Since last Thursday, we have been on a roller coaster of ups, downs and turns in unexpected directions, in connection with the fate of the Government’s legal reform/insurrection/revolution. On Thursday afternoon, it was announced that at 7:30 p.m., Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was going to make a statement about the need to stop the legislation, not because he objects on ideological grounds to the basic plan being promoted but because of the immediate dangers that it may hold to Israel’s security, besides the dangers to its economy, international status and numerous other fields.
At first, it was assumed by many commentators that Gallant was in cahoots with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, based on the assumption that Netanyahu was also worried about all the collateral damage that his government’s legal reform is liable to lead to.
However, in an urgent meeting he held with Gallant before his departure for a weekend with his wife in London and a meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Netanyahu managed to dissuade Gallant from making his statement, though we do not know the details of what was said and what was agreed or disagreed between them.
The result was that Netanyahu gave an unplanned statement of his own at around 8:00 p.m. on Thursday evening and Gallant waited with his own statement until Saturday night, before Netanyahu’s return from the UK.
Until Netanyahu actually started to speak, commentators were guessing whether he would come out with a clear statement about his support or lack of support for the plan to get all the legislation prepared by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee to go through second and third readings before the Knesset went out for its spring recess.
What did Netanyahu have to say and what did he really mean?
For the first few minutes of his statement, it was not clear where Netanyahu was heading. He declared, as he has done before, that he is the Prime Minister of everyone and spoke of the need to take account of the fears of both sides: those of the supporters of the reform who feel that the Supreme Court is too powerful and progressive and those of the opponents who feel that the reform will endanger human rights. That, of course, is a misrepresentation of the divide.
THOUGH THE supporters of the reform do in fact feel that the Supreme Court is hostile towards them, what the government seeks is to weaken the Supreme Court, prevent it from practicing effective judicial review and do away with the independence of the legal advisers in public service, who will assume the status of yes-men.
In order to deal with the fears of the supporters of the reform, Netanyahu stated that the legislation would continue during the last week before the Knesset goes out to its recess – especially the legislation having to do with the committee for the appointment of judges, in which the government will have an automatic majority. In order to deal with the alleged fears of the opponents, Netanyahu promised to enact a law that would enshrine individual rights. This is a complete farce.
There already exist two basic laws dealing with human rights and at least in the case of Basic-Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, Justice Minister Yariv Levin plans to demote it into an ordinary law. Back in 1992, a group of MKs from both the coalition and the opposition managed to get this law and Basic-Law: Freedom of Occupation enacted, thus performing no less than a miracle.
Until then, none of the bills dealing with human rights had managed to get beyond a first reading, largely due to the opposition of the religious parties.
The opposition of all the religious parties was and still is based on the fact that they do not believe in human rights in their liberal-democratic sense and in addition, the ultra-Orthodox do not believe in human equality and especially not in equality between men and women. If the existing incomplete human rights legislation will be demoted or even done away with altogether, it is highly unlikely that any new human rights legislation will replace it, not least of all because the religious parties constitute half of Netanyahu’s current government.
Furthermore, Netanyahu is not addressing any of the other objections and concerns of the Opposition, just as he refuses to address the warnings of economists, businessmen, hi-tech executives and the security establishment regarding the risks of the legal reform.
But all this is not the only problem with what Netanyahu said. Almost all the facts he presented in his criticism of the existing system – and there is certainly a lot that can be criticized – are simply inaccurate at best and outright lies at worst.
For example, he stated that the system of appointing justices today is based on judges bringing their friends. This might well have been true in the past but is no longer true today. The Supreme Court is no longer homogeneous between judges who believe in judicial activism and those who object to it vehemently. If there is any serious imbalance in the court, it is between Askenazim and Mizrahim (today there are only two Mizrahim) and in all the years that Netanyahu has been in power, neither he nor his party has turned this into a major issue.
NETANYAHU ALSO mentioned a number of cases in which, according to him, the High Court of Justice (HCJ) had prevented the government from implementing its policies without any authority to do so. One example he brought up was the Natural Gas Outline, which involved agreements signed by the Government in 2015 with the gas companies producing Israel’s offshore natural gas and which, according to him, the court had blocked for several years.
The agreements had, in fact, reached the HCJ because of a controversial 10-year stability clause that had been included in them that contravened article 52 of the Israeli Antitrust Law and the court ruled, exactly seven years ago today, that the clause had to be replaced within a year by a new stability clause that complied with the law. In fact, the court had done exactly what it was supposed to do: ensure that the government acts according to the law.
Since the statement that Netanyahu had delivered was allegedly designed to be conciliatory towards the opposition and the demonstrators, it failed dismally. What Netanyahu needs in order to reach some sort of compromise with the opposition, in an attempt to end the current crisis is first and foremost trust and trust cannot be created by systematically using facts flimsily or lying.
Incidentally, Netanyahu seems to have a similar problem with those in his coalition who are eager to move forward with the reform. His credibility with them is also very low.
By the end of this week, we should know where exactly we are heading. Will the legislation be held back – at least temporarily – to give talks about a real change? Will the legislation go through by the end of the Knesset’s winter session, which will open up an unprecedented constitutional crisis almost immediately?
Will Gallant start to emerge as a potential leader within the Likud or will he be fired by Netanyahu immediately, as many in the Likud are demanding (probably the latter)? Boring it will not be.
The writer worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her most recent book, Israel’s Knesset Members – A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job, was published by Routledge.