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Israel’s Prime Minister has bought himself more time by delaying a plan to overhaul the Supreme Court, which ignited mass protests and questions about his far-right coalition’s stability. Here’s a primer

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Beit Yanai, Israel, March 27: Anti-government protesters burn tires on the night that Prime Minister Benjamin Nentanyahu announced a delay in his coalition's overhaul of the nation's Supreme Court.Ariel Schalit/The Associated Press

Israel: Latest news

  • Daily life in Israel began to return to normal on Tuesday after labour unions called off their general strike because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, caving to public pressure, delayed parliament’s controversial overhaul of the Supreme Court. The strike affected hospitals, universities, preschools and diplomats at embassies abroad, including the one in Ottawa.
  • Mr. Netanyahu promised late Monday to reach a “broad consensus” on the reform legislation before the Knesset returns for its summer session on April 30. His legacy, and the stability of his far-right coalition, is in doubt if no consensus can be reached.
  • Aides to defence minister Yoav Gallant – who Mr. Netanyahu fired on Sunday for proposing a delay like the one the Prime Minister announced a day later – said Tuesday he would remain in office indefinitely because he never got a formal notification letter.
  • Demonstrators come out in support for Israel's nationalist coalition government and its plans for a judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem.RONEN ZVULUN

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Netanyahu’s judicial reform plan, in brief

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his new cabinet's swearing-in on Dec. 29.Amir Cohen/Reuters

Plans for Israel’s Supreme Court

When Mr. Netanyahu returned to Israel’s prime ministership last December, it was with the support of far-right and ultra-orthodox parties with scores to settle against the Supreme Court. The judiciary is one of the only safeguards against the power of the legislature, or Knesset: Israel has no written constitution and no second legislative chamber, like a senate, to amend laws. The top court has also ruled against Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory that the far right wants to expand. Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition partners wanted changes to limit the court’s independence, such as:

  • a mechanism for the 120-member Knesset to overturn court rulings by a simple majority vote of 61.
  • a new makeup for judicial appointment panels so that politicians could more easily outvote sitting judges to elect the jurists they want.

Mr. Netanyahu said Monday that the Knesset would delay second and third readings of the legislation until the summer session, which runs from April 30 to July 30. Mr. Netanyahu’s main ally in the far-right camp, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, said earlier that he had agreed to the postponement, but added that if a compromise is not reached, the overhaul would be approved in the summer session.

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A protest sign outside the Knesset.HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images

Netanyahu’s corruption case

Mr. Netanyahu wasn’t supposed to take part in the judicial reforms himself because he’s on trial for bribery, fraud and other corruption charges. He was allowed to be in office after signing a conflict-of-interest agreement in 2020, but Israel’s Attorney-General recently warned him that he has broken it by being too hands-on with the reform laws. The coalition, meanwhile, passed a law it said would prevent Mr. Netanyahu from being deemed unfit to rule because of the corruption case.

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An aerial view shows protesters marching through Jerusalem on March 27.Reuters

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Travellers look at a screen of delayed and cancelled flights at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv during March 27's general strike.GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images

Opposition to the plan so far

The coalition’s plans for the judiciary have galvanized Israelis who fear the changes will allow the government to trample on individual rights, particularly those of LGBTQ people, women and religious minorities. The opposition has come not just from Mr. Netanyahu’s traditional adversaries on the left – who worry that a weakened Supreme Court could freeze or void Mr. Netanyahu’s trial to keep him in power – but from across the political spectrum. These include:

  • Protest movement: Demonstrations against the coalition’s plan have been largely leaderless but well-attended, bringing tens of thousands into the streets in major cities in recent weeks. Some in the movement claim to be reservists in elite military units or intelligence services such as Mossad and Shin Bet, and they have said they’ll refuse to report for duty during the protests.
  • Organized labour: Unions supporting the movement launched a general strike on Monday, closing universities, preschools, hospitals and the country’s main international airport. The strike was called off when Mr. Netanyahu delayed the legislation.
  • Business establishment: Economists and the governor of Israel’s central bank have warned that the reforms put foreign investment at risk and could drive Israeli tech companies and other industries to shift operations elsewhere.
  • The President: In Israel, the president is a ceremonial figure, similar to Canada’s governor-general, who is meant to stay above partisan politics. But President Isaac Herzog has publicly urged the government to pause the judicial legislation, saying it threatens national unity.
  • Netanyahu’s cabinet: The Prime Minister fired his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, on Sunday after Mr. Gallant called for the reforms to be put on hold for a month or so, expressing concern that the country’s division over the issue was hurting military morale. Mr. Gallant’s staff said he would stay in office because no notification letter was received.
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A protester confronts Israeli troops with a Palestinian flag near Nablus on March 10.ZAIN JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

What are Palestinians doing?

Palestinians in Israel have largely sat out the protests, with some arguing that Israeli democracy is already tarnished by its occupation of the West Bank and the discrimination they themselves face. In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians have been preoccupied with the Israeli coalition’s efforts to rapidly expand settlements and the ensuing violence: Over the past year, Israeli forces have made thousands of arrests in the West Bank and killed more than 250 Palestinians, including fighters and civilians, while more than 40 Israelis and three Ukrainians have died in Palestinian attacks.

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Fires burn at a protest in Tel Aviv on March 26.Nir Elias/Reuters

What happens next?

Delaying the legislation’s next phases gives Mr. Netanyahu a few more weeks to broker a compromise within the Knesset. Opposition leaders said they were willing to negotiate in good faith if the Prime Minister is. Former centrist prime minister Yair Lapid said the opposition needed to be sure there were no “tricks or bluffing” from Mr. Netanyahu, adding that they had “bad experience” with him in the past.

For the far-right parties, the the main question is how long they will accept a delay of the legislation, and whether they might continue to support Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party. Without them, the Prime Minister would be vulnerable to another no-confidence motion like the ones he has survived in recent days. And if the end result is a new election, it will reignite Israelis’ debate about his corruption trial and fitness to govern.

Israel’s upheaval: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel podcast

Early in the far-right coalition’s tenure, The Decibel spoke about their judicial reforms with Josef Federman, news director of the Associated Press for Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan. Subscribe for more episodes.

The Globe in the Middle East

Israel’s national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir brings fury from the right-wing fringes to Netanyahu’s government

Israel on ‘brink of constitutional collapse,’ president says, calling for delay to legal overhaul

Palestinians sense a new intifada coming as young people focus their anger on Israel’s resurgent right

Canadian commentary

Irwin Cotler: Israel needs to learn the right lessons from Canada’s legal reforms

Andrew Cohen: The unspeakable silence of the Canadian Jewish establishment

Andrew Coyne: Israel’s legal reforms look awfully Canadian – and that’s not good

Compiled by Globe staff

Associated Press and Reuters, with reports from Globe staff