In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post that appears in today’s paper, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounded, at once, circumspect and defiant.
“We should take the lessons of the last few months,” he said, referring to the public debate surrounding his government’s attempts to reform the judiciary and recalibrate the balance of power between the Supreme Court and the Knesset.
“I think everybody understands that we should proceed in a measured way, in a way that doesn’t move the pendulum from one side of complete judicial activism and complete control by the Supreme Court of the other branches of government to the other side, where you’d have the legislature and the executive of the government controlling the Supreme Court. So you need a middle ground.”
At the same time, Netanyahu told the Post, “We tried to have a consensus in the talks [under President Isaac Herzog’s auspices]. We saw that we couldn’t get any minimal understanding. So rather than be stymied by that, I think we should just move in a more measured way.”
Judicial reform can't be done without Israel's opposition
Proceeding in a measured way is a good idea. Doing so without pursuing an agreement with the opposition is not.
The lessons of the last few months aren’t just that any reform of the judicial system needs to be undertaken carefully. They are also that such a far-reaching effort, which has the potential to fundamentally reshape Israel’s system of government and the relationship between its various branches, must be done via dialogue and consensus.
The events of recent weeks have not offered much hope for a negotiated compromise. The debacle over the vote for members of the Judicial Selection Committee appears to have driven the sides further apart than they had been in months.
The tit-for-tat sniping between the coalition and the opposition, each of which accuses the other of walking out on the talks at the President’s Residence, does not bring honor to either side. Netanyahu’s announcement this week, one day before his interview with the Post, that his government intends to push forward with parts of the judicial reform, does not augur well for an agreement.
Nevertheless, there is no alternative. While limitations on judicial review – specifically the “reasonableness” clause, as it is commonly known, referring to the court’s authority to determine which government decisions are or are not reasonable in its eyes – may be somewhat easier for opponents to swallow, any unilateral changes to the makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee perceived as impeding the courts’ independence will draw widespread opposition and furious protests.
Israel simply cannot afford a return to the dark days before Passover, when city streets were on fire, the economy came to a standstill and the country appeared to some observers to be on the brink of internal collapse.
The need to reform the judiciary is a matter of broad agreement in Israel. Opposition leader Yair Lapid has himself remarked on the necessity of evening out the balance between Israel’s branches of government, as have other prominent opponents of the government’s current efforts. Public opinion polls suggest, however, that the overwhelming majority of Israelis want to see the coalition and the opposition reach agreement via negotiation.
President Herzog conveyed the feelings of many Israelis earlier this week.
“I have always believed, today more than ever, that the negotiations are the best solution for the State of Israel,” he said. “I am once again calling for a show of national responsibility and continuing fruitful and serious talks like those that have been held over the past few months.
“I believe that agreements can be reached, and the core issues can be resolved through dialogue and peaceful means. This is how we should conduct ourselves for our shared future. I believe a large majority of the public wants that,” said Herzog.
It is encouraging to hear the prime minister’s acknowledgment that a dramatic and extreme overhaul of Israeli democracy is not the way to go and that what is needed is a more measured approach. We urge him to continue pursuing a negotiated compromise and broad national consensus on any changes that will profoundly affect this country and its democratic future.
There is no other way.