Violence is in the air.
The streets are simmering, and political arsonists are running loose. Millions feel cornered, threatened, and above all abused.
Every other day another reactionary lawmaker unveils a new provocation, eager to impress his following and spite everyone else. One plans the Israel Broadcast Corporation’s dismemberment, another wants to defund cultural events on Shabbat, a third wants to segregate the sexes in national parks, and a fourth calls for the opposition leader’s arrest.
Millions feel targeted, collectively and personally, as Israel’s judicial pillars teeter and its political nerves fray.
As the judicial-reform blueprint’s sponsors should have anticipated, but apparently did not, their arrogance ignited mass demonstrations. Then, like Pharaoh after the first plague, the unperturbed prime minister further provoked the Supreme Court and its defenders by showing up in Shas’s parliamentary headquarters in order to depict Arye Deri as the judiciary’s victim.
“Your return,” he told the convicted bribe taker, “is a national necessity.” That the High Court of Justice had just ruled that Deri lied to a judge in a plea bargain evidently means nothing to the man at the Jewish state’s helm.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s religious allies were equally defiant. “We are all here with you,” said Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. Moshe Gafni was even more obsequious: “Rabbi (sic) Deri, you are staying here, we are with you; even if you won’t want to stay – stay you will.”
“Rabbi (sic) Deri, you are staying here, we are with you; even if you won’t want to stay – stay you will.”Moshe Gafni
Across the country, Middle Israelis were pulling their hair out. What ever happened to “you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another” (Leviticus 19:11), as Deri did with his judge? Evidently, it went where “you shall not steal” and “you shall not take bribes” went in Deri’s case, and where “you shall not commit adultery” went in Netanyahu’s case.
As the anti-judicial coalition sees things, the moral laws that ancient Israel gave mankind don’t apply to their leader and his viceroy of choice. If it’s up to them, there will be many more such exemptions soon, as they handpick judges and tell them what to do.
Understandably, then, leaders of the pro-judiciary struggle see no alternative to full-scale revolt. Talking with Netanyahu, said one of them, is like negotiating the length of your hangman’s rope. Negotiating with the judiciary’s enemies would be morally unjust and politically impractical, they say. Well, they are wrong.
Will the anti-judicial reform protests get worse?
LED BY President Isaac Herzog, the effort to mediate between the judiciary’s saboteurs and defenders does not contradict the street-level struggle for the judiciary’s soul.
The protest is gathering unexpected momentum and is set to accelerate. The demonstrators will return to the streets week after week in steadily growing numbers and will be joined by more and more civic circles.
Last week’s petition of senior jurists this week moved on to economists, as two former Bank of Israel governors, Jacob Frenkel and Karnit Flug, warned of capital flight once foreign investors are given reason to suspect that Israel is shifting to Hungary’s version of democracy. The pair’s warning was upheld by Governor Amir Yaron in a meeting with Netanyahu following Yaron’s talks with financial leaders in Davos. The warnings were then joined by Reichman University’s Omer Moav, Israel’s leading neoconservative economist.
Even more powerfully, the economists’ warnings were followed by Prof. Moshe Hazan’s resignation from the Bank of Israel’s Monetary Committee, the forum that sets the shekel’s interest rates.
“Israeli democracy is at risk,” said the Tel Aviv University economist as he announced his intention to join the protests against Netanyahu’s war on the judiciary.
These senior economists were then followed by 500 hi-tech firms that went on a one-hour strike Tuesday. “No Democracy – No Hi-Tech,” read the signs with which hundreds of them marched at the foothills of Tel Aviv’s Azrieli towers while shouting “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
These were just warning shots – hi-tech only, and just one hour. Yet the protest will expand and intensify, culminating, if necessary, in general strikes, including railways, buses, taxis, airports, seaports, theaters and whatnot.
Yes, many people back this government no matter what it does, but millions are appalled by its scheme and are prepared to fight it tooth and nail. That is how civil wars begin, and that is why this one must be prevented before words morph into bloodshed.
OUR FOREBEARS fought a dozen civil wars, culminating in the one that raged inside Jerusalem while Rome’s legions approached its walls. As I argued in my recent book, Jewish history’s defining traumas – the downfalls of biblical Israel, Roman Judea, and modern European Jewry – could have been avoided had our forebears not waged war on themselves. A civil war was unaffordable in 70 CE, and it’s unaffordable in 2023.
Now people ask: what will you negotiate? Well, we will demand one thing: constitutional consensus. There are all kinds of formulas for this.
Canada demands, in addition to bicameral approval, the approvals of two-thirds of its provincial legislatures, representing a majority of the people. The US has a similar format, in addition to a two-thirds congressional majority. Holland demands bicameral approval twice, before and after a general election, with the second vote backed by two-thirds of the parliament. Finland demands a two-thirds parliamentary majority both before and after a general election.
Our demand will be much milder: one vote by one house – the Knesset – backed by two-thirds of lawmakers, thus representing the broad consensus that constitutional legislation is meant to be all about.
That is where Herzog’s mediation should strive, and that is what you, mister prime minister, must concede – if not out of nobility then out of calculation because we, like the Union before the American Civil War, have on our side both economic power and moral justice, and will thus win the civil war that we are so reluctant to join and you seem so eager to torch.
The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.