These past weeks have been a roller coaster with a vengeance. The shocking tragedy of Jews being mowed down in Jerusalem as they left their synagogue on an erev Shabbat; the appalling reality of an Arab boy of 13, possessing a gun, shooting at Jews aiming to kill – a fact that could well be attributed to the Palestinian education system whose textbooks encourage “martyrdom”; and then the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.
The horrific attacks on Israeli civilians plus the devastating earthquakes overshadowed the feelings of tens of thousands of Israelis (of which I am one) who have come out on the streets these past weeks to demonstrate against our government’s intention to pass the override clause. The aim of this legislation is to place control of the Supreme Court and governance solely in the hands of the government.
Israel does not have a constitution but instead relies on its Basic Laws – as outlined within the Declaration of Independence – which now are in the process of being eliminated.
What are the problems with Israel's judicial reform?
A further deep concern is that the Knesset vote on the clause calls for a simple majority of 61 Knesset members; the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court plus all decisions made by the government will be totally in the hands of the Knesset. Legal experts point out that such a drastic change should require no less than a two-thirds majority rather than a simple majority of one. For sure, this cannot be considered a democratic process. While there could be an argument for updating the judicial system, there can be no justification for what amounts to its potential elimination.
The economic fallout has already begun. Bank Hapoalim’s CEO, Dov Kotler, informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the banks are beginning to see an outflow of funds, with saving accounts moved abroad. Channel 12 reported that the Israeli cyber-security company Wiz is pulling tens of millions of dollars out of Israel.
The governor of the Bank of Israel (BOI), Amir Yaron, on his return from the Economic Forum in Davos, expressed concern about the negative consequences of the proposed judicial reforms. Yaron was joined by two former governors of the BOI – Jacob Frenkel and Karnit Flug – who believe the reform will deal a severe blow to the economy and Israel’s citizens. Global financial giant JP Morgan states there will be increased risks for investment in Israel, together with increased geopolitical tension in the country.
Israel’s hi-tech industry employees took time out to demonstrate against these reforms which they fear will have a severe detrimental effect on Israel’s showcase sector of our Start-Up Nation.
Tom Livne, founder and CEO of Verbit – one of Israel’s most successful tech unicorns, valued at $2 billion – has announced that he is leaving Israel and will no longer pay taxes here because of the proposed legal overhaul. Interviewed on Channel 12, he said he is encouraging others to do the same. His company employs 200 in Israel and 1,000 abroad, with 2,000 customers that include CNN, FOX, and Harvard University.
Livne was joined by Eynat Guez – co-founder and CEO of global payroll company Papaya – who fears the weakening of the judiciary system will create uncertainty, together with the likelihood that investors from abroad will cease funding Israeli projects.
Strong criticism of the proposed judicial reform has come from the Secretary of State Antony Blinken, with France’s President Emmanuel Macron calling the judicial overhaul a move away from democracy.
Equally disturbing are the feelings expressed by our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora, who are deeply disturbed by the proposal to change the Law of Return, which the majority of American Jews are vehemently against.
SUPPORTERS OF Netanyahu and his government claim that the result of the recent election shows that Israel is a democratic country where the voters decided who will govern, thereby accepting its decisions. However, our system of election – proportional representation with a comparatively low threshold – frequently results in the minority sector of the government making the decisions.
Democracies such as the US and the UK have voting systems that call for the electorate to vote for an individual whose responsibility it is to represent voters and their views. Not so in Israel, where the electorate votes for a party, resulting in Knesset members being able to ignore the concerns of the voters. In addition, unlike the US and the UK, we do not have a second house which subscribes to checks and balances.
Netanyahu, recently interviewed on CNN, strongly denied the suggestion that the primary reason for his unequivocal support of the override clause is to keep him out of jail. However, actions speak louder than words. This is the first time that Netanyahu has not only given key ministries to Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich – who previously he chose to shun because of their extreme views – but has enabled them to act without reservation. Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara, citing “conflict of interests,” states categorically that Netanyahu must have no say in the judicial reform bill, as he is in the midst of his trial for corruption.
In addition, despite Arye Deri being removed from the government – following the attorney-general’s ruling that he be barred from heading any ministry due to his criminal record – Netanyahu remains in full support of Deri’s return to the Health Ministry and the Interior Ministry (the latter being a position that he formerly held when he was found guilty of embezzling its funds, resulting in a prison sentence). Netanyahu is in full support of a law being introduced specifically to allow Deri to return to his ministerial roles, in spite of the legal reasons for his expulsion.
In the midst of these testing times, I took myself to Eilat for the annual Classic Cameri Music Festival. What a switch-off it was from the challenges we face; what pride the audience felt on seeing young Israeli artists performing at an incredibly high level of musical professionalism. A protégé of Pinchas Zukerman, violinist Asi Matathais, who made his debut with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of 14, gave a magnificent rendering of Grieg and Schumann.
And 19-year-old violinist Michael Shaham – winner of international competitions and graduate of the Heifetz International Music Program – gave a masterly rendering of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Pianist Lior Lifshitz, 18, a graduate of Tel Aviv’s Bachmann-Mehta School of Music, also captivated the audience with an outstanding performance of a Mozart piano concerto. These young musicians were just a few of the amazing talented artists we were privileged to enjoy in Eilat.
This is Israel, the challenges of today and the aspirations for tomorrow. We can but hope that a quote of Yuval Harari, Hebrew University professor and best-selling author will, sooner rather than later, resonate with our prime minister and his government: “Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.”
“Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.”Yuval Harari
Our government is steamrolling a judicial change that is threatening the very essence of democracy. Tens of thousands continue to question why this is happening, yet the answers cannot be questioned.
The writer is chair of Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association (IBCA). The views expressed are solely her own.