PARIS – Decision-makers in Europe, including those considered friends of Israel, are increasingly critical of the government’s judicial overhaul plan which has caused mass protests for the last three months.
When the plan was first published, after the composition of the Netanyahu government, most European parliamentarians, government ministers and even Jewish leaders in Europe were cautious in public, distancing themselves from what was considered an internal Israeli affair. Judging by recent developments, that is no longer the case.
The first European leader to break the silence was French President Emmanuel Macron. Avoiding the issue in his public statements after meeting at the end of January with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Macron’s office leaked to the Le Monde newspaper that he did in fact warn Netanyahu over the implications of such a plan. Netanyahu’s people tried to minimize the importance of the publication. Still, their efforts – too little, too late – only increased European interest in the issue.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was more direct. Speaking at a joint press conference in Israel with Foreign Minister Eli Cohen at the end of February, Baerbock said, “We abroad are concerned about some Israeli legislative plans. The values that bind us together include the protection of principles of the rule of law such as judicial independence. This was always a hallmark of Israel.”
Baerbock’s statement opened the gate for the flood. A majority of European Parliament factions asked last week to add to the agenda a discussion on “the anti-government protests on judicial independence.” The choice of the topic, debated on March 14, was telling, as was the fact that extreme-left-wing parties were joined by less extreme EP groups. The reedited title of the live-transmitted debate was even more straightforward: “Deterioration of democracy in Israel and consequences on the occupied territories.”
The two currents of the judicial overhaul
The debate at the EP in Strasbourg reflected two growing currents vis-à-vis Israel’s judicial overhaul. The first is left-wing parliamentarians who are linking the overhaul to Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank. For them, the two issues are connected, as both stem from what they regard as the extreme-right policies of the Netanyahu government. Other parliamentarians, long considered friends of Israel, are focusing on the demonstrations. They argue that they cannot defend Israel when it goes against the core democracy values that define the European family of nations.
Spanish parliamentarian Ana Miranda belongs to the first group. Last February, Miranda was barred from entering Israel, to prevent her from traveling to the West Bank. The reason behind Miranda’s expulsion was her participation in a 2015 protest flotilla to Gaza. At the time, Israeli authorities notified her she would not be able to enter the country again.
Miranda was one of the parliamentarians who took the floor at the March 14 debate. She told The Jerusalem Post that debating Israel’s judicial overhaul should not be considered an interference in the country’s internal affairs.
“If adopted, the judicial overhaul will affect and change human rights. It will affect Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and will take Israel closer to annexation of the West Bank. We at the parliament are worried, and the fact is that also conservative factions in the European Parliament are concerned,” said Miranda.
The Spanish parliamentarian added that “the European Union has agreements with Israel. We are supporting and working on the two-state solution. The current Israeli government is extreme, and its policies are worse and worse. These policies are dangerous for the Palestinians, but they are also dangerous for the Israeli society. I’m not against Israel in any way. I have many friends in Israel and work with several Israeli NGOs. The fact that so many people in Israel demonstrate against the judicial overhaul shows that our support is needed.”
Miranda called on EU decision-makers to take strong steps to pressure the Netanyahu government against the reform it is leading, perhaps freezing some of the agreements with Israel or going back to the European initiative of labeling goods from West Bank settlements.
Belgian Marc Botenga is a member of the left-wing faction within the EP. Like Miranda, he linked the Israeli government’s policies on Palestinian territories and the government’s judicial overhaul.
“The connection between these two issues is the extreme-right Israeli government. I’ve been talking to friends in Israel and following up on the demonstrations. In footage from one of the rallies, I saw a poster saying ‘You silenced us on the occupation and now we find ourselves with a dictatorship.’ Israelis themselves are making this linkage,” Botenga told the Post.
Botenga rejected claims that the EP is trying to interfere in Israel’s internal affairs.
“At the parliament we routinely discuss issues of human rights all over the world. This is our responsibility. And this is especially important when it comes to Israel, with which the European Union has a special relationship. We have an association agreement with Israel, which includes a clause on respecting human rights. We finance Israeli research and other programs. So, of course, it is important for us to work with a state of law that respects human rights,” he noted.
If the Netanyahu government continues with these policies, the EU should review the association agreement with Israel and impose sanctions, argued the Belgian parliamentarian. “People have been demonstrating in front of the German Embassy and in front of other European embassies in Israel. I can understand that. They are telling us that we are always talking on human rights, but when it comes to Israel, our close partner, we are suddenly silent.”
French centrist parliamentarian Ilana Cicurel, of Macron’s party, has long been a supporter of Israel, attached to its democracy and destiny. Addressing the EP plenary on March 14, Cicurel called to dissociate the debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the debate on the judicial overhaul. Still, Cicurel also believes that the EP should not stay silent on the judicial overhaul.
Addressing Netanyahu directly, Cicurel asked that he not ignore what she called the most massive mobilization in the history of Israel.
“Don’t lose your greatest allies by ignoring their pleas for reason. Do not betray the founding principles of the State of Israel and the biblical message in the Torah which contributed to the European idea of democracy by laying down the principle of separation of powers and the obligation to set up tribunals to limit the excesses of political power,” argued Cicurel.
German Michael Gahler of the Christian Democratic Party adopted a similar tone. In his March 14 address in Strasbourg, he said that the judicial overhaul legislation must be “a no-go in a functioning democracy.” Gahler praised the efforts by President Isaac Herzog to reach a compromise. Still, he warned that “we want to defend Israel’s right to exist as the Jewish state, but we cannot defend what is illegitimate.”
The French press has been following up closely on developments in Israel, including opinion pieces in almost all the major media outlets criticizing the judicial overhaul. Most of these articles were written by French Jews, reflecting the deep debate now taking place also within the Jewish European community.
Le Figaro, a conservative newspaper, published last week an op-ed by French-Israeli Prof. Denis Charbit. Le Monde has published already several editorials against the government’s plan, including an op-ed by the French-Jewish philosopher Nathan Devers.
Jonathan Arfi, president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, has been encouraging such debates within European Jewry. Talking with the Post, Arfi noted that the judicial overhaul plan would affect, one way or another, Israel’s democracy.
“There are issues such as the Law of Return, and in general what Israel would look like, how it will be shaped for years to come, that concern us all, Jews in the Diaspora. As such, it is important that we, as well, take part in this general debate.”