Netanyahu must step up, find Israeli judicial reform compromise - comment

Netanyahu should step in as prime minister to resolve the dispute around Israeli judicial reforms. But he won't, and there are two reasons why.

 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a government conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a government conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Wherever you stand on the scale when it comes to the government’s planned judicial reforms, there is one clear vacuum right now – leadership.

Instead, what Israel is experiencing is a conversation of extremists. On one side is Justice Minister Yariv Levin and some of the MKs who support him, who are pushing through a series of laws that have one objective – the demolition of Israel’s current judicial system and its replacement with a new one.

Some parts of the reforms they suggest are, at their core, justified. The fervor with which Levin and Co. want to steamroll over what has been a cherished and vital Israeli institution for 75 years is what makes this dangerous.

On the other side are some of the zealous opponents, those who are against any change. These are people who refuse to acknowledge that there is a need for reforms and that a system can always improve. Instead of being open to a dialogue and debate, these activists – the likes of former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon – have resorted to comparing Israel to Hungary, Turkey and even Nazi Germany.

That, too, is not helpful.

 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives for a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on January 15, 2023.  (credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/POOL VIA REUTERS) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives for a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on January 15, 2023. (credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/POOL VIA REUTERS)

Cases like this – when two sides of the political spectrum are pulling in different directions – are the true test of leadership, and it is exactly for moments like this when an adult is needed to stand up and try to bring everyone to the middle and to a compromise.

In an ideal Israel, that would be the job of the prime minister. During his 15 years as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu knew how to fill that role. Economic decisions, military decisions and even political decisions were almost always carefully weighed between the political interest and the national interest. Netanyahu’s trademark was caution, and even when making decisions that were going to be unpopular, he tried to make them popular.

We saw an example of this play out on Friday after the evacuation of an illegal outpost. Netanyahu pushed aside criticism from Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and explained that while the government supports the settlement enterprise, it will not allow people to take the law into their hands. Netanyahu spoke up to deflect attacks against Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who had ordered the outpost’s removal.

It was a case in point of the role a prime minister needs to play – here were two ministers pushing different agendas, and he comes in to resolve the dispute.

He should be doing the same now with regards to the judicial reforms. Imagine a situation in which Netanyahu steps in, gives Levin some of what he wants and then tries to ease the concerns of the opposition.

Why will Benjamin Netanyahu not stand up amid the judicial reform crisis?

The problem is that he is not doing so. The first reason is that Netanyahu wants the full reforms to go through. He supports them, and for that reason he appointed Levin to the Justice Ministry. The silence of the Likud moderates – the likes of Nir Barkat and Yuli Edelstein – is telling.

And then there is the second reason Netanyahu will not step up – he is on trial. Just a few years ago, Netanyahu hailed Israel’s “strong and independent” judicial system and said it was the protector of all other institutions in the country. “This is the reason that I am doing, and will continue to do, everything I can to protect the court system [so that it remains] strong and independent,” he said at the time.

What changed? Did Netanyahu suddenly undergo an ideological shift? We already know the answer. What changed is his personal status, which for better or for worse, is the reality today.

Does this mean Netanyahu cannot do what prime ministers are meant to do? Not necessarily. Despite his trial and past personal challenges, he has been known to put the country first. He has an opportunity to do so now. It is time he steps up.