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Israel's former leader says Netanyahu should either reform his coalition or resign

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert attends a demonstration against the Israeli government's controversial judicial overhaul bill in Tel Aviv on March 1.
Jack Guez
/
AFP via Getty Images
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert attends a demonstration against the Israeli government's controversial judicial overhaul bill in Tel Aviv on March 1.

Updated March 28, 2023 at 11:03 AM ET

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Monday that he would postpone a vote on a controversial overhaul of the country's judiciary until after parliament returns from recess at the end of April.

The move follows three months of massive protests that escalated in recent days, with labor strikes disrupting hospitals and airports and some military reservists skipping their duties — collectively raising all kinds of security concerns.

Among the thousands of protesters was one of Netanyahu's predecessors: Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who served in the role from 2006 to 2009.

Olmert went on to spend over a year in jail on corruption charges, though he consistently has maintained his innocence. Netanyahu himself is currently on trial for three criminal cases alleging corruption — a large part of why his proposed judicial reforms are so controversial.

Olmert, who has led centrist parties in the past but says he's now retired from politics, is an outspoken opponent of Netanyahu. Last November an Israeli court found him guilty of defamation over remarks he had made about his successor the previous year. He continued his criticisms in a Tuesday interview with Morning Edition's Michel Martin.

Speaking from Tel Aviv, Olmert said that while Netanyahu was "forced to compromise temporarily" under significant pressure, the struggle was far from over.

The former prime minister is urging world leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, not to invite Netanyahu to their countries.

"Let Netanyahu first of all restore some order, civility and normality into the state of Israel, before he is given any kind of recognition outside of the state of Israel," Olmert says.

Later Tuesday morning, Thomas Nides, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, told Israeli Army Radio that Biden would host Netanyahu in Washington at some point soon.

The White House downplayed those reports, with a spokesperson telling reporters in the afternoon that there was no plan for Netanyahu to visit.

"Israeli leaders have a long history ... of visiting Washington, and Prime Minister Netanyahu will likely take a visit at some point, but there's nothing currently planned," White House spokesperson Olivia Dalton said.

How the coalition came to be

The latest polls out of Israel show Netanyahu's support dropping, and it remains to be seen whether he will survive politically once again. As NPR's Daniel Estrin reports, Netanyahu will need to placate his hard-right coalition partners to stay in power, which offers him some legal protections while he's on trial.

Netanyahu is facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases involving media moguls and wealthy supporters. He was ousted from his second, decadelong stint as prime minister in 2021 in a no-confidence vote by the Knesset.

He made a dramatic comeback the following year, winning a sixth term after assembling a government with far-right ultranationalists — including National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in 2007 of supporting an anti-Arab group that Israel and the U.S. classify as a terrorist organization.

Netanyahu has defended that coalition, telling Morning Edition in December that he, not his coalition partners, would call the shots on policy: "They are joining me. I'm not joining them."

Olmert says Netanyahu's fear likely was not that he would lose the majority in his party, but that "a couple" of lawmakers could have broken with him in a vote on the overhaul legislation.

"There were hundreds of thousands of people rioting in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which is quite unusual even in a stormy country like Israel," he adds. "And there was a genuine concern, I think, in the government, that Netanyahu might lose the majority in his own parliamentary bloc."

It's unclear what happens next

Olmert believes "this government is doomed to fall, sooner or later."

He points to the finance minister's recent calls to wipe out the Palestinian village of Hawara, comments that were widely criticized within and outside of Israel, including by the U.S.

He also notes that Netanyahu just cut a deal with Ben-Gvir, giving the national security minister a national guard that Olmert fears "might easily be used by him to take Palestinian villages that he wants to wipe out."

"I think the makeup of this cabinet is totally intolerable, and the only reason that it still exists is because it needs to provide Netanyahu with the necessary defense against the indictment which is now under consideration by the district court in Jerusalem," Olmert says.

There will be negotiations between the coalition and the opposition over the next month, mediated by Israel's president, Isaac Herzog. But Olmert doesn't believe those talks will lead to any agreement that will "change the political agenda in Israel for any period of time."

Olmert has advice for the current prime minister

Olmert says in order to move forward, Netanyahu "should get rid of his partners and change the political agenda in Israel and try and build up a coalition with parties that represent different values and different principles and different policies that can be accepted."

If Netanyahu can't do that, he says, he should submit his resignation.

"I know, this is a dream that most likely will not come true, but as someone who looks presently from the outside, there is no way that I can acquiesce with the existence of a government whose primary ministers are convicted terrorists by the Israeli courts," he says. Only one minister, Ben-Gvir, has been convicted on such charges.

Israel has been through through five elections in the last three years, and Olmert says a reformed coalition is its best chance at avoiding another one. In the meantime, he's urging opponents of the judicial overhaul to stay the course.

"We'll be rioting and we will be raising the public opinion and we'll continue to oppose the government, publicly and ... in every square and street," he says.

The audio for this interview was edited by Adam Bearne.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.