I spent the week wishing I could see smoke. Not the smoke of burning tires in protests against the proposed judicial reform, but metaphorical white smoke emerging from the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, signifying some kind of compromise had been reached. A sign that both sides of the divide had agreed that inflaming passions is dangerous. We can’t afford for the country to go up in smoke even figuratively.
Some anti-reform protesters have taken to using as their Facebook profile picture an image of the menorah, the emblem of the state, being devoured by flames. It doesn’t help. On the contrary. In the past week, the protests have been taken to new heights – or lows.
The anti-reform camp continued to be hijacked by members of elite IDF units speaking – or acting – in the name of everyone. Former members of the 8200 intelligence unit, many of them now successful hi-tech people on the basis of the knowledge and connections they gained during their military service, threatened to take that knowhow and capital abroad. Undercover operatives who couldn’t be named added their voices to the protests. In the most widely published incident, the majority of reservist fighter pilots of the IAF’s 69th Squadron threatened not to turn up for training. That’s all we need; pilots suffering from a strange form of vertigo, grounding themselves in an attempt to ground the reform.
Those who warned against embroiling the IDF into the political battle, like war hero and former police minister Avigdor Kahalani, were drowned out. Kahalani was badly burned in battle and later, figuratively, in his political career as the head of the centrist Third Way party. He demonstrated his courage yet again by taking a moral stand in these times of division.
Ehud Barak, on the other hand, seems to be so motivated by his hatred of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has had a much longer and more influential run as prime minister, that he is willing to let the country go up in flames rather than for Netanyahu to remain as elected leader.
The refuser fighter pilots illustrated a frightening prospect – that each IDF soldier would decide in the future just what they were prepared to fight for, where to draw lines, and whom to protect.
The involvement of the so-called “le’shaavarim” – the ex’s, or even have-beens – was also disturbing: When so many former chiefs of staff and former heads of the Shin Bet are not trying to reach an agreement on what needs to be changed within the judiciary, but only agree on getting rid of the prime minister and government, just months after elections, the resulting smoke smells suspiciously like a military coup d’état.
No, the protesters aren’t all anarchists – some of my best friends are out there demonstrating every Saturday night – but it is hard to argue that there isn’t a radical fringe.
And there is a lot of pressure being exerted. It wasn’t only combat pilots who joined the battle. At the beginning of the week, El Al, the national airline, admitted it was having trouble finding pilots and a crew willing to fly the prime minister and his wife to an official visit in Italy. When a crew was finally found, events for a “Day of Opposition” were rescheduled to try to hinder travel to Ben-Gurion Airport. I’m writing these lines before the planned demonstration and hoping that nothing terrible happens; nothing worse, that is, than people trying to prevent the prime minister representing the country abroad.
In the “if you aren’t with us, you’re against us” school of revolutionary thinking, iconic Israeli singer Shlomo Artzi came under pressure last week not for anything he said, but for not publicly announcing support for the protests. It sows more discord – and fear.
There’s also something objectionable in the protests specifically calling for foreign intervention into Israeli domestic affairs. The best thing about the demonstration outside the US Consulate in Tel Aviv this week, demanding America put (more) pressure on Netanyahu, was the slogan on a banner: “Like falafel? Save Israel?” seen next to the placard pleading “Biden, Help!!”
I’m all for giving chickpeas a chance, but this seemed more ridiculous than funny under the circumstances. With all due respect to American friends and readers, I’m not sure that the US is in a position to serve as a role model for the Zionist dream. There is something ironic in demanding the US help persuade the Israeli government that judges shouldn’t be politically appointed.
Not for the first time since the protests started, 10 weeks ago, did I wonder who was providing the funding and noted that the many slogans in English appeared to be aimed at foreign sponsors and the foreign media. There’s smoke and smokescreens.
Herzog's best efforts
DESPITE HERZOG’S best efforts, it is not going to be easy to get the political actors around the same table at the President’s Residence. For a start, the opposition is in such disarray that it has no cohesive stand on the reform and no clear proposals other than to stop whatever Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee head Simcha Rothman and Justice Minister Yariv Levin are doing.
In order for nominal opposition leader Yair Lapid to stop shouting and start talking, he’d need to set aside his ego – and I’m not sure what is left of Lapid when you take that away. He is also likely feeling daunted by the protesters he himself has encouraged. If he steps back, how will he fare in the next election? Perhaps he even feels threatened within his own party, although, despite the chants of “demo-crat-ia, demo-crat-ia,” Lapid has not yet allowed Yesh Atid to hold primary elections.
There are other obstacles in Herzog’s path. Netanyahu, while unhappy with the events taking a huge economic toll and seriously affecting Israel’s image, is probably happy to let Levin take the blame within the Likud and for the Religious Zionist Party to shoulder the rest of the burden. He is also in the absurd position of being legally banned from dealing with anything relating to the judicial reform. Because of his ongoing legal trials, Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara maintains that Netanyahu’s involvement would violate a conflict of interests agreement.
Last week, several right-leaning groups noted in a High Court petition that since one of the reform proposals is to divide the current functions of the attorney-general into two, Baharav-Miara could also be considered to have a conflict of interests, although that hasn’t stopped her or Supreme Court President Esther Hayut from speaking out against the overhaul.
Dividing the roles of the attorney-general so that the same person is not both chief prosecutor and the government’s legal adviser is something that in the past has had support across the political spectrum.
There are other points where agreement could be reached. The “judicial activism” that was the legacy of former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak in the 1990s needs to be better balanced with the rights of the democratically elected Knesset. To figure out how to achieve that, the two sides must sit down together and realize that they are not diametrically opposed after all.
Members of the pro-reform camp – even those willing to compromise – are worried that if they stop now, the momentum will be lost completely and that the main aim of their opponents is to drag the process out long enough for the government to fall without passing even the most important elements of their proposed changes.
Last week, four Knesset members – Yuli Edelstein and Danny Danon from the coalition and Gadi Eisenkot and Chili Tropper, from the opposition – made a brave, but unsuccessful bid to find an agreement. This week, attention was focused Herzog’s talks with Prof. Daniel Friedmann, a former justice minister who also tried to reform the judicial system; law professor Yuval Elbashan, who has also voiced support of the reform after modification; Maj.-Gen. (retd.) Giora Eiland, a former head of the Israeli National Security Council; and Giora Yaron, a self-appointed spokesman and campaigner on behalf of hi-tech entrepreneurs.
Both sides have to give ground rather than pursue a scorched earth policy. That’s why the only smoke I want in my eyes, is the figurative white smoke that signals a form of peace. There are too many other burning issues that are being sidelined.