Ehud Ya’ari on ABC Radio National: Israel’s judicial reforms controversy, and increasing West Bank violence

Mar 13, 2023 | AIJAC staff

Ehud Yaari

AIJAC guest Ehud Ya’ari was interviewed by Geraldine Doogue on ABC Radio National on March 11 about Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s political woes, the likely forthcoming compromise on contentious judicial reforms, escalating violence in the West Bank and the future of the Palestinian Authority.

To listen to the full interview, click here

Or view the transcript below:

After two months of near-continuous protests against controversial judicial reforms proposed by the Netanyahu coalition, a leading analyst believes a compromise is at hand to avert further political crisis.

Geraldine Doogue: But first, today, the battle for Israel’s soul is heating up. Now, that’s one description about this months’ long attempt to change Israel’s Supreme Court rules and governance conventions. The opposition to it’s been startling with big new demonstrations this week. Plus a shooting in Tel Aviv amidst these gatherings for which one Palestinian man has been detained. Now the protests are threatening the stability of the currency, the shekel. Moody’s, the ratings agency, has warned what it calls this judicial coup could prompt a credit downgrade. The acclaimed writer Yuval Noah Harari, told The Washington Post that the attempted Supreme Court overhaul was more akin to an anti-democratic coup, saying he’d never seriously considered leaving Israel, but was wondering now, given unfolding circumstances. And all this, of course, against a backdrop of rising violence in the West Bank, with maybe 70 Palestinians killed in the last few months and possibly about 11 Israelis. Where next? Well, Ehud Yaari is a veteran political commentator with Israel’s Channel Two. He’s been in Australia this week and I spoke to him earlier.

Ehud Ya’ari: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Geraldine Doogue: Is Yuval Harari expressing widespread feelings among big chunks of Israel’s population, maybe growing chunks, looking at those Saturday night demonstrations?

Ehud Ya’ari: There is certainly a very wide sentiment amongst Israelis. The majority, including Mr. Netanyahu’s own voters, who are enraged, who are depressed, who are thinking of all sorts of measures to be taken in order to stop what he calls the judicial reform. But I think that some of the, if I may, grandstanding that we have now is extremely premature. Because my bet and it’s an informed bet, if I may say so, is that we are heading towards a compromise which is going to be sensible, which will not amount to the government taking over control over the Supreme Court and the rest of the judicial system. And I think within two, three weeks, we will see a different climate in Israel, which doesn’t say that it’s the end of the troubles of this government, because, Geraldine, if I have to put it in in one blunt sentence, Bibi Netanyahu, the prime minister, has shot himself in both legs. Now, now he is limping towards a compromise which will be a very far cry from what he and his lieutenants expected to achieve.

Geraldine Doogue: So you’ve changed your mind about him because you’ve come on this program before. And I’ve been at briefings where you felt he was by far the most he had more leadership skills than virtually anyone else, whether or not you agreed with them all and that he really did just dominate politically. Is something changed? Has it?

Ehud Ya’ari: Absolutely. It’s a different Bibi now. It’s not the same Bibi that I have known for years and had the dozens, if not hundreds of conversations with one on one. There is no doubt in my mind in terms of political stature and statesmanship, Bibi is head and shoulders above everybody, above anybody else in the Israeli political, the Israeli political landscape. But since he was indicted and he is standing trial, although he doesn’t attend it personally, most of the times, he has become a different man. And Bibi, for example, who was for years, he’s the longest serving prime minister in the history of Israel, Bibi, who for years was the great defender of the Supreme Court and the judicial system, now wants to turn the Supreme Court and the rest of the judicial system into some branch, branch of the legislature and the executive branch. That’s not the Bibi we knew for many years.

Geraldine Doogue: The Haaretz columnist Amir Tibon says he’s just simply no longer the responsible adult in the room that he was perhaps a decade ago when he rejected calls from within his own party to weaken Israel’s judiciary. So something big has shifted.

Ehud Ya’ari: He is trying to escape a verdict in his trial. He is being indicted for bribery, which I personally have doubts on the possibility of the prosecution to prove a breach of trust, etcetera. But everything he is charged with carries what we have in Israel, turpitude. There is once convicted, you cannot serve in politics for so many years. He is trying to avoid that through what he calls a reform of the judicial system in a way which will allow him, for example, to replace the current attorney general, a very strong, decent lady with his own appointee, change the, amende the indictment or go for a plea bargain without turpitude. All his moves are intended to reach to bring him to a point where he is freed of the chains of this trial.

Geraldine Doogue: Hence, Yuval Harari, his verdict. Look, what do you mean about some sort of grand compromise which you think is in the wings?

Ehud Ya’ari: It’s there. The compromise is there….

Geraldine Doogue: Involving who?

Ehud Ya’ari: The compromise is about the different clauses of the proposed judicial reform. Basically, most of what Bibi and his few lieutenants, because many in his own in his own party are against it, whether they speak loudly or not, it’s a different opera. But they have now the president and Mr. Herzog, who is now the responsible adult in Israel, ex-leader of the Labor Party. He has initiated a discussion dialogue. There is a group of very distinguished law professors, some of the fathers of the Israeli miraculous hi-tech industry, some ex top commanders of the army and national security. They have all worked out a formula on every single clause. And I cannot see any chance that Professor Harari will have to consider leaving Israel, as he’s telling The Washington Post, because the the judicial reform will not pass. There is no no way it will work.

Geraldine Doogue: Okay. But who’s going to be the political leader? Like Isaac Herzog is the president. Presidents in Israel are usually symbolic. They don’t interfere interfere in the political system. This is, he’s put up a plan. I mean, what’s going to happen next? Because Bibi’s hardly going to accept it, is he?

Ehud Ya’ari: No, Bibi is going to accept. Bibi, in fact, is now limping after shooting himself in both legs. He is limping as fast as he can towards a compromise because he never expected the reaction of the Israeli public to what he was offering. My own personal prediction is that the president, although elected for a term of seven years, will resign. Is he has served only two years by now. He will resign at one point over the next year and he will run in the next elections as a leader of a combined centre-left coalition of parties against whoever is running for the right wing, whether it’s Bibi, I doubt or somebody else.

Geraldine Doogue: Oh my goodness, what sort of a reconstituted centre, which has been so, I don’t know, insipid in Australia, in Israeli politics?

Ehud Ya’ari: Yes, because the Israeli left and centre were destroyed to this or that degree by the failure of the peace process with the Palestinians since the Oslo Accords of ’93. And the right has strengthened itself by saying, We told you. We told you there is no partner. It’s not going to work. But still, you have a 70 to 80% majority of Israelis supporting the the two-state solution, resisting this judicial reform, opposed to a massive settlement in the West Bank and certainly annexation. People would like to keep the prospect of a two-state solution.

Geraldine Doogue: But now, Ehud Yaari, if this doesn’t occur, if this is just optimism, what then?

Ehud Ya’ari: I can’t give an answer to that. Geraldine, I apologise because I’m, I know, I know that this judicial reform is already dead, not really dead upon arrival, but dead just a little bit after arrival. And the, the compromise will go through, will take a month, no more. So it’s very difficult for me to to consider a scenario in which this judicial reform is adopted. It will not happen.

Geraldine Doogue: Well, we’ll see. I mean, all this is happening against a backdrop of increased and increasing tension and violence on the West Bank, deaths of both Palestinians and Israelis, far more Palestinians. Awful violence reported by The New York Times and Martin Indyk, the commentator, said last week on ABC Radio that he felt it was possible to say the third intifada had already begun, sparked by young people with no memory of the misery of the second Intifada. Now, what comes next in this extremely vexed issue?

Ehud Ya’ari: Yeah. And I’m happy that my friend Martin Indyk is quoting me with or without credit. Yes. What we have is the Palestinian Authority losing control over ever expanding islands of chaos in the West Bank. Their security organs refuse to venture into the slums of cities, to refugee camps where armed gangs are forming and producing violence. The result is that the Israeli army, when they have information about what we call a ticking bomb, somebody preparing for a terrorist attack tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, they have to go themselves. And this creates the friction which led, for example, on Tuesday to the death of six Palestinians in the refugee camp of Jenin. By the way, all of them armed, who were shooting at the Israeli unit which entered the, the place. But it’s getting ugly. And if, I may, one sentence, Geraldine, the way to do it was proposed now by the Americans. Reforming and upgrading the Palestinian security organs, Israel and the donor states to convince Mr. Abbas to nominate a government that is functioning and serving the people. Changing the situation on the ground so that negotiations can can be resumed.

Geraldine Doogue: Well, in fact, I think there was a summit, was there not, in Jordan this week. I think the Americans organised that to try to bring some solutions to the forefront. And both President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken have been unusually blunt, I think you could say, with the Israelis. They certainly pressed their pause plans to considerably augment new settlements on the West Bank, and they’ve been quite blunt about this new security law. So, I mean, an American jury is positively horrified at what’s happening in Israel. So there are big shifts there, aren’t there?

Ehud Ya’ari: Yes, The Americans realise that something has to be done in order to fix the Palestinian Authority. Otherwise, you have the chaotic situation spreading and leading to bloodshed. They have offered to train 5,000 Palestinians chosen by the Palestinian Authority in Jordan so that they can have a real police force instead of what they have now. What they have now is a force in which you have more generals than privates. It doesn’t work. The Americans compelled Bibi to stop and suspend all of the settlement plans proposed by his extreme radical right wing allies. And it’s not going forward. But I think the whole atmosphere around Israel and in Israel will be totally transformed once the compromise is tabled and approved by parliament.

Geraldine Doogue: And look, final question, what will you be looking for next? What ought Australian listeners look for for a guide as to whether something is on offer or not?

Ehud Ya’ari: Main thing to, to watch is whether the compromise goes through as I expect. But then there is a big question to watch, which is whether we will see a rebellion against Mr. Netanyahu brewing in his own party.

Geraldine Doogue: Alright Ehud Yaari, it’s certainly super turbulent and, you know, tense times. Thank you very much indeed for joining us.

Ehud Ya’ari: Most welcome.

Geraldine Doogue: Thank you, Geraldine. Ehud Yaari, veteran political commentator. And I just must note that this morning The New York Times has announced after years of open hostility and proxy conflicts across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to re-establish diplomatic ties in a significant pivot, says the Times for the two regional allies, a deal facilitated by China. So that just adds to the brew as well.


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