Police uses water canon to disperse anti government protesters in...

Police uses water canon to disperse anti government protesters in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, March 27, 2023. Tens of thousands protested Monday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's drive for judicial overhaul plan Credit: AP/Oded Balilty

A power play by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that would weaken the independence of the nation's judiciary has kicked off an unprecedented backlash from his country's citizens that hopefully will force him to abandon his plan. 

Mass demonstrations, a general strike, airport closings, shuttered universities, and even dissent from military reservists culminated over the weekend in a major rebuke of Netanyahu and his far-right government.

The country has gone without a written constitution since its founding in 1948 — a problem that allows the parliamentary coalition that keeps Netanyahu in power to push this plan in the Knesset. Basically, the legislative changes pushed by Netanyahu's Likud Party in alliance with smaller ultra-right parties would allow them broad power over the appointment of judges and curbs on the Supreme Court’s power to overturn laws. That court is seen as an important check on the elected government.

On Monday, Netanyahu put off the first of his planned controversial reforms. “When there’s an opportunity to avoid civil war through dialogue, I, as prime minister, am taking a timeout for dialogue,” Netanyahu announced. He talked of “an attempt to achieve broad consensus” to push his reforms.

Tactically, that backpedaling makes sense — especially after the chain reaction of protests showed the continued interest of Israelis in keeping the institutional checks and balances of a vigorous democracy. Recent polls there showed 60% opposed to the legal reforms. One slice of that concern even involves experts and entrepreneurs of Israel's roaring global-tech economy perhaps moving abroad if religious zealots come to be in charge.

President Joe Biden spoke with Netanyahu last week. "We continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible," the White House said in a statement Sunday. "We believe that is the best path forward for Israel and all of its citizens." As if answering an anticipated political suspicion, the statement added: "U.S. support for Israel’s security and democracy remains ironclad."

Biden’s administration is taking the logical approach of a committed ally. While it’s surely up to Israel to run its own affairs, the U.S. is correct to push and prod in this situation. It’s nothing but consistent with the administration’s messaging against a breed of authoritarianism that has grown trendy among some elected elites around the world.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-tenured prime minister, has served in the office for a total of more than 15 years. Since the prime minister cannot be expected to end his understandings with the far right, Biden in tandem with the Congress should follow up and keep stressing where the U.S. stands on principle — against gutting an important check on power in the Middle East’s 75-year-old democracy. The alternative is to let a movement by an extremist minority try to turn the nation into a theocracy.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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