The Fight for Israel’s Democracy Continues

In a triumph for democracy, a remarkable popular uprising has compelled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to suspend his far-right coalition’s assault on the country’s judiciary. Over the last few months, Israelis from across the social and political spectrum — labor unions, Army reservists, diplomats, health workers and students — have filled the streets to deliver a full-throated rejection of Mr. Netanyahu’s plan to remove almost any legal restraints on his government.

There is much there to celebrate, especially when elected autocrats in many parts of the world are succeeding in weakening the rule of law so they can trample on human rights, silence dissent and punish political enemies.

The popular outrage peaked last Sunday, when Mr. Netanyahu summarily fired the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, a conservative former general, after Mr. Gallant warned that strong opposition in the ranks of the military to the judicial changes posed a “clear and immediate and tangible danger” to national security.

But this victory for the protesters is not yet a victory for Israel. So far, Mr. Netanyahu has done no more than to put the judicial overhaul — which would effectively neuter the independence of the judiciary by allowing a majority in Parliament to overrule Supreme Court rulings — on hold until after the Parliament’s Passover break.

The potential damage to Israeli democracy goes far beyond the courts. The effect, as protesters who took to the streets understood, would be to undermine the written and unwritten checks and balances of Israeli government. As the president of Israel’s Supreme Court, Justice Esther Hayut, said in a speech in January, the proposed “reforms” are an “unrestrained attack on the legal system,” which would render the democratic identity of the state of Israel “unrecognizable.”

Now that Mr. Netanyahu has stepped back from his initial demands, the street protests may lose some of their momentum. But Israelis who are fighting for their democracy continue to be vigilant.

For this reason, the pressure on Mr. Netanyahu and his government must be sustained by Israelis and by Israel’s true friends, especially the United States. The strong bonds that have long linked America and Israel are based on shared values, democracy first among them. President Biden was right to defend those values, issuing an unusually strong rebuke on Tuesday: “Like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned,” he said. “I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road.”

The pressure must be sustained also because the attack on the judiciary was only the beginning of a broad campaign by the ultranationalist and ultrareligious parties, one that seeks to give Jewish settlers a far freer hand in further expanding and legalizing the West Bank settlements, change the status quo on the Temple Mount and relegate Arab citizens to a second-class status.

The broader agenda was underscored when the national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a settler convicted in the past of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization, said he agreed to delaying the judicial reform only after Mr. Netanyahu promised to create a “national guard” that would report directly to Mr. Ben-Gvir’s ministry, giving him what amounts to a militia outside the control of the responsibly led police or army.

These measures would fundamentally alter Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state, an identity that has always rested on a delicate balance between the secular and the religious, the progressive and the traditional, and the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities of Israel’s Jews. And it would make the creation of a Palestinian state effectively impossible.

As this board has argued for years, the security and even survival of the Jewish state depend on eventually achieving a durable peace settlement with the Palestinians, to include the formation of a state of their own. The two-state solution has been all but moribund, in part because of political disarray and corruption on the Palestinian side. But were the far-right parties to succeed in their designs on the West Bank and the Temple Mount or in curtailing the rights of Israeli Arabs, Israel would be on an untenable path in its treatment of Palestinians and Arab citizens, and the door to a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians would be closed. And as Mr. Netanyahu must understand, that could in turn jeopardize the tentative ties Israel has forged with Arab states through the Abraham Accords, which he hopes to make one of his lasting legacies.

The call for reforming the judiciary is not in itself misguided. At its founding 75 years ago, Israel failed to produce a constitution, relegating the formulation of “basic laws” and legal guidelines instead to the Parliament and the Supreme Court. A sort of common law evolved, with the high court assuming the power to review the legality of government actions, while the task of appointing judges fell to a committee of judges, jurists and politicians. An independent attorney general and legal watchdogs in government departments further extended a system of checks and balances. As Israel has moved politically to the right in recent years, some conservatives have argued that the judiciary has remained a self-perpetuating and unrepresentative body of justices with a left-wing outlook.

It is not clear whether Mr. Netanyahu has much room to maneuver in his coalition. Through most of his 27 years in and out of the prime minister’s office, he has been viewed as a master of political survival, but also as fundamentally cautious. Yet his actions have been sharply curtailed in recent years by an ongoing trial for corruption, which has made it ever more difficult for him to find coalition partners (and has also given him personal reasons to resent the judiciary). After a series of inconclusive elections in recent years, Mr. Netanyahu managed to stay in office only by forging an alliance with the radical fringe. And with only a four-seat majority in the Parliament, that fringe could take him down at any moment.

The ultranationalist and ultrareligious parties to which Mr. Netanyahu has linked his fate will not lightly abandon their designs. Their way is destructive for Israel, for the peace process, for Israeli’s fledgling relations with Arab states and for its long relationship with the United States.

The untold thousands who went into the streets clearly saw the threat to the legal bulwark of their democracy. They, and their strong supporters in the Biden administration and the American public, should also understand that the danger to the future of their state is far from over.