Monday is a critical day for Israel as Knesset votes on judicial reform - opinion

They must realize that the price Israel will pay for this "victory" will be to escalate the social andpolitical schism in the country, and possibly lead to civil violence.

 ANTI-OVERHAUL activists protest against the government’s plan for judicial reform, in Tel Aviv, on Saturday night (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
ANTI-OVERHAUL activists protest against the government’s plan for judicial reform, in Tel Aviv, on Saturday night
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

No matter where one stands on the political spectrum, one cannot deny that today is a critical day for Israel.

Should the Knesset approve, by the end of the day, the amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary, that will more or less do away with the ground of unreasonableness as a basis for the courts declaring a decision or an act of the government to be null-and-void. The opponents of the government’s judicial reform/constitutional upheaval will claim that for the first time, a red line has actually been crossed on the way to Israel’s ceasing to be a liberal democracy.

As far as the supporters of the government’s reform/upheaval are concerned, if this should occur today, at long last the government will have managed to start curtailing what they claim to be the disproportional power of the old liberal/left elites in state institutions, in a situation in which the liberal/left camp suffered a clear electoral defeat in the general elections last November. However, they too must realize that the price Israel will pay for this “victory” will be to escalate the social and political schism in the country, and possibly lead to civil violence.

On the other hand, should Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu step in before the voting actually takes place in the Knesset plenum later today, and halt the process at least temporarily, the gate will be left open to a sincere effort to try to bridge the gaps – not only on the issue of unreasonableness, but on all issues on which the government and individual coalition MKs have submitted, or are planning to submit anti-democratic legislation. This would not bring the crisis to an end but would provide us all with some breathing space.

In a talkback to my article last week, one reader stated that there is no such thing as a liberal or illiberal democracy, that a democracy is a democracy. Nevertheless, such a division is recognized in political science. An illiberal democracy is one that merely reflects the fact that the government enjoys an electoral majority, while a liberal democracy is one that also offers human and civil rights to all – especially minorities – as well as a system of checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches.

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

'Liberal democracy'

In his declaration to the nation last Thursday, Netanyahu alluded to the term “liberal democracy” when he argued that after the government’s reform of the judicial system, Israel will still remain a democratic and a liberal state – not a halachic state – in which the individual rights of everyone are preserved. 

These are fine words that do not necessarily reflect the unfolding reality in which the Finance Ministry already suggests that the missing hundreds of thousands of shekels for yeshiva students will be covered by cuts in allocations to the Arab population for closing economic and social gaps rather than budgetary cuts across the line; the authority of rabbinical courts will be extended to the detriment of women; while various ministers and one deputy minister in charge of religious affairs, tradition, legacy, and Jewish national identity, as well as the chairperson of Torah Judaism, do not hide their hostility towards LGBT rights.

Generally speaking, if the prime minister’s statement was designed to lower the flames and create a more congenial atmosphere that could facilitate fruitful talks between the government on the one side, and the opposition and public protest movement on the other, his words achieved the exact opposite. 

Netanyahu repeated the statement that he is the prime minister of everyone. Formally speaking that is true: He is the only serving prime minister of the State of Israel. However, nothing he said in his statement suggested that he takes seriously the positions of those of us who reject the government’s so-called judicial reform – out of deep concern for Israel’s democratic regime – and are determined to act within the framework of the law to prevent its collapse

Thus, besides unconvincingly insisting that Israel’s democracy is not in danger, Netanyahu insisted on repeating the fake news that it was the representatives of Yesh Atid and the National Unity who prevented the talks under the auspices of the president of the State from bearing any fruit. In fact, the talks had no chance as long as the locomotives of the government’s legislative moves – Justice Minister Yariv Levin, and Chairperson of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Simcha Rothman – kept declaring that there will be no major changes in the legislation they are promoting, while Netanyahu himself kept speaking of major changes to “soften” the legislation only in interviews with the foreign press, while doing nothing in practice.

Netanyahu also rubbed the protest movement and the opposition the wrong way when he kept referring to reservist pilots and other top military personnel, who have served voluntarily for years, as “service refusers” (sarvanim) because they informed their superiors that they would stop turning up for their voluntary service if any of the laws of the judicial reform/upheaval were passed. They are private citizens, protesting against what they consider a real and immediate threat to Israel’s democracy, and their status is that of volunteers. They are not refusing to follow orders, and they cannot be put on trial and incarcerated for what they are doing (as some coalition MKs and ministers have been calling for). Even Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, who is extremely worried about the phenomenon, which undoubtedly threatens the IDF’s military preparedness and cohesion, refrains from calling them sarvanim. 

Netanyahu added insult to injury when he argued that elements from within the army are trying to dictate policy to the government, but that in a democracy the army is subordinated to the government. The reservists are not “the army.” If the acting top officers of the army and other security forces are warning that the government’s “judicial reform” is weakening the army and endangering Israel’s security, it is their duty to do so, not an act of insubordination. 

They are not carrying out a military putsch – they are doing their democratic duty. Only in dictatorships does the army refrain from criticizing the political leaders when they embark on a dangerous policy. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the generals do not dare criticize the criminal attack on Ukraine, for fear of being eliminated.

No one really knows how Netanyahu feels about the reform/upheaval. My guess is that irrespective of what he thinks of it in general, and of the bill currently up for approval in particular, he has two main goals in mind: The first is to keep his rather crazy government intact, at almost any price, and the second is to emerge safely from his ongoing trial. At the moment, the trial appears seems to be going relatively well for him. This suggests that, currently, keeping his government intact is his primary goal. Appearing to give in to the opposition and the protesters is unlikely to serve this purpose.

Nevertheless, let us hope that by this evening some miracle will occur, and one, or some of the following will convince him to change course: Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, Histadrut leader Arnon Ben-David, or the hundreds, or even thousands, of representatives of large businesses, and the hundreds of thousands of worried but determined demonstrators – and an awareness of the fact that if he does not change course Israel might deteriorate into a state of chaos.

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 last year.