Seeking compromise: The way forward after reasonableness clause bill - analysis

The best option for the country now teetering again on the brink of turmoil is for the coalition and the opposition to return to talks.

 President Isaac Herzog leads the first round of judicial reform negotiations in the President's Residence in Jerusalem on March 28, 2023 (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog leads the first round of judicial reform negotiations in the President's Residence in Jerusalem on March 28, 2023
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

Barring any dramatic unforeseen developments, the next two days are likely to look like this.

On Monday, the coalition, which has a 64-56 majority in the Knesset, will pass the first reading of a law that will limit “reasonableness” as a standard of judicial review. The debate will be stormy, the heckling intense, and the scene tumultuous.

On Tuesday, the anti-judicial overhaul forces will respond with a day of disruption. Thousands of people will descend on Ben-Gurion Airport, as they did last week, and disrupt operations there. Thousands more will try to block major interchanges around the country, including the Ayalon Highway. Big announced it would close its 24 malls around the country.

And then, on Wednesday, the sun will rise on a new Israeli day. Then the question will become, what now?

Each side proved their point: the coalition proved that it has the numbers and the will to legislate part of its sweeping judicial reform plan, even though it was viewed until recently as a relatively minor part of the whole plan and by no means anything that turns Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into Juan Peron and Israel into Peronist Argentina.

 Israelis protest and clash with police during a protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, July 3, 2023 (credit: AMNON HORESH)
Israelis protest and clash with police during a protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, July 3, 2023 (credit: AMNON HORESH)

The opposition and anti-judicial forces proved that they retain the ability to disrupt daily life in the country: to tie up traffic, cause air travelers anxiety and inconvenience, and disrupt the country’s economy.

Now that both sides have proven their point, both sides have flexed their muscles, and both sides have shown that they are not the other side’s frier (sucker), what’s next? What do they do on Wednesday?

For starters, they should welcome what is expected to be a vote in the Knesset on the coalition’s representative to the nine-man judicial selection committee and convene that committee immediately. The immediate convening of that body will depend on the Israel Bar Association selecting its two representatives.

Why is this important? Because the failure to convene this committee was the trigger last month that sent Israel spiraling back to the madness accompanying the judicial overhaul plan.

When Netanyahu failed to agree on a coalition candidate for this committee, though he decided there would be one representative from the coalition and another from the opposition, both Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid and National Unity party head Benny Gantz walked away from talks aimed at reaching a compromise on the judicial overhaul plan that was being held under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog.

Lapid and Gantz’s decision to walk away from the talks that had been going on for a couple of months and brought some quiet to the streets was obviously going to lead to a response from the coalition, and it did. A few days later, the government started pushing through legislation on the reasonableness clause. In other words, neither side blinked.

The coalition gambled that if they didn’t select a committee member for the judicial selection committee and convened it as soon as possible, there would be no response from the opposition. And the opposition apparently thought that the coalition would be cowed by a break in the talks and a return of multitudes to the streets in protest. 

They both miscalculated, which is why in early-July, the country has been thrust back to where it was in late March when the judicial reform plan was moving quickly through the Knesset and the streets were on fire.

The situation now is different than in late March

Except a couple of things have changed since then.

First, the passage of the reasonableness clause -- even if it is not watered down as is likely to happen in the Knesset’s second and third readings -- is not the passage of the entire judicial overhaul proposed by Justice Minister Yariv Levin a week after the new government was sworn into office. 

This is an issue that the sides were apparently close to reaching an agreement upon during their talks and did not fundamentally change the structure of the government -- despite dire warnings to the contrary.

Second, while picking up steam again, the protests are not widening. 

True, tens of thousands of people are turning out week after week in Tel Aviv and elsewhere to protest, but it appears to be the same tens of thousands. The “Kaplan Force,” as the organizers of the protests call themselves, have not succeeded in widening the demographic of the protesters.

When there is more than just a smattering of knitted kippot in the crowd, when there are even some black kippot, when taxi drivers join high-tech executives in signing letters against the reforms, when reserve Golani officers -- not only officers in the 8200 intelligence unit -- say they will not show up for reserve duty as a result of the proposals, then that would be a sign of a protest that is widening.

But it’s not. It’s the same old same old. The same old slogans, the same old speakers, the same old methods, the same old demographics turning out to protest week after week.  A protest movement, even if it continues for 100 weeks, runs its course if it cannot attract new people to join, and this protest -- by all appearances -- has been unable to do that.

The noise these massive demonstrations created in the beginning -- coupled with threats by pilots and other reservists not to show up for reserve duty -- had a huge impact on changing the scope and pace of the judicial overhaul plan. But the talks under the president’s auspices took some of the wind out of the protests, and their overall impact on the government since those talks were called off did not reach their level earlier in the year. 

Another Saturday night, another massive demonstration -- so what? It hasn’t changed the government’s determination to legislate at least one piece of the judicial reform plan. 

As the demonstrations become routine, the tendency will be to ramp them up, making them more noisy and disruptive. The danger in that - at least from the protesters’ perspective - is that the more disruptive they become, the more likely they will be to turn off those they are trying to convince.

Evidence of this already exists in the polling. 

Maariv, which has been tracking almost every week since the beginning of the year how the parties would be doing if elections were held today, released a poll on Friday showing that for the first time in 14 weeks, Likud -- were elections held today -- would once again be the largest party and that the current coalition parties would win 55 seats, while the parties that made up the Bennett-Lapid government would win 60 seats, and Hadash-Ta’alwould win the remaining five.

Before opponents of this government celebrate that this means the current opposition would be able to form a government, it behooves everyone to remember that because of the unwieldy ideological composition of that government -- Right and Left, Islamist parties with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu -- that government only lasted 18 months.

Even if the protest movement succeeds in bringing down the current government -- one of its aims, though less openly stated -- the alternative is anything but a stable government. 

Add to the mix the likelihood that if such a government were to arise in Israel, right-wing protest groups -- leaning on the experience of the last several months -- would undoubtedly coalesce to make that government’s life as miserable as the current protest government is making the life of the current government.

So the question remains: What lies ahead on Wednesday, following the initial passage of the restriction of the reasonableness clause in the Knesset and a tumultuous day of disruption? 

With both sides having staunchly asserted their positions, with both sides having adamantly refused to back down, the best option for the country now teetering again on the brink of internal turmoil is for representatives of the coalition and the opposition to reconvene at the president’s residence in a continued effort to figure out a way to compromise.