IMPORTANT VOICES too. Election campaign banners depict Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh, leaders of the Hadash-Ta’al joint list that ran in the April elections.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
You have to ask yourself: do Israel’s opposition parties ever want to win an election again? Because the way they’re acting now, it seems as if they’re deliberately condemning themselves to a lifetime outside the center of power.
It might seem strange to pose such a question after Saturday night’s impressive demonstration against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s plans to put himself out of the reach of the law. For the first time since last month’s election, all of the Zionist opposition parties set their internal arguments aside and banded together to finally create some fighting momentum against Netanyahu’s intended changes to the immunity law and his machinations to weaken the power of the High Court of Justice.
The slogan surrounding the rally hit all the right notes: “Stopping the Immunity Law – A Defensive Shield for Democracy,” as did the statement on the demonstration’s Facebook page: “We will not allow Netanyahu to drag Israel to dangerous Turkey-style legislation, where the ruler is above the law.”
This is no hyperbole. Netanyahu’s plans, to neuter the Supreme Court with an “override clause” that would the cancel court’s right to overturn unconstitutional laws and Knesset decisions, stem solely from the prime minister’s own personal predicament and his desire to escape the clutches of justice.
Suddenly, after having been in power for over a decade, and having made no prior serious attempt to reform the legal system, Netanyahu wants to introduce a major constitutional change that will fundamentally impact the checks and balances of Israeli democracy. To argue that this has no connection to the three criminal prosecutions Netanyahu is facing, pending a hearing, is naïve at best. We all know that while the prime minister may be guilty of many things, including bribery as the charge sheet in one of the cases alleges, naivety is certainly not one of them.
In an unprecedented public letter last week, 98 retired judges wrote that: “Throughout history, there have been countries with democratic regimes where movements were established that used the rights granted to them in order to carry out destructive activities to protect themselves.” The fact that this letter echoed a 1964 High Court ruling that referenced the days of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis was no coincidence.
ONE OF the crucial roles of the justice system is to protect the delicate balances required to safeguard fundamental values and protect human rights. By imposing an override clause that removes court scrutiny of Knesset decisions and laws, a vital brake against the potentially destructive power of the majority is lost. Democracy is not a winner-takes-all system, and the human rights of individuals – even if they voted for the “wrong” party or belong to the “wrong” class or ethnicity – must always enjoy the full protection of the judicial system.
This highlights why the organizers of Saturday night’s demonstration were so wrong to initially rescind their invitation to Hadash-Ta’al leader Ayman Odeh to join the other opposition party leaders in addressing the rally. Their excuse of logistic constraints did not hold water. As was shown by the last-minute scrambling, following a weekend of sharp criticism on social media, there was no problem in adding Odeh, one of the leading representatives of Israel’s Arab citizens, to the list of speakers on the platform.
The battle against corruption and Netanyahu’s attempts to undermine the legal system to escape possible prosecution is a battle that should be waged by all those who care for democracy, Jews and Arabs alike. Israel’s Arab citizens, as a minority population, have a particularly pressing reason to ensure that there are checks and balances on the majority’s power.
But Israel’s main opposition parties lack the sensitivity and political nous to understand this. Back in the recent election campaign, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz made the despicable statement that he was open to sitting in a coalition with “anyone Jewish and Zionist” – in other words, with anyone who is not Arab, thus condemning 20% of Israel’s population to electoral irrelevance.
Except that Israel’s Arab citizens are not irrelevant. If the Center and Center-Left ever want to regain the power they need, to quote Netanyahu himself, Israel’s Arab citizens must come out “in their hordes” on polling day, to overcome the right-wing and religious advantage among Jewish voters. We saw the proof of this last month.
Due to their feeling of alienation from the Israeli political system, barely half of Israel’s Arab citizens bothered to turn out to vote, down from 64% in the previous elections. The Arab parties lost three seats compared to 2015, which in theory should have made Netanyahu’s task in forming a coalition this time around that much easier.
By accepting Odeh’s participation at the rally only at the last minute, the demonstration’s organizers once more gave the impression that for the Israeli mainstream Center and Center-Left, Israel’s Arab citizens are still beyond the pale. Which makes the calls for democracy and the importance of human rights slightly less impressive.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.