the legislation. Then came word that Netanyahu would put the plan on hold.

The unrest sparked deep security concerns — over what might happen within Israeli society, but also over potential vulnerability to Israel's enemies.

Here's a recap of a dynamic and consequential moment in Israel:

What is happening right now?

The crisis reflects a growing lack of trust in Netanyahu, leading civil society to erupt in a way never before seen.

Israel's largest trade union, Histadrut, called a national strike for Monday, prompting many government closures, including by Israel's embassies in the U.S. and elsewhere. Departing flights were grounded. Hospitals canceled non-urgent treatments. Universities canceled classes. Thousands of military reservists were threatening to boycott duty.

Minutes after Netanyahu spoke, Histadrut's leader, Arnon Bar-David, ended the general strike.

On Sunday, the flashpoint was when Netanyahu ousted Gallant. Almost immediately, a Tel Aviv highway was overwhelmed when a spontaneous protest involving thousands of people erupted in the middle of the road.

A protest strike snarled traffic at Israel's Ben Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv on Monday, leaving passengers waiting to hear word about their flights.
Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A protest strike snarled traffic at Israel's Ben Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv on Monday, leaving passengers waiting to hear word about their flights.

"The prime minister doesn't understand that he's disconnected from what's going on," a protester named Yanai Or told NPR. "He's not doing enough to calm the energy up. That's very scary because it could lead to civil war or something similar."

The turmoil eventually prompted Netanyahu to freeze the legislation. But his new plan isn't likely to satisfy all of his critics, as it reportedly includes a promise to create a national guard controlled by National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party.

What would Netanyahu's plan change?

Netanyahu's government thinks the Supreme Court is too liberal and blocks policies promoted by ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox politicians.

Under pressure from protests, Netanyahu's coalition already tabled the most controversial part of the plan, which would give the ruling government the power to override the Supreme Court.

The push for more control widely is seen as a preemptive step toward enacting a controversial legislative agenda. The government wants to pass laws prioritizing religion and nationalism, but the way things stand now, the courts likely would say such laws infringe on basic rights.

It also would protect Netanyahu himself. Last week the government passed a law blocking the ability of the judiciary to declare the prime minister unfit for office, due to a conflict of interest between his own corruption trial and his attempts to interfere in the courts.

The government also wants to give itself a more direct hand in selecting the country's judges — a process that involves a judicial selection committee. Under the proposed changes, the government would get the decisive vote over some of the justices appointed to the Supreme Court. Currently, politicians have a minority vote on the selection committee.

Critics say the plan would alter the balance of power by weakening the independence of the courts — an institution with sweeping authority in Israel.

Why is the Israeli judiciary so powerful?

Courts play a key role in deciding how people live, because Israel does not have a written constitution and it never established a Bill of Rights that guarantees essential rights and freedoms. Instead, the country operates according to a set of basic laws.

The courts decide a number of controversial and far-reaching issues, from Israeli settlement operations to LGBTQ freedoms and rights for Palestinian citizens, as well as ruling on issues in Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.

If Israel's courts are undermined, international courts might no longer recognize their full authority — and the fallout from that includes the potential that Israeli soldiers could become more liable to being named in war crimes cases.

Doesn't Netanyahu face criminal court cases right now?

Yes, and it's possible that the Supreme Court could eventually rule on them. The prime minister is on trial for three criminal cases alleging corruption. All of them have been bundled together.

Protesters gathered outside Israel's parliament in Jerusalem on Monday, amid ongoing calls for a general strike against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to weaken the court system.
Hazem Bader / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Protesters gathered outside Israel's parliament in Jerusalem on Monday, amid ongoing calls for a general strike against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to weaken the court system.

Who are the protesters?

The plan to dramatically reshape the judiciary has drawn out thousands and thousands of protesters, many of them liberal middle-class and mainstream Israelis who aren't normally involved in street demonstrations.

They say that their way of life is in danger and that women's rights could suddenly be limited under the new government plan. Women have marched in red robes and white bonnets like in The Handmaid's Tale — images that were even tweeted out by the novel's author, Margaret Atwood.

Protests have been going on for months now, but public anger grew more intense earlier this month after Netanyahu called the protesters anarchists and police used stun grenades and water cannons to break up gatherings and marches.

What could happen next?

The immediate crisis is somewhat abated by the prime minister's decision to call off Monday's vote, but it's unclear if Netanyahu can hold together his coalition. By freezing the legislation, Netanyahu risked some of his hardline coalition partners quitting, toppling the government and leaving the prime minister's political future in question.

If Israel's parliament, the Knesset, ever adopts the court overhaul, the Supreme Court could move to overturn legislation that tries to limit the judiciary. That would set up a potential constitutional crisis, with two branches of government refusing to agree on what the law is.

It's also unknown what kind of deal could be worked out over the judiciary. When Netanyahu rejected a proposed compromise to his judicial plan around 10 days ago, President Isaac Herzog said Israel stood at the edge of the abyss, warning of an all-out civil war.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.