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Netanyahu Hits Pause on Judicial Reforms
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Netanyahu Hits Pause on Judicial Reforms

‘There is a lot of mistrust in Israel, from all sides.’

Happy Wednesday! You know what’s cooler than listening to Spotify or Apple Music on your commute to work this morning? 

Opening up the Radio Garden app, spinning a virtual globe, and tuning in to a random radio station from somewhere around the world. We recommend Radio Paysan San in Mali.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Russian Defense Ministry said Tuesday Russia tested two supersonic anti-ship missiles—which can be fitted with both conventional and nuclear warheads—in the Sea of Japan. The launches come after two Russian bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons flew over the Sea of Japan for several hours while the Japanese prime minister visited Ukraine last week.
  • Biden administration officials confirmed Tuesday the United States will suspend sharing information about its nuclear stockpile with Russia, an obligation under the New START treaty Russia pulled out of last month. The move—ahead of scheduled data sharing between the U.S. and Russia—is intended to encourage Russia to rejoin the treaty. Russia has not provided any data since it left the agreement.
  • The House voted overwhelmingly on Monday to pass a package of bipartisan, China-focused bills, including one blocking the State Department from classifying China as a developing country within international organizations and treaties, a label that can come with economic privileges intended to encourage development. Legislation seeking to combat organ trafficking in China and block Chinese access to materials for undersea cable projects is also headed to the Democratic-controlled Senate.
  • Republican North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, a close ally of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and chair of the House Financial Services Committee, told Punchbowl News Tuesday he doesn’t see how House Republicans can reach a deal with the Biden administration over raising the debt ceiling. McCarthy called on President Joe Biden Tuesday to return to the negotiating table before the U.S. reaches the debt ceiling later this year and risks default, while Biden argued House Republicans should release their own budget plan before talks resume.
  • Federal District Court Judge James Boasberg ruled Tuesday that former Vice President Mike Pence must testify before a grand jury in Special Counsel Jack Smith’s investigation of former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election. According to people who have seen the still-sealed decision, Pence may be shielded from testifying about his actions on the day of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack, when he was serving in his role as President of the Senate and could therefore be protected under the Constitution’s “speech and debate” clause.
  • Nearly one year after the Mother’s Day firebombing of a pro-life pregnancy center in Madison, Wisconsin, the FBI on Tuesday arrested a 29-year-old suspect at the Boston Logan International Airport as he was planning to leave the country. Investigators used DNA from the Wisconsin man’s half-eaten food to connect him to the crime.
  • In a revised indictment filed in federal court Tuesday, the Justice Department alleged Sam Bankman-Fried—the former CEO of failed cryptocurrency exchange FTX—paid $40 million in bribes to Chinese officials to regain access to accounts that had been frozen in the country. The bribery allegation joins 12 additional charges including fraud and money laundering. 
  • Thirty-nine migrants died—and 29 more were injured—when a fire broke out on Monday at an immigration detention center in Ciudad Juarez, across the U.S.-Mexico border from El Paso, Texas. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador alleged Tuesday the fire started when migrants protesting their impending deportation set mattresses ablaze, blocking the door of the shelter.
  • Nashville Police Chief John Drake said Tuesday that the shooter who killed six people—three children and three adults—at Covenant School in Nashville on Monday had purchased seven guns legally before the attack, including three used in the shooting. The assailant was reportedly receiving treatment for an emotional disorder, and, although authorities are still piecing together a motive, they believe the school and church had been a target rather than any particular person.
  • The Never Back Down PAC, founded by former Trump administration official Ken Cuccinelli to support Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s prospective campaign for president, has hired former top advisers to several high-profile Republican campaigns, including operatives from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential bid, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 gubernatorial campaign, and former Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign. The hires are yet another indication DeSantis plans to seek the Republican nomination in 2024.
  • The Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba will split into six independent entities to operate more nimbly, the company announced Tuesday. The breakup comes as the Chinese government has signaled it’s ready to ease a regulatory crackdown targeting powerful tech companies and CEOs like Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma, who stepped away from the company in 2019 and recently returned to China for the first known time in almost a year. Shares of the company were up 14 percent in the United States Tuesday.

Bibi and the Baby

Protesters gather with national flags outside Israel's parliament in Jerusalem amid ongoing demonstrations against the government's controversial push to overhaul the justice system, on March 27, 2023. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters gather with national flags outside Israel's parliament in Jerusalem amid ongoing demonstrations against the government's controversial push to overhaul the justice system, on March 27, 2023. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

King Solomon once threatened to split a child into pieces as a ploy to discover which of two women was really its mother. Today, according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the baby is the nation of Israel and the intractable conflict is the fight over whether to give elected leaders more control over the judiciary—and Netanyahu wants everyone to quit yanking on the baby.

“Both sides in the national controversy claim to love the infant,” he said Monday, announcing he’ll put the reforms on ice until at least May when the Knesset returns from recess. “When there is a chance to prevent civil war through dialogue, I—as prime minister—will take a time-out for dialogue.”

In other words: Hands off the baby before we break something we can’t fix.

This is a reversal for Netanyahu, who had forged ahead despite months of protest against the reforms. But even supporters of the changes grew nervous in recent days as protests and strikes began threatening state security and allies raised concerns. Opponents are still skeptical that Netanyahu’s coalition really intends to negotiate, though, and the prime minister himself pledged to eventually pass the overhaul “in one form or another.”

As we’ve reported before, Israel lacks a written constitution, and its judiciary has wide latitude to strike down any legislation its justices deem unreasonable or out of step with the country’s basic legal foundation. Supreme Court justices can also veto nominees to join them on the bench, which over time has produced a powerful, left-leaning body that’s endlessly frustrating to conservative lawmakers. The court could strike down reforms even if they pass. “It’s like the U.S. Supreme Court [saying], ‘Well, we have the basic principle of the system, and it confers upon us the power to strike down the Second Amendment,’” said Joshua Segev, an associate professor at Netanya Academic College School of Law in central Israel, referring to the possibility of the court striking down the overhaul if it passes.* “The most progressive justices in the American Supreme Court are not even close to the Israeli Supreme Court.”

After retaking power in December with one of the most right-wing coalitions in Israel’s history, Netanyahu’s government made judicial reform a top priority. Among other changes, Netanyahu’s coalition wants more power to both choose who’s on the court and override its legislative vetoes. But opponents worry reducing the judiciary’s independence will undermine checks and balances in Israel’s democracy. The coalition’s push to pass other controversial measures—such as reducing restrictions on gifts to politicians, seemingly for Netanyahu’s benefit—hasn’t inspired confidence in lawmakers’ self-restraint if given more power over the courts.

Last week, the Knesset passed a portion of the proposed changes—a measure making it harder to remove Netanyahu—and the prime minister announced his intention to take a more hands-on role in pushing the reforms. The moves drew fresh outrage—and intensified growing discontent in the ranks of Israel’s generally apolitical military. A growing number of reservists—including cyber warfare teams, pilots, and intelligence officers—have been skipping training duty in recent weeks, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Saturday publicly urged Netanyahu to at least wait on the reforms until the Knesset returns from recess in a month, arguing pushing forward would make Israel vulnerable to attack. “This is a clear, immediate and tangible danger to the security of the state,” he said. “For the sake of our security, for the sake of our unity, it is our duty to return to the arena of dialogue.”

Netanyahu responded to Gallant’s concerns by firing him. Although the defense minister is reportedly still fulfilling the duties of the job, Bibi’s actions triggered widespread late-night street protests and strikes hobbling Israel’s hospitals, banks, ports, and even Ben Gurion airport. A handful of mayors and local officials began a hunger strike. Amid the unrest, other members of Netanyahu’s coalition began taking Gallant’s side, suggesting it might be time to hit pause and let things cool down. By late Monday, Netanyahu had relented, announcing the reforms would be temporarily put on ice while blasting protesters calling on reservists to skip duty. “The State of Israel can’t exist without the Israel Defense Forces, and the IDF cannot exist if there’s refusal to serve,” he said. “Such refusal will be the end of our country.”

It’s not clear what the pause means for the reforms—which Netanyahu’s coalition still promises to pass—or what a compromise might look like. Representatives from the ruling coalition and opposition parties gathered at Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s residence Tuesday to begin hashing things out, starting with negotiations on how to conduct negotiations. Even that was too much for opponents who mistrust Netanyahu’s motives—34 protest groups wrote to opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz urging them to drop the talks, warning they’re a “deception” intended to kill the opposition’s momentum.

Supreme Court personnel changes due later this year could add gasoline to any still-smoldering conflict. “The environment is so hostile,” Segev said, suggesting any nomination will inspire controversy equivalent to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. “There is a lot of mistrust in Israel, from all sides.”

The Biden administration—which has grown increasingly vocal in its opposition to the reforms after months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering—reportedly believes Netanyahu is likely to abandon his push in the face of all the opposition. But given his coalition, a fragile combination of his Likud party and far-right factions, the prime minister has little leeway to make concessions. Itamar Ben-Gvir—leader of the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit or “Jewish Power” party—reportedly threatened to dissolve the ruling coalition unless Netanyahu forged ahead with the reforms, and he agreed to the pause only when promised a national guard would be formed under his control. Ben-Gvir has previously been criticized for embracing harsh tactics to quell protests, ordering police officers to use a “heavy hand” with people blocking roads.

Ultimately, any compromise on judicial reforms would be a temporary fix without a reckoning with Israel’s cultural and religious tensions, some Israeli analysts argue. “The true issue underlying the protests sweeping through Israel is demography rather than democracy,” argued Orthodox Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, who previously clerked on Israel’s Supreme Court. “The solution depends on Charedim”—ultra-Orthodox Jews who are often exempted from mandatory military service and pay less in taxes—“espousing an attitude of broad responsibility and the rest of Israel inviting them to participate as equal partners.”

Other analysts agree that the ruling coalition’s tactical error—a rush to swiftly remake Israel’s judiciary without building broader consensus—simply highlighted existing tensions. “Of greater concern for Israel’s future … should be the underlying fissures within Israeli society which the judicial reform tug-of-war has now laid bare,” argued Shalom Lipner, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who worked for seven Israeli prime ministers. “Fault lines between haves and have-nots, between liberals and conservatives, and between secular and religious Israelis will not dissipate instantly—if and when the conflict surrounding the judiciary is resolved.”

Worth Your Time 

  • In Hays County, Texas, at the southern edge of an ever-expanding Austin, law enforcement, school administrators, and parents are fighting an epidemic of teenage fentanyl overdoses, Rachel Monroe reports for the New Yorker. “A junior at Lehman High School, where three students have died after taking fentanyl in the past nine months, told me that this year already felt different, owing to security measures put in place after last year’s shooting in Uvalde: there are more security officers, more hall monitors, and all the doors are locked at all times,” Monroe writes. “Now overdoses, and the fear of overdoses, are making school an even more stressful place. ‘We had a couple times where people have overdosed in bathrooms. You never used to see people wheeled out on stretchers, and that’s happened three or four times this school year,’ she told me. ‘The nurses have Narcan hanging right by the door in case somebody needs to come in and grab it real quick.’” One mother who ultimately lost her son to an overdose had pressed charges against her own child to try to get him into a rehab program not otherwise available. “‘People want to put it all in the parents’ hands, but it’s the community,’ she said. ‘There need to be options and there aren’t options.’”
  • You may have seen a Wall Street Journal/NORC poll in recent days purporting to show the percentage of Americans who value patriotism, religion, having children, and community involvement has plummeted in recent years. Don’t jump to conclusions. “If these numbers had been produced by my firm, I would immediately assume we had made a mistake and send them back to an analyst to double check,” Patrick Ruffini—co-founder of the polling firm Echelon Insights—writes on Substack. “Surprising numbers and big shifts garner outsized attention—when best practice is simply to average the polls and be skeptical of outliers. That’s never more true than when these big shifts appear to confirm pre-existing media narratives. Reality is almost always a lot more boring. We know that patriotism and religion have been on the decline for quite some time, but the rate of decline did not quintuple in the last four years—a fact that the Journal’s chart obscures by treating the latest four year increment the same as the previous 21-year one on the x-axis.”

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Toeing the Company Line

  • What happens if Chris Christie runs for president? Who could replace Mitch McConnell as Senate Republican leader? Is Ron DeSantis likable? Jonah, Drucker, and Audrey discussed all that and more on last night’s Dispatch Live (🔒). Members who missed the conversation can catch a rerun—either video or audio-only—by clicking here
  • In the newsletters: Nick games out (🔒) Christie’s potential presidential bid, Haley checks in on the state of immigration reform in the House, and Sarah breaks down (🔒) Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg’s own electoral incentives in the case against Donald Trump. “Alvin Bragg is elected by the residents of New York County,” she writes. “Or perhaps more to the point, Alvin Bragg will be reelected based on whether the residents of New York County know who he is, know what he’s done, and like the job he did for them.”
  • On the podcasts: Jonah talks UFOs and our place in the universe with Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb. 
  • On the site today: Price reports on North Carolina Republicans’ decision to expand Medicaid, Jonah makes a case for banning TikTok, and Kevin considers why AR-15s have taken on so much symbolic weight in America.

Let Us Know

We’ve now covered mass protest movements sparked by governmental reforms on back-to-back days. In what ways do you think the demonstrations in Israel and France are similar? Different? Any broader takeaways?

Clarification, 3/29/2023: This piece has been updated to include additional context from Joshua Segev.

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.