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.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
One opponent of Netanyahu's plans is his predecessor, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is with us now from Tel Aviv. Good afternoon, sir. Thank you for joining us.
EHUD OLMERT: Good afternoon.
MARTIN: So your reaction to the plan to postpone a vote on these changes until the parliament's summer session?
OLMERT: The pressure was very significant yesterday. There are hundreds, thousands of people rioting in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which is quite unusual, even in a stormy country like Israel. And there was a genuine concern, I think, in the government and with Netanyahu that he might lose the majority in his own parliamentary bloc, not in his party. But there may have been a couple of members of Knesset, ministers that would have not voted with him. So he was forced to compromise temporarily. You know, we don't know yet whether this is a genuine compromise or not. But for the time being, he had to postpone the vote and to offer some kind of negotiations that will be mediated by the president of the state of Israel, which is the agenda right now.
MARTIN: I do want to ask about the way forward. But before we do that, just one question about the substance here. We should note that you faced the Israeli courts when you were convicted of corruption some years ago. You said that the verdict was unfair, although you did abide by it. But at the time, you argued that state prosecutors were biased and out to get you. Netanyahu is facing corruption charges now. Is there any way in which you can see why he feels justified in arguing that the courts are biased and out to get him?
OLMERT: This is ridiculous. If at all, I think that attorney general of Israel, at the time that they were investigating the allegations against Netanyahu, was making every possible discount that he could to make it easier for Netanyahu. He should have indicted him for far more severe allegations than he was indicted for. And at least in one case, which is now under investigation of a special commission of inquiry - and this is the sale and the purchase of three submarines by Israel from Germany. The attorney general announced in advance that Netanyahu is not even suspected. And presently, there is a special commission of inquiry which was established only in order to inquire the investigator's suspicions against Netanyahu.
MARTIN: I take your point. So you have called for world leaders to shun this government. What would that look like?
OLMERT: Look. I think that this government is doomed to fall sooner or later. The makeup of this government is very strange. There is a faction of nationalists, radicals. The minister of finance, who is a major partner of the government, recently talked about the need of the government to wipe out Palestinian townships and villages, which devastated everyone in Israel and, I think, across the world. The other guy is a convicted terrorist, and he's now the minister of national security. And he's now the guy that yesterday is part of a deal between him and the prime minister. He will have under his control a national guard that might easily be used by him in order to to attack Palestinian villages that he wants to wipe out. So, I mean, this is crazy, unique, strange. And I don't believe that it can hold for long.
MARTIN: So what is the way forward here, sir? What should happen now?
OLMERT: Right now, there is a, you know, recess of the Knesset in a couple of days. So for a month's time, there will be some kind of, I think, fake negotiations between the coalition and the opposition trying to reach an agreement. But I don't believe that this will end up with an agreement that will change the political agenda in Israel for any period of time. 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 in the district court in Jerusalem.
MARTIN: If you were in a position of leadership now, what would be your advice to those who continue to oppose these changes? What should they be doing over the course of this recess?
OLMERT: My advice is to them to continue to oppose. And my advice to political leaders outside of the state of Israel, particularly to President Joe Biden, who is a good friend of mine - I've been knowing him for tens of years and worked with him - that he should not invite Netanyahu to visit America now. 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.
MARTIN: And how does he do that? I mean, given certainly, his coalition partners expect him to go forward. And obviously, the opponents of this have made clear their position by their demonstrations.
OLMERT: I think that 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 he can't do it, then he has to retire. Then he has to submit his resignation. I know this is a dream that will most likely not come true. But, you know, I - as someone that looks at it 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. And the - I'm not happy to think about another election after having five election campaigns in the last three years. So the alternative is to build up a coalition without those partners and with partners that Netanyahu will have to acquiesce with their policies and not with the policies of the terrorists that are now members of his cabinet.
MARTIN: And very briefly, what will you and others who share your views be doing in this time period?
OLMERT: We'll be writing, and we will be raising the public opinion. We'll continue to oppose the government publicly and in the streets and in every square and street and office in the state of Israel.
MARTIN: That is the former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Mr. Olmert, thank you so much for your time.
OLMERT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.