Let Israel's new gov't do what the voters want – govern - opinion

The legal clouds hovering over Netanyahu might be a stain on his decisions, but they don't mean this gov't lacks the right to govern.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting on Tuesday. (photo credit: Atef Safadi/AFP via Getty Images)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
(photo credit: Atef Safadi/AFP via Getty Images)

Today is January 6 and the second anniversary of the assault on the US Capitol and the attempt to undermine the American election process.

It is an interesting time to reflect on the events of the last week here in Israel. On Sunday, after the swearing in of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s government last Thursday, the newly-installed ministers went to their offices and held ceremonies with the people who just days earlier had heckled, yelled and protested against the establishment of their exact government.

At the Transportation Ministry, for example, Miri Regev took over from Merav Michaeli. The two could not be greater adversaries. Regev represents the hard-line of the Likud party; Michaeli represents the liberal, progressive Labor Party. Nevertheless, the two held a ceremony – it was civil – and they even embraced in front of photographers.

At the Finance Ministry, head of the Yisrael Beytenu Party Avigdor Liberman handed over the keys to his archnemesis – Religious Zionist Party head Bezalel Smotrich. The two had clashed for years and accused one another of leading Israel to destruction. Nevertheless, they held a peaceful transition.

And then there was even the Public Security Ministry where Itamar Ben-Gvir – the minister who caused the greatest uproar this week with his visit to the Temple Mount – held a ceremony with outgoing Labor minister Omer Bar Lev.

 President Isaac Herzog poses with the 37th government of Israel, December 29, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) President Isaac Herzog poses with the 37th government of Israel, December 29, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Does this mean everybody gets along? Of course not. Does this mean that Labor or Yisrael Beytenu suddenly agrees with Likud or the RZP? Not at all.

What it does mean, though, is that before everything, Israel’s democracy is strong, vibrant and kicking. Our politicians will continue to disagree, but in the end, they respect the outcome of our democratic process, and that democratic process has brought to power the government that is currently in Jerusalem.

Israel's democracy is strong, vibrant and kicking

IN EARLY December, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a J Street conference that the Biden administration would evaluate and judge the new government by its policies and not its personalities. It didn’t take that long. On 7 a.m. Tuesday, Ben-Gvir visited the Temple Mount for 13 minutes and set off an international firestorm whose repercussions are still being felt.

Put aside the fact that there was nothing special about Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount and one could even say that he did it in a way that was moderate and discreet, a 180-degree change from the way he has been until now. No media was invited, there were barely any Palestinians at the site and the visit was quick.

Also, put aside the fact that Jews have an undeniable right to visit Judaism’s holiest site. There should be no issue with an Israeli exercising his religious freedom at a site that is supposed to be under Israeli sovereignty. Why can Muslims, Christians and other people visit the Temple Mount but not Jews?

Of course, the Israeli government has to not just be right; it also must be smart in the way it acts. But the whole conversation has been twisted in the wrong direction. In addition, the moment that threats were made by Hamas, there was no way Ben-Gvir would not visit. He had to go just to show that Hamas will not dictate policy and that the government will not bend to extortion.

As true to his word, Blinken issued a condemnation. The US, the State Department said, supported the state quo at the holy site and opposed any moves that could escalate tension and lead to violence. Until Tuesday, they said nothing. Once action was taken, the US spoke up.

It is a model I believe we need to adopt for ourselves. The government that has taken office is not one that everybody in Israel wanted and it is made up of some of the most extreme elements of the Israeli political system, some of whom came to power bearing racist ideologies.

And as the November 1 election showed, this country is split. Half of the people voted for the Netanyahu-led bloc and half of the people voted for the other parties, those that would not join the Netanyahu bloc. The big difference was that Netanyahu knew how to set up his bloc ahead of time to ensure that not a single vote would be wasted while the so-called change coalition did not know how to do that and, as a result, wasted hundreds of thousands of votes. Yair Lapid’s takeaway lesson will be how to prevent that from happening in the future.

Accepting this government is fundamental for the health of the democratic process. It does not mean that everyone has to like what it does and there are democratic ways to protest and try to stop these policies. First, though, it makes sense to see what those policies will be.

Some of Yariv Levin's plans to reform Israel's judicial system actually make sense

TAKE, FOR example, the reforms that Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced on Wednesday night. Let’s put them into context. For years, the public’s trust in the judicial system has been in steep decline. This is a result of perceived overreaching by the courts, a feeling held by part of this country that they are not represented within the system, but also that the decisions made by the courts are aimed against one side of the political spectrum.

One of the reforms – the way the country selects its Supreme Court justices – actually makes complete sense. Until now, Israel chose its Supreme Court justices with a panel of nine: two ministers, two MKs, three justices, and two representatives of the Bar Association.

Did we, the public, receive transcripts from their deliberations? Did we know how its members voted? Did we know why one judge was selected over another? No. We knew nothing. There was zero transparency, something that should be basic in any democracy.

And while Americans like to laugh at the confirmation hearings their Supreme Court justices undergo and how it has just become reality TV, there is something valuable for a country and its people to be able to hear firsthand from the people who have been nominated to one of the highest offices in the land. In Israel, for 75 years, we have not had that.

Another one of the reforms – giving ministers the authority to appoint their own legal advisers – is also not something that should be immediately dismissed. Does it not make sense to allow a minister who has been appointed to her or his role to be able to enact policies upon which they were elected? To do that, a minister needs a legal adviser who will not just tell the minister what they cannot do, but also what they can do.

Director-general appointments and the override clause

If we want a government to be able to govern, doesn’t it make sense that ministers have people who can help them govern? The same can be said about the appointment of director-generals. On Wednesday, news broke that Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis had decided to replace the current director-general – an appointee of the previous government – with a former Likud MK.

There was an immediate uproar. The outgoing director-general has multiple technological degrees and credentials that the former Likud MK does not hold. And while we should naturally want the right people in the right job, shouldn’t we also want ministers who have been elected to be able to appoint people they trust and can govern with? Does that not make the most sense?

And then there is the override clause that we at The Jerusalem Post have written extensively about over the last few weeks. We have editorialized about the disingenuous argument that some people on the Right make that if Canada has an override clause then Israel can too. We have explained that Israel cannot be compared to Canada because Canada has a constitution and Israel does not.

Contrary to the other reforms, this one raises extreme concern. The override clause has the potential to end any separation of powers that exists between the different branches in Israel – the legislature, the executive branch and the judiciary. It could give the government the ability to do whatever it wants, no matter the consequences.

But that doesn’t mean that an override clause is outright wrong. There is value in granting power to the parliament, which is made up of representatives of the people – as opposed to the court – that is meant to protect the rights of the people but has not been elected by the people.

The question comes down to the details: to which laws can the override clause be applied? Is it meant to be used for every law or is it only pertinent to laws in specific fields? This is an issue that must be debated and explored.

Then there is a question of how many MKs will be needed to vote to legislate a law after it is struck down by the court. Levin seems to be pushing in the direction of a minor majority of just 61. Personally, I think it would be more democratic for the majority to be higher and to have to include members of the opposition. This would show that a court decision being overturned is something that is of interest to both sides of the aisle.

The bottom line is that not everything is inherently wrong. It will depend on what ends up being passed.

AND MAYBE that is the issue. We have gotten used to a certain way of doing things for 75 years. While the branches are strong, Israel has also over-bureaucratized itself, sometimes to the extent that our politicians cannot govern. This is why we should adopt Blinken’s policy and judge the government by its policies.

This is all the more relevant when thinking about Netanyahu’s 15-year career as prime minister. What you walk away with is a politician who is cautious, sensitive to criticism and hesitant to use military force.

In the past governments he established over the years, Netanyahu always had someone next to him who was more right-wing and someone on the other side who was more left-wing. The idea was that he would always be in the middle and no one side would be able to push too far in one direction. Sometimes it worked better than others, but for the most part, it kept the government-centered.

This government is, without a doubt, very different. The most left-wing member is Netanyahu himself and everybody else is to his right. Can he maintain balance when he is the most left-wing member? It will undoubtedly be hard for him, but when judging his past 15 years, he might succeed.

He might be able to create the balance that will provide his coalition partners with their needs on the one hand, but retain the caution that has almost become his trademark on the other hand.

I’ve had my fair share of criticism of Netanyahu and his policies over the last few years and there is an inherent problem when a politician is on trial at the same time that he is serving as prime minister. Decisions become clouded and priorities become mixed between personal and national.

Unfortunately, we have seen that play out too many times. Nevertheless, this is the government that we now have and we have to hope it will find the right balance between caution and responsibility to make decisions that serve the national interest.

This will be hard. Had these reforms been presented without Arye Deri’s future hanging in the balance at the Supreme Court or Netanyahu on trial, they would have been easier to swallow.

Unfortunately – and due to reality – that is not the case. Nevertheless, I think we have to give a government that won a resounding victory in an unchallenged process a real chance to govern. Israel has been plagued by instability for decades and we have forgotten what it means to have a stable government.

The legal clouds that hover over this government might end up being a stain on its decisions, but they do not mean that this government does not have the right to govern. It does and it should.