In 1944, just prior to the allied invasion of France, US General George Patton gave one of modern history’s most powerful motivational speeches to troops about to go to battle. Toward the end of the speech, Patton said this:
“Thirty years from now when you’re sitting by your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks, ‘What did you do in the great World War II?’ you won’t have to cough and say, ‘Well, your granddaddy shoveled s*** in Louisiana.’
“Thirty years from now when you’re sitting by your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks, ‘What did you do in the great World War II?’ you won’t have to cough and say, ‘Well, your granddaddy shoveled s*** in Louisiana.’”George Patton
“No sir,” Patton continued. Then, using even saltier language than that above, he told the men that they could tell their descendants “granddaddy” rode with him “and the great Third Army.”
Echoes of Patton’s memorable speech were noticeable in the speech Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid delivered to some 100,000 protesters against judicial reform gathered on Monday in front of the Knesset.
“The struggle won’t end today; it will be long,” Lapid said of the battle against the judicial reform put forward by Justice Minister Yariv Levin. “There will be highs and lows, but the day will come when every single man and woman here in the streets will tell their kids: ‘The day the state of Israel needed me most, I was there. I was not silent.’”
“There will be highs and lows, but the day will come when every single man and woman here in the streets will tell their kids: ‘The day the state of Israel needed me most, I was there. I was not silent.’”Yair Lapid
That was Lapid channeling his inner Patton.
In the groove, the opposition leader then channeled another great World War II era leader, Winston Churchill. “We will fight in the streets, we will fight in the [Knesset] building, we will fight until we win,” he said, as Churchill’s famous wartime “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets” speech came to mind.
Over the top? Perhaps. But for some, the fight to stop the coalition’s reform plan is their very own Normandy invasion. Take former prime minister Ehud Olmert, for instance, who said on camera that the protests are nice, but war is needed.
“What is needed is to move to the next stage, the stage of war, and war is not waged with speeches. War is waged in a face-to-face battle, head-to-head and hand-to-hand, and that is what will happen here,” he said in an interview with DemocraTV.
“While it’s great to see 100,000 people turn out to protest, that’s not what will clinch the real fight. The real fight will break through these fences and spill over into a real war,” Olmert added.
“While it’s great to see 100,000 people turn out to protest, that’s not what will clinch the real fight. The real fight will break through these fences and spill over into a real war.”Ehud Olmert
And Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai had this to contribute: “Democratic countries such as ours can become dictatorships. But dictatorships can only return to being democracies through bloodshed. This is what history has taught us.”
“Democratic countries such as ours can become dictatorships. But dictatorships can only return to being democracies through bloodshed. This is what history has taught us.”Ron Huldai
History has also taught something else: delegitimizing political opponents by painting wild, worst-case scenarios is not new. Even leaders as great as Churchill tend to fall prey to the temptation.
Two months after World War II ended in 1945, Britain held a general election, with Churchill trying to ride a tide of popularity for his wartime leadership into another term as prime minister. His opponent was the Labour Party’s Clement Attlee. In a radio address, Churchill warned that Labour-type socialism would lead to a police state.
“No socialist government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp or violently worded expressions of public discontent,” he said. “They would have to fall back on some forms of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance.”
Chords of that same rhetoric are being employed here and now.
ONE QUESTION that needs to be asked is what Lapid means when he says “we will fight until we win?” What does winning mean? What constitutes a victory here for Lapid?
What is the end goal for anti-judicial reform efforts?
Is it merely changes in Levin’s judicial reform proposal, or is it more than that? Is it bringing down the Netanyahu government? The two things are quickly becoming conflated, which is why finding a way out of the current impasse tearing the country apart is proving difficult.
On the surface, finding a compromise on the judicial reform issue should not be that terribly difficult, not something that has people openly talking about spilling blood.
One thing that this government, which as of Thursday has been in office for 50 days, has accomplished, is that it placed the issue of judicial reform on the table. There will be no turning back. Something is going to change; the balance in this country between the judicial branch and the executive/legislative branch (unlike in the US, here they are essentially the same) is going to be altered. The question is, by how much?
The government, over the objections of those who think the current system is sacrosanct, has achieved a broad consensus – if the polls are to be believed – for some judicial reform. Not the overkill Levin and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman Simcha Rothman have laid out, but some sort of reform.
Two things make it hard to find a compromise
But two things are making it difficult for both sides to enthusiastically approach the ladder President Isaac Herzog provided them on Sunday as a way down from the high trees upon which they climbed and begin to compromise.
The first is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the second is that the protests are not only about reform.
Regarding Netanyahu, one constant refrain during each of the five election campaigns the country ran from 2019 to 2022 was that an individual on trial for bribery, breach of trust and fraud in the Jerusalem District Court should not simultaneously serve as prime minister.
Several reasons were given for this: that on a moral level it is wrong for a man so accused to be the most powerful person in the state; that he will use his lofty position to influence his trial; that he will not have the bandwidth to focus both on his trial and on the gargantuan task of running this most challenging country.
The electorate didn’t buy this argument, however, and Netanyahu was voted back into office.
Nevertheless, this week the country learned why having a man on trial to serve as prime minister is problematic. With the country facing its most serious domestic crisis since the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and its most serious constitutional crisis since the establishment of the state in 1948, the prime minister is prohibited, because of a conflict of interest, from getting involved.
Many voices were heard in the aftermath of the five-point program Herzog laid out as a basis of compromise: Lapid’s voice, Levin’s voice, National Unity head Benny Gantz’s voice, Rothman’s voice. Only one voice was missing: Netanyahu’s.
The biggest crisis facing the country in years, and the prime minister cannot dive deeply into it, because of a conflict-of-interest arrangement former attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit drew up which is still in effect, barring him from involvement in legislation that would affect the legal proceedings against him.
It is admirable that Herzog is trying to get the sides to tamp down the tensions, to pause the legislation, to sit down and talk, but his leverage is limited; his toolbox is sparse. Not so, Netanyahu’s.
The prime minister, by virtue of being the prime minister, can bully and cajole and persuade and compromise and get things done to a degree that the president is unable.
Except this prime minister cannot. Why not? Because he is on trial for bribery, breach of trust and fraud. And the fact that he can’t get involved makes finding a way out of this crisis more difficult. The country this week witnessed one of the costs of having a man on trial lead the country.
THE SECOND THING making it difficult for the sides to find their way to an exit ramp is that the issue at hand is not only about the judicial reform.
Were it only about judicial reform, then Levin and Rothman could pause legislation for a couple of weeks and, on the basis of Herzog’s five-point proposal, sit down and negotiate with the other side. And were it only about judicial reform, the opposition and those leading the protests would be willing to sit down and negotiate and not demand – as some of those behind the protests are demanding – to completely shelve the proposals, or as Lapid is demanding, to halt the process for 60 days.
No, this is about much more than reform. If the Likud formally pauses the legislation under pressure, it will look weak. And if the opposition takes its foot off the gas with the protests, it will look weak. Nobody wants to look weak; each side wants to pin down the other in this high-stakes arm wrestling match. And if they manage to pin down the arm of the other, it will be seen as a huge political victory.
The coalition is uninterested in pausing legislation – although for all intents and purposes it did so this week, without calling it that – because it is concerned that if it does so, the fate of this reform will be similar to the fate of similar proposals in the past: a slow death in committee.
And the opposition has even less incentive to call off the protests sweeping across the land. As Ta’al MK Ahmad Tibi said candidly in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee this week, negotiations would take the air out of the protests.
This is why Lapid and others are not keen on entering the negotiations. They don’t want the air taken out of these protests. The protests create an atmosphere of crisis, of a government that can’t govern, and that is the perception the opposition wants to create. That is a way to weaken and ultimately bring down the government.
What we are witnessing now is a mirror image of what we witnessed during the reign of Naftali Bennett, when Netanyahu did everything he could – including getting the opposition he led to vote against things it actually believed in – to bring down the government.
Netanyahu’s efforts as opposition head, however, were focused inside the Knesset because Bennett had a slim and shaky majority, and all he had to do was get a couple of defectors and the government would come falling down. He did not have to call mass protests to put pressure on the government; he could create that pressure himself from within the Knesset.
Not so Lapid. Lapid has the same objective that Netanyahu had when the latter was head of the opposition: to end the government’s tenure as swiftly as possible. Lapid’s problem, however, is that while Netanyahu’s coalition enjoys a 64-56 majority, his chances of shaking it up inside the Knesset are slim. His best chance is to do it on the streets, in the form of mass protests and perhaps civil disobedience. He can’t bring the government down from within the Knesset, but he might be able to do so from outside its walls.
That being the case, why would Lapid want to agree to enter negotiations, something that would pour cold water on the demonstrations, slowing them down just as they are picking up speed?
And this week they did pick up speed, bringing to mind the mass protests of the 1990s against the Oslo process, and in 2005 against the withdrawal from Gaza. Bear in mind, however, that both those previous protest movements ultimately failed: Oslo rolled on, and Gush Katif was uprooted.
One does not have to be a legal expert to realize that the way to end this current impasse is through compromise, and there are minds in this country definitely nimble enough to be able to construct one. Israel, over the years, has found ways to solve much more complicated problems.
One of the difficulties now, however, is that for some, a lack of compromise – keeping the country on the brink – serves their political interests.•