Somebody had to do the right thing. The hatred, violence and anger are out of control and Israel’s government has largely stopped functioning. President Isaac Herzog’s compromise initiative for judicial reform is well-intentioned but moving much too slowly, if at all.
Coalition and opposition leaders – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz – are locked in a zero-sum cycle; unwilling or afraid to appear weak by taking the first step away from disaster. Israel is back to the chaotic period of the Judges, 3,200 years ago and we appear to have learned nothing: “In those days, there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he/she pleased.” Commentators warn of the dangers of the destruction of the Third Temple – Israel – as we approach our 75th anniversary.
In the middle of the unfolding disaster, four members of the Knesset – two from the coalition (MK Yuli Edelstein and MK Danny Danon) and two from the opposition (MK Gadi Eisenkot and MK Chili Tropper) – have now stepped up. In a public letter under the heading of “Time for mutual responsibility,” they called on Israelis to join them in placing the national interest and shared objectives above the factional conflicts. They sharply reminded everyone, including the leaders of their own parties, of the reality beyond the Knesset screaming matches, attack speeches and disruptive mass protests.
“The State of Israel is currently facing many complex challenges in the fields of society, the economy and its international status and is facing brutal attacks and security challenges more serious than ever before,” they write. Obvious? Apparently not to our prime minister and most other Israeli politicians.
And then they quickly move to the core issue that separates them from the “our way or we will bring down the temple” politicians, public figures, professors and the rest: “Above all of these hovers, like a dark shadow, the difficult controversy that tears and divides the public” on the judicial reform proposals. “We have no doubt that although the disputes are difficult, we must act in every way to reach broad agreements.”
The way out
The way out is also obvious, based on the compromise proposal put forward by Herzog as the basis for negotiations. Hidden between the lines is a clear criticism, particularly of Netanyahu and Lapid, as the ostensibly responsible adults, for wasting two weeks on tactical maneuvering on who will blink first in agreeing to negotiations. And by courageously breaking out of the demonizing rhetoric and cooperating with the political and ideological enemy, they set an important moral and political example for others to follow. Not surprisingly, the four MKs were denounced as traitors to the cause.
NOTABLY, EDELSTEIN, Danon, Eisenkot and Tropper avoided the ideologically loaded high-sounding but highly divisive rhetoric on “saving democracy,” overthrowing elites or righting historic wrongs in the Israeli judicial system. Instead, they focused on the basics – the centrality of restoring enough common purpose and national interest to move forward and out of the crisis.
Trying to breathe some life into Herzog’s compromise initiative, their letter is both an invitation and an urgent plea for others who understand the dangerous situation and see the big picture to join and help lead the way back to sanity. In sharp contrast, when Netanyahu spoke shortly after their letter was released, he went through the motions of calling for calm and dialogue but then lashed out again at his opponents and made no mention of the only compromise plan on the table.
The four MKs – each with important accomplishments and contributions to Zionism and Israel – have the potential to become the “muscular moderates,” to use Prof. Gil Troy’s term. To succeed, they will need to speak truth to power and to the leaders of their respective camps.
They will need to confront the ideological and political die-hards for whom no price is too great to defeat their opponents and to cajole potential allies who are afraid of losing support for future elections. Few would consider Menachem Begin a “muscular moderate,” but in 1948, when he told Irgun members to stand down and not revenge Ben-Gurion’s order to sink the Altalena arms ship, Begin stood firm to prevent a civil war.
This initiative, if it succeeds, can return Israeli society to some form of equilibrium and the government’s functioning stability. Resolving or at least managing the underlying tensions – particularly the complex relationship between the Jewish and democratic dimensions – will require a much longer and even more difficult path. But if the four MKs, joined by others with the courage to make a principled stand in favor of Zionism, succeed in ending the immediate crisis, dayenu – it would have been enough for us.
The writer is an emeritus professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor.