That is the question on everyone’s minds following the passage of two elements of the judicial reform in their first Knesset reading early Tuesday morning.
After weeks of massive protests and overheated rhetoric, where does the country go from here?
A significant moment
The passage of the two bills on their first readings is not an irreversible moment, but it is a significant one.
There is still plenty of time and space for compromise before the bills pass their second and third readings and go to the president to be signed into law, but there needs to be goodwill. And, up until now, neither side has been willing to show that will; each side is instead intent on all-out victory.
The sadness in all this is that if one side insists on all-out victory, the other side loses. And the other side, in this case, is not the enemy, the other side is rather brothers. The other side is those who fight side-by-side in the army, who celebrate together, who mourn as one. Why would brothers want to see total victory over one another?
Yet, until now, that has been the mindset in the judicial reform saga: total victory or nothing.
It is now time to change that mindset. What is needed are two things that President Isaac Herzog alluded to in comments on Tuesday – magnanimity in victory, and humility in defeat.
First regarding magnanimity in victory. Unfortunately, in recent domestic Israeli political history this has not exactly been the country’s byword.
No magnanimity in Israeli politics
Rather than magnanimity in victory, seeing the concerns and fears and frustrations of the other side and taking them into account, the last 30 years have been marked by the opposite: intoxication with victory, and the belief that to the victor go the spoils.
Yitzhak Rabin showed no magnanimity in the early 1990s when he eked out a narrow coalition and then pushed through the Oslo accords, despite the fears and misgivings of half the country that did not support it. Ariel Sharon showed no magnanimity when he pushed through the withdrawal from Gaza despite the fierce protests of a good part of the country that was opposed.
No, this country’s politicians are not known for magnanimity in victory. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could have spared himself – and the country – much political sorrow had he just shown political rival Gideon Sa’ar, now an MK in Benny Gantz’s National Unity party, some magnanimity after he defeated him in the 2019 Likud primaries.
But Netanyahu failed to prove magnanimous in his primary victory over Sa’ar. Even though Sa’ar won the respectable fifth position on the Likud list, Netanyahu did not offer him a post in the inflated corona emergency government he formed with Gantz. Moreover, he didn’t even hand him a significant Knesset committee chairmanship, even though Sa’ar had served previous stints as interior and education minister.
Had he done so, it is likely that Sa’ar wouldn’t have broken with Netanyahu and the Likud to become a constant thorn in Netanyahu’s side.
Netanyahu wasn’t content with defeating Sa’ar, he added insult to injury by not bringing him into the cabinet. For the following election in 2021, Sa’ar bolted the party, depriving Netanyahu of a coalition.
A gesture is needed
NOW NETANYAHU must rise up above himself, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman Simcha Rothman must rise up above themselves, and show magnanimity to those who oppose the judicial reform. How? By making a gesture, and freezing the process for a short period to get the other side into a dialogue.
As Herzog said, the onus is on the coalition as the more powerful party to make the first move.
One of the reasons Abraham Lincoln has gone down as such a great US president is because the trait he demonstrated throughout his political career was magnanimity: magnanimity to political rivals, bringing them into his cabinet; and magnanimity toward defeated foes, allowing the Confederate soldiers to retain their dignity after the Civil War.
Lincoln realized, as one scholar noted a few years back, that “as a good leader, he knew that it is going to be easier to bring the country back together if you are magnanimous and generous.” Lincoln realized that being harsh and spiteful to the South was not going to do anybody any good.
Israel, thank God, is not reeling from a civil war, but it is badly split, and as such this message is very timely. A split nation now serves no one’s interests, except perhaps those of the country’s enemies.
To mend the split, generous political actions right now by the powerful side – by the coalition that has the power to bulldoze through whatever it wants – are desperately needed.
In Tuesday’s post-vote rhetoric, there were few signs of that generosity. Though Netanyahu may be legally prohibited from delving into the details of the judicial reform, he is not legally prohibited from showing political generosity to the other side. Now is the time for him to do so.
And the other side, the opposition, now needs to learn some humility in defeat.
The opposition lost.
They lost in the elections, and they lost in their efforts – through massive protests and threats of civil war and warnings of mass emigration and predictions of a collapse of the hi-tech sector and the economy – to knock the idea of judicial reform out of the coalition’s mind.
The decision to bring the bills to the Knesset for a first reading was a loud message to the opposition: this ship is sailing. It hasn’t yet reached its final destination, there is still much time before it gets there to rearrange the deck, but the ship is sailing and it is not turning back.
The opposition needs to recognize that, and deal accordingly. What does that mean? It means facing reality. It means that if it is genuinely concerned that the reforms as proposed are a threat to Israel’s democracy, then it should enter negotiations immediately with the coalition to try and soften them. The opposition will not get everything it wants, but is likely to get at least some of what it wants.
What is depressing is to hear Labor party head Meirav Michaeli take to the radio and social media and advocate no dialogue so as not to give the reforms any legitimacy.
Why? What will be gained by that? A lack of dialogue isn’t going to stop the reform from moving forward, and as large and loud as the protests are, they are not going to bring down the government. Other governments, Labor governments in fact, have weathered protests as big and as angry as these.
Michaeli was famously stubborn before the elections last year in preventing her party from running on a joint list with Meretz, convinced in the rightness of her way. As a result, Meretz did not pass the electoral threshold, those votes were wasted, and the most right-wing government in the country’s history was ushered in.
Sometimes you compromise, because if you don’t, if you remain ideologically pure, you lose. That is something both sides now need to internalize.