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Benjamin Netanyahu pauses his plan to weaken Israel's court system

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So as A said, these protests have been going on for months. But would you just remind us about why so many Israelis have been so infuriated about this judicial overhaul and what made Netanyahu walk it back?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: You know, Israelis really see this as a battle for the soul of their country. The far right is in power, along with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and his coalition wants to advance ultranationalist religious laws. And the only ones that would likely stand in their way is the Supreme Court. So Netanyahu has been saying the court should not have all the power that it does have over the elected majority. He's been advancing all kinds of laws to try to reduce the court's independence. But many Israelis in the streets say this is a threat of dictatorship. So Netanyahu has backed down for now. There's been unprecedented public pressure. There's been even some of his own party supporters turning on him. And the White House exerted a ton of pressure. I spoke with a person familiar with the matter who told me about multiple phone calls on multiple levels between the White House and Israel. And that may have helped Netanyahu convince his partners to put on the brakes.

MARTIN: So what's the mood now after all this?

ESTRIN: It's really been a confusing morning. In some ways, normalcy is back. The labor strike has been canceled. So the airport, the malls, even McDonald's is back open again today. But there is a lot of uncertainty. For instance, is the defense minister actually fired? Netanyahu, fired him just a couple days ago. Is the legislation actually dead? Those who support the judicial overhaul don't trust that Netanyahu will actually pass it now. This is Amitai Ruskin.

AMITAI RUSKIN: If you delay it, it will never be restarted. It was taken out to the shed and it was shot.

ESTRIN: And then I spoke with people who oppose the judicial overhaul, and they think Netanyahu will actually carry it out. But these protesters are feeling encouraged by their show of force in the streets. Listen to this one. He was blocking a road last night - in his 20s, Matan Rosenberg.

MATAN ROSENBERG: And what happened to me, as a secular liberal, is, for a decade, my generation and all these people were just avoiding politics at any cost. And what Bibi did - and I'm happy for that, I thank him for that - is waking up the liberal camp.

ESTRIN: You know, Michel, I should say last night, far-right activists harassed some Palestinians, some of these democracy protesters also, and police sprayed the protesters with water cannons.

MARTIN: So, Daniel, before we let you go, what do you think we can expect in the coming weeks? And what effect is this having on Netanyahu's leadership? I mean, is there a chance that he will not survive this?

ESTRIN: That's a big question. I mean, Netanyahu could just drop this judicial overhaul and promote another part of his coalition's religious, ultranationalist agenda. He does need to placate his hard-right coalition partners so that he can stay in power. That's the best place for him to be while he's on corruption trial. He even placated his far-right security minister last night, promising him his own National Guard, which many people see as a scary prospect. But, you know, Michel, Netanyahu will do anything he can to survive. The polls are showing his political support has dropped. He, for now, has narrowly survived this.

MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Daniel, thank you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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