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Israel's Netanyahu rules out civil war as mass protests divide country over judicial reform

A woman holds a placard with a photo of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as the right wing holds a rally to support the government’s judicial overhaul on July 23, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Amir Levy | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the possibility of civil war in his country, which has recently been rattled by protracted mass protests over judicial reforms.

“There won’t be civil war. I guarantee you that,” Netanyahu said in a NBC News interview aired Monday, in a bid to alleviate concerns that Israel’s civil and social crisis could escalate to substantiate the March warning of Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

At the heart of the conflict is a judiciary amendment, passed into law by a final vote of 64-0 in Israel’s Parliament last week, that limits the unelected Supreme Court’s ability to overrule governmental decisions it deems unreasonable. Opponents of the legislation argue that it substantively weakens the purview of Israel’s top legal court and paves the path for abuses of power and improper appointments. Raising the stakes of the judicial changes, Israel lacks a formalized written constitution and instead depends on a set of basic laws.

“I think that correcting the imbalance in Israel’s democracy where the judiciary has basically arrogated to itself nearly all the powers of the executive branch and the legislator, I think yes, it is important to do it,” Netanyahu stressed. “I think when the dust settles, people will see Israel’s democracy has strengthened and not weakened, and I think people’s fears that have been stoked and whipped up, I think they’ll subside and they’ll see that Israel is just as democratic as it was before, and even more democratic.”

The prime minister dismissed criticism that the legislation was potentially rushed in, saying he continues to seek compromise.

Mass demonstrations have erupted for months in key cities Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, resulting in police clashes and numerous arrests. Hundreds of Israeli reservists joined the protests and last month pledged to refuse their volunteer service if the judiciary overhaul pushes forward, Reuters reported.

“I think it’s unfortunate that you’ve had reservists being lined up for something that involves a political debate,” Netanyahu commented. “In America, I think the reservists account for about 1% of the population. In Israel, about half our people …  in the army. You can always get, mobilize a few thousand people for this, or [for] that argument.”

The U.S., a major ally, has expressed concern over the late-July vote.

“It is unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a July 24 statement. “We understand talks are ongoing and likely to continue over the coming weeks and months to forge a broader compromise even with the Knesset in recess.”

Addressing this position, Netanyahu said that the Israeli-U.S. relationship “has its ups and downs,” but that the alliance “has never been stronger.”

“[The U.S.] President thought that we should have tried to achieve this, these reforms by consensus. I happened to agreed with him. I’ve tried, and I’m still trying. But I think ultimately it’s a decision that is … made as in any sovereign democracy by the … by the elected officials of Israel and that’s what we’re doing,” Netanyahu said.

Washington has been a critical mediator in talks to clinch a so-far elusive normalization of relations between Israel and one of the Middle East’s strongest economies, Saudi Arabia. The Riyadh monarchy has not recognized Israel since its 1948 establishment out of support for the Palestinian cause and the countries have remained staunchly unaligned even when they pursued a mutual agenda of ensuring Iran did not grow out nuclear capabilities. Saudi Arabia resumed diplomatic relations with Tehran this March, but has yet to make overtures toward an eager Israel.

The Saudi side has nevertheless showed signs of prospective, conditional thawing, after four Arab countries — including key Saudi ally the United Arab Emirates — agreed to kindle ties with Israel in 2020.

“Normalization, I have said before and it’s quite clear that we believe that normalization is in the interest of the region, that it would bring significant benefits to all. But without finding a pathway to peace for the Palestinian people, without addressing that challenge, any normalization will have limited benefits,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud said on June 8 in a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Netanyahu emphasized to NBC News on Monday that normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia would mark a “pivot of history” and a “quantum leap after the quantum leap we already made with the Abraham Accords.” He refused to disclose the specifics of any potential negotiations with Riyadh. 


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