Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s speech at a primetime press conference with fellow RZP member Simcha Rothman on Tuesday reflected the current status of the government’s judicial overhaul.
Simply put, it is in trouble.
The speech’s purpose was to show the public that even the Religious Zionist Party, the only party to fly the judicial overhaul flag during last year’s election, was willing to be the “responsible adult” and begin a process of dialogue with the opposition, according to Smotrich’s spokesperson.
The finance minister appealed for calm and a reduction in rhetoric, calling on citizens to “rise above politics, above suspicion and apprehension, above hatred and polarization and come together as one to restore unity to Israel and promote moves for real reform in the justice system for the benefit of all Israeli citizens.”
Without the opposition accepting negotiations, and with the concerns of fellow citizens in mind, he said the reformist camp was forced to implement compromises by themselves. The coalition subsequently made these changes on Monday, with a delay of most of the reform plan and the “softening” of the Judicial Selection Committee with a new bill version. The softening was a show of responsibility and a pivot towards a reform the opposition could live with, he said.
The coalition would pass the softened version by the end of next week. Then, everything will slow down and reconciliation can begin, he said.
But we already knew this – the coalition announced it earlier this week. More than anything else, the attempt to exude calm, and the finance minister’s apologetic, sincere demeanor, indicated that behind the scenes, all is not well.
There are at least three reasons for this.
First, the softening itself: the coalition gets an automatic majority in the committee (six out of 11), but can only appoint two High Court justices in one tenure. The leaders of every one of the opposition parties, the Attorney-General’s Office and the Knesset’s legal advisers all opined that this did not solve the main problem with the previous version: the politicization of the court system.
Why? Because Israel’s political history shows that coalitions often do not appoint more than two judges, and because one of the two upcoming vacancies this October is that of the chief justice, who controls many facets of the High Court, and the coalition can use its majority to choose the next chief justice as it pleases, among other reasons.
One can argue with these claims, but the gist of Smotrich’s speech – that the coalition would quickly pass this bill, and then be sweet and generous – is completely unacceptable to the opposition, and likely will lead to an enhancement of the protests.
Second, Smotrich and Rothman, who is chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, were attacked by members of their own coalition from the Likud and Otzma Yehudit for making such a concession in the first place. In his speech, Smotrich did not just try to placate his opponents – he also tried to placate his allies, preaching “responsibility” and unconditional Zionism. After two months of artillery fire from the opposition and protests, the two NRP MKs are now taking fire from another direction.
Third, Smotrich is coming off two trips abroad, to the US and Paris, full of gaffes and controversy. He was shunned by the US administration, widely ridiculed for his English in a video that went viral, he created a crisis with Jordan by speaking at a podium whose front showed a map of Israel that included parts of modern-day Jordan, he created controversy by saying that there was no such thing as a Palestinian people, and he received opinions from within his own Finance Ministry indicating the immense damage that the reform would cause to the economy if it leads to a downgrade in Israel’s credit rating. All this in just one week.
These three points show that Smotrich is taking fire from all sides, and his press conference seemed almost a desperate attempt to save face.
But rather than strengthen his position, it mostly showed that his and Rothman’s cherished reform is in trouble – and may not survive.•