The fear of being manipulated, taken advantage of, or played for a sucker is something deeply ingrained in the Israeli psyche.
There is little worse for Israelis than being a freier (sucker). This could mean paying more for a car, an apartment, or a trip to Turkey than one’s neighbor or not haggling over prices with a plumber during a home visit or with a fruit seller in Mahane Yehuda.
This apprehension, this “fear of freing” – being perceived as incredibly naive and exceedingly gullible – is as much a part of the Israeli persona as chutzpah and rallying together during a security crisis.
Compromise on the judicial reform
The overwhelmingly negative and tentative reactions from the country’s leading political figures to Monday night’s news of a potential compromise on the judicial overhaul plan that would perhaps put an end to this nine-month-old saga that has knocked the apple-cart called Israel badly off-kilter can be at least partially attributed to not wanting to be seen as a sucker.
The proposed compromise would include softening the law passed by the Knesset at the end of its summer session limiting the court’s application of the reasonableness standard, thereby likely preventing the planned High Court of Justice hearing on the matter set now for September 12.
The compromise also would retain the makeup of the nine-member judicial selection committee, but would require seven votes in favor of a judge’s appointment instead of the existing simple majority, and would freeze other elements of the judicial reform plan for 18 months.
Most coalition spokespersons who took to the airwaves to react to the compromise proposal were negative, with the thrust of their argument being that it would essentially bury the judicial overhaul plan, with the coalition making far more concessions than the opposition. This, they argued, would constitute an unnecessary capitulation by the parties in power to those who lost the last election, something that only a freier would even consider.
Likewise, most opposition spokespersons and leaders of the massive protest movement who took to the airwaves to react to the compromise proposal were equally negative, with the thrust of their argument being that it was all “spin” orchestrated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aimed at buying time and smoothing the path to a successful meeting with US President Joe Biden later this month. Opposition politicians and protest leaders alike repeated the same mantra: “We will not be fooled,” which is essentially a variation of the very Israeli question, “What are we, freiers?”
But let’s assume for a moment that the naysayers on both sides are correct. Let’s assume that the coalition is indeed making more concessions than the opposition, and that the proposal is a political maneuver to improve the atmosphere before Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to the US. So what? Would that be such a catastrophe?
Israel is currently sailing head-on with eyes wide open into a constitutional crisis of monumental proportions. The High Court may strike down a Basic Law relating to the reasonableness standard, and the Knesset may respond by challenging the court’s authority to do anything of the kind.
The country is standing on the brink of a situation whereby the government might not abide by what the court decides. That is the mother of all constitutional crises and something that must be averted at all costs.
So along comes a compromise proposal that may or may not be sincere and may or may not be a 50-50 compromise right down the middle. But how wise is it to reject the proposal outright because of the fear of being seen as a freier?
Might this be spin? Sure. But maybe it is not. Perhaps it is the real deal. Assume, for a moment, that the proposal is a political ruse that will eventually unravel. Even in that eventuality, the country will be no worse off than it is now.
However, if the offer spurned was not a political ploy, but rather a genuine proposal to extricate the country from its current quagmire, then the country will only sink further into the mud by missing the opportunity.
A few months ago, the opposition parties – saying they would not be freiers – walked away from the previous round of negotiations under the president’s auspices. The result of that move? The coalition passed the law limiting the reasonableness statute, exacerbating the existing crisis.
President Isaac Herzog, in a meeting with Jewish leaders in Vienna on Tuesday, said, “There are moments in these types of crises when leadership is required to take advantage of the rare opportunity to reach out and come to agreements, and this is one of those moments.
“We are just before Rosh Hashanah,” he said, “before the High Holidays, and for nine months we have been in a deep crisis impacting in a dramatic way on our lives, our security, our economy, our society and our behavior. Enough already.”
Herzog called on the country’s leader to “act responsibly, look reality in the eye, reach out, and make every effort to try to reach a broad agreement” so that this crisis will be a thing of the past and the country can deal with its other challenges.
Then why aren’t the leaders rising to the occasion? Why are they being so cagey? Because they are concerned about getting clobbered by the extremists in their own camps.
Extreme voices shout the loudest
Netanyahu fears backlash from Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and Tally Gotliv, while Gantz and Lapid are concerned about extremists within the opposition and protest movement leaders who are nixing any compromise and repeat the same vacuous slogans about never compromising when it comes to democracy.Surveys consistently indicate, however, that most Israelis want to see compromise, and that most Israelis want to see some judicial reform, albeit not at the pace and scale proposed.
Despite this, the politicians seem more concerned about the opinions of the most extreme voices in their camps. Netanyahu is worried about Ben-Gvir and Gotliv, while Gantz and Lapid are concerned about what Ehud Barak or Shikma Bressler will say at the next “Kaplan Force” protest in Tel Aviv.
Herzog called on the country’s leaders to show leadership and demonstrate responsibility. In this context, it means standing up to the extremists within their camps so sure of the rightness of their cause that they are not willing to broach any compromise, causing the country untold harm in the process.
Jumping at a proposal that could possibly put the country back on course should be an obvious choice. That it is not a no-brainer shows how afraid the leaders are of the extremists and how deeply the fear of not being a freier runs in this country.