Despite the massive weekly demonstrations, despite the over-the-top rhetoric from both sides, despite the calls for civil disobedience, despite indications some reservists might not show up for reserve duty, despite threats by opposition MKs to quit the Knesset en masse, many people believe in their heart-of-hearts that at the end it will all work out.
Many people believe and fervently hope that at the end of the day cooler heads and common sense will prevail, that both sides will realize that all this brinkmanship is going to lead the country right over the brink and that the coalition and the opposition will ultimately sit down and find a middle ground between the judicial status quo and a judicial revolution.
But, as they say in Brooklyn, fuggedaboutit.
With the passions being what they are, with both sides fortified behind their positions, with the protests not petering out but gaining momentum, this will not happen.
Israel's coalition, opposition won't find a common ground
Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman and Labor head Meirav Michaeli, all sensing an opportunity here to significantly weaken the government from the outside and possibly bring it down, are not going to sit down and talk with the coalition about a compromise that could lead to an end to the massive weekly protests.
National Unity head Benny Gantz might want to, but – because he was burned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the past and is worried Lapid, Liberman and Michaeli would pulverize him if he opted to negotiate now – will most likely not do so either.
The success of the protests, and the ability to keep them alive for two months, has emboldened the opposition leaders and the organizers of the protests themselves. These demonstrations may not have prevented the coalition from bringing drafts of two elements of the judicial reform to the Knesset for a first reading, but they have created an atmosphere of chaos. And Lapid and the opposition leaders have no political interest in tamping down that atmosphere.
So what can Netanyahu and the coalition do?
They will not accede to demands to freeze legislation – that would be to concede defeat.
Yet they are facing massive protests that are gaining momentum weekly. The perception this transmits to friend and foe abroad is a nation in chaos – unable to get its act together. Not only is that bad for credit ratings and financial markets, but it also sends the wrong message to Israel’s enemies of a nation badly divided and losing its sense of solidarity. Enemies strike when they perceive division.
So what is the remaining realistic option for the government out of this impasse? Unilateralism.
That’s right, unilateralism.
President Isaac Herzog has called on both sides to sit and talk. If the opposition leaders and leaders of the various groups making up the protest continue to oppose negotiation, the coalition should unilaterally freeze legislation for a period of time – as Herzog first suggested earlier this month – and negotiate with Herzog, or under Herzog’s auspices with academics and legal experts and significant public leaders.
Call it a form of back-channel negotiations, à la the Oslo process, but this time not aiming for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but rather peace among the Israelis themselves.
In this scenario the coalition, realizing that it has aimed way too high with this reform and in the process is losing half the country, would lower the bar. They would unilaterally water down the reform and come to a middle ground, thereby taking some of the wind out of the sails of the protests.
Former prime minister Ehud Barak, one of the most strident voices against the reform, seemed to have a premonition that this is the direction things might be headed when he directed his comments at the central demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday night toward Herzog.
“Is Your Excellency in the D9 camp or the Declaration of Independence camp?” he asked. The D9 camp refers to the bulldozer that Barak and the opponents to the reform argue Netanyahu – in the form of the judicial reform proposals – is sending against the Supreme Court.
The protest movement’s leaders put out a statement on Sunday saying that “a government that is trying to turn Israel into a dictatorship is not a legitimate partner for dialogue. Instead of telling the truth to the public, the president joined the D9 gang, is darkly promoting a bad compromise on half-democracy, and is remaining silent in the face of incitement. Lapid and Gantz – you have no mandate to talk about democracy.”
So there you have it. The maximalist camp is opposed to any dialogue. This means that the only thing the coalition can do - short of giving it to their demands completely, which will not happen - is to devise a compromise solution on its own.
Many people heaved a sigh of relief last November 1 when the election results came in and it appeared that the country would not be barrelling toward a sixth election in four years.
Finally, many thought, Israel would have a government; finally it would have some stability. Though a great many had concerns about the composition of the government, there was at least a degree of relief that the election cycle had ended, and that the campaigns were over with all their toxicity, venom and nastiness.
But they were wrong.
The election cycle is not over, and these protests are as much about bringing down the government as they are about changing the judicial reform.
Yes, the desire to change the reform proposal is genuine, but notice the signs “Crime Minister“ that appear prominently at the protests. In the eyes of those flying those banners, Netanyahu will not cease to be a “Crime Minister“ even if a compromise reform is worked out.
If a compromise is reached, those signs will not disappear, nor will the anti-Netanyahu sentiment behind them evaporate. That will not happen until Netanyahu exits center stage. And even then, the toxic fallout from this period will linger for years.
Suppose – as is the case now – the opposition leaders continue to be unwilling to discuss a compromise because they have their own political agenda. In that case, the coalition should talk with Herzog and other leading public figures, academics and jurists interested in finding a way out of this mess – and do it without the opposition.
Some will still continue to protest. But if the compromise that is reached secures the independence of the judiciary and preserves it as a guardian of civil rights while allowing the government to set and implement policy, then many others will see the mass protest movement – if it will continue – as merely a continuation of the election campaign by another name.