Amir Ohana needs to serve the people, not the government's interests

The problem for Israel is that Ohana has a profound misunderstanding of what it means for a country to be a democracy.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Justice Minister Amir Ohana
 If there is one characteristic to point out about Public Security Minister Amir Ohana it is that he is loyal. Sadly, his loyalty though is not to the rule of law in Israel or to the country’s democratic institutions, one of which he is currently charged with – the Israel Police – and one which he supervised for almost a year before – the Justice Ministry.
Unfortunately, Ohana’s loyalty begins and ends with the personal needs of his political party’s leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is for this reason, for example, that Ohana – who came in the 20th spot in the Likud primaries ahead of the April 2019 election – got appointed to ministries that are more prominent and senior than party members who were above him on the Likud’s list. He knows what is needed to get top government jobs in a Netanyahu government, and he fulfills that role faithfully and loyally.
The problem for Israel though is that Ohana has a profound misunderstanding of what it means for a country to be a democracy. An example of this misunderstanding was on display for all to see last week, when he reportedly tried to get the police to ban the right to protest outside the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. Ohana has claimed that he did not try to ban the protest, but rather to have it moved to another site in Israel’s capital city.
Political protests are a basic right in any democracy. 15 years ago, the settler camp and its right-wing supporters blocked streets and marched across the country to protest the planned unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip under the disengagement plan. Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), for years, have regularly blocked main traffic arteries in Jerusalem to protest the IDF draft law. The Schalit parents set up a tent outside the Prime Minister’s Residence to put pressure on the government to make a deal to get their son Gilad released from Hamas captivity; and the Left and Right have regularly filled Tel Aviv’s Rabin’s Square over the years to call for peace and to protest the concessions it requires.
Thankfully, the police and particularly the acting commissioner Moti Cohen reportedly put Ohana in his place. According to a transcript of the meeting leaked to the media, Ohana asked if the police would be so tolerant if the protesters demonstrating almost daily outside of Balfour were members of Israel’s minorities – Arabs, Haredim or Israelis of Ethiopian descent.
Cohen then replied to Ohana, saying “I will tell you what,” to which Ohana responded, “You will not answer the question.” Cohen then told Ohana he “will answer the question. You cannot say such things,” to which the minister replied, “You will not tell me what to say and what not to say. I want equal treatment [of protests].”
Ohana would do well to study Israeli law and history. In the late 1970s, the High Court of Justice ruled that the right to protest is one of the basic rights in Israel and in 1993, in another landmark decision, the court reinforced its previous ruling and said the right is drawn from Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.
Historically, Israelis have always protested. They protested against the Oslo Accords, against the First Lebanon War, against the government’s management of the Second Intifada, against the withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and more. That is the people’s right and in Israel the people use it.
That does not mean that protesters can break the law. Protests need to abide by the rules, the laws and the regulations placed on the gathering by the police. But, to stop the right to protest is to deal a deadly blow to a basic democratic right in this country. That is why even now, with the coronavirus spreading, police cannot limit gatherings for protests. People have the right to express their disappointment with the country’s leadership in an attempt to effect change.
Ohana’s loyalty to Netanyahu is admirable. It is time he recognizes that the people are the sovereign power in this country. He works for them. Not for anyone else.