For 23 consecutive weeks and counting, Israelis across the country have taken to the streets to protest the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul, a legislative package that would erode the ability of the judicial system to serve as a meaningful check on the power of the governing majority. A loosely organized and diverse confederation of grassroots organizations, the anti-overhaul protest movement has leveraged popular outrage and pro-democracy sentiment into formidable political power. On March 28, the protests succeeded in pressuring the prime minister to pause the overhaul and cancel the imminent passage of key judicial legislation a mere day after he had announced he was firing his defense minister for imploring him to do just that.

Prior to the pause of the judicial overhaul, the struggle over the future of Israel’s governing institutions was essentially a story of two opposing players: the government in power and the anti-government protest movement. The Knesset opposition, while certainly outspoken in its rhetoric against the overhaul, did not have any real cards in its hand to play to stop or delay it, inherently disempowered as the parliamentary minority in a process unabashedly designed to sideline it. Following the overhaul’s pause, the start of judicial compromise negotiations between the coalition and the opposition at the President’s Residence empowered the opposition parties as consequential actors in the judicial overhaul saga, a victory for which they unquestionably have the protest movement to thank. Even if the talks fail to produce anything substantive, Netanyahu has used their mere existence as a figleaf in order to delay the overhaul indefinitely, to the dismay of his more hardline partners. What comes out of the talks, how long they last, and how they ultimately end are all consequential factors shaping the overhaul’s future that the opposition has real power to influence.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

While the protest movement and the political opposition, specifically Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party, are fundamentally on the same side and share the goal of maintaining and strengthening Israeli democracy, the compromise talks have resulted in a real rift between the political and grassroots wings of the anti-overhaul movement. Lapid and Gantz recognize that their political interests are not served by being seen as hardline and opposed to compromise, and thus have cautiously embraced the opportunity for dialogue with the coalition for the time being. Meanwhile, inherently skeptical of negotiating with the infamously untrustworthy Netanyahu, protestors and protest leaders have heightened the pressure on the opposition and sharpened their rhetoric against the compromise talks amid reports that a deal between the two sides is taking shape. This week even saw demonstrations outside of Lapid’s house, imploring the opposition leader to abandon efforts to seek compromise lest he “save the tyrant.” 

Counterintuitively, this palpable dissonance between the protestors and the politicians that broadly represent their interests serves the needs of both sides at this stage of the fight against the judicial overhaul—at least for the moment. Bearing in mind that opposition parties and (especially) the protestors are not monolithic and certainly have their own internal disputes, the disagreement between these two sides of the anti-overhaul movement is primarily a strategic one: whether the future of Israeli democracy is best served by negotiating with Netanyahu’s government. The answer is both yes and no.

Since Herzog’s compromise talks began, Gantz and Lapid’s decision to participate in and lend credibility to the process was a strategically sound one, despite all of the legitimate misgivings about negotiating with a prime minister who everyone (including his finance minister) knows to be a “liar, son of a liar.” As the minority bloc in the Knesset, the opposition has no obvious options on the table to prevent harmful legislation short of talking to the parties in power. Even if the talks don’t produce anything substantive, the longer they provide Netanyahu cover to delay the overhaul, the more likely the legislation remains in deep-freeze and pro-overhaul ideologues like Smotrich and Levin ultimately bring down the government. Netanyahu clearly does not see unilateral judicial reform as in his interest given the international backlash, public outrage, and dire economic forecasts.

Yariv Levin and Simcha Rothman’s initial legislative push received so much blowback partially because it provided no real opportunity for negotiations and compromise. Accepting the opportunity for dialogue now, with clear red lines in place, bolsters the opposition’s credibility in the eyes of moderates and soft-right-wingers who see the overhaul crisis as a true departure from the partisan business-as-usual of Israeli politics. There’s no better indication of this phenomenon than Benny Gantz’s 12-seat faction—the most moderate and most pro-compromise opposition party—now consistently polling in the 27- to 29-seat range, higher than both Likud and Yesh Atid.

National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz by IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image)

The key to this strategy is that the opposition ultimately stays true to its principles and does not sell out the judicial system for the sake of compromise. That is why the ongoing protests still play an essential role by pressuring the opposition from the outside and underscoring that the negotiations do not negate the threat to democracy. It is healthy and necessary for Yesh Atid and National Unity MKs to be continuously confronted with tens of thousands of Israelis taking to the streets and expressing their commitment to democratic institutions and opposition to the government, as a reminder that ultimately, democracy requires that politicians remain accountable to the people. The protestors are right to view the negotiations with skepticism and their enduring outrage is justified, including on related issues that impact democratic values in Israel like religion and state. Likewise, the modest but consistent presence of anti-occupation activists at the protests serves as a crucial symbol that the status quo in the West Bank continually imperils Israeli democracy, even if the overhaul ultimately falls through.

Protests against the judicial overhaul, April 29, 2023 by Oren Rozen, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

While Herzog’s negotiations have provided Israeli democracy with a lifeline, they are not a panacea. The chances that whatever happens within the confines of the President’s Residence pays off—whether through an agreement that safeguards democracy or by taking judicial reform off the government’s agenda as long as it survives—are bolstered by the survival of the pro-democracy movement on the streets. The negotiations and the protests (and even protests against the negotiations) also play a role in ensuring that the broader anti-overhaul movement, including politicians and activists, appeals to as broad a swathe of Israeli society as possible. Anti-overhaul moderates and right-wingers, including many who voted for the current government, need to see that the opposition politicians are open to compromise in order to solidify their alignment with the center-left bloc. More traditional center-left and left-wing Israelis and pro-democracy civil society need to continue to feel engaged on the issue and that Israel’s fate does not depend on reasoning with those who were more than willing to put minority rights and the separation of powers in jeopardy. For the time being, the apparent divergence between the politicians and the protestors serves the two sides’ shared interest in ensuring Israel’s democratic future.