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Israel’s controversial judicial reforms put on hold

Mar 29, 2023 | AIJAC staff

Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu announces a pause in his Government's judicial reform plans in a televised address on Monday, March 27  (Image: Youtube screenshot)
Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu announces a pause in his Government's judicial reform plans in a televised address on Monday, March 27 (Image: Youtube screenshot)

03/23 #04

 

On Monday, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu gave a televised speech putting his Government’s controversial judicial reform legislation on hold until at least the next sitting of the Knesset on April 30. (The full text of his remarks is here.)

This followed a massive spike in protests against the controversial reforms, as well as a general strike, after Netanyahu fired Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday following Gallant’s public call for a halt to the legislation because of the security effects it was having.

This Update looks at what happened over the past few dramatic days in Israel, the background and implications, along with what might happen next.

We lead with Tovah Lazaroff of the Jerusalem Post, who offers ten key takeaways from the events of the last few days. She discusses the success of the protest movement and the significance of this, and also the political implications of recent events, with major political boosts to both Defence Minister Gallant and opposition figure Benny Gantz. She also has a look at the increasingly shaky Government coalition and prospects now of a compromise on judicial reforms. For all ten points, CLICK HERE.

Next up is AIJAC Research Associate Dr. Ran Porat, writing in Monash University’s The Lens. He offers a bigger picture view of the events of the last few days in Israel, including trying to identify why the protest movement was able to succeed when previous large-scale protest movements in Israel did not. He also discusses the Government’s key mistakes, and what the whole episode says about Israeli politics and society in general. To read it all,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, the Jerusalem Post editorialises about what it thinks should happen from here. It calls for a compromise to be worked out in the short term, and for both sides to begin the process with shows of good faith. It also makes the point that, in the longer term, Israel needs to pass a Constitution and Bill of Rights to regulate political life in the country more clearly, and help avoid such major political standoffs in future. For all the paper’s arguments, CLICK HERE.

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10 takes on Israel’s democracy showdown on judicial reform – analysis

As the drumbeat in Israel quietens slightly, here are 10 takes that look at some of the victories, losses and implications since Netanyahu fired Gallant.

By TOVAH LAZAROFF

Jerusalem Post,  MARCH 28, 2023


Lazaroff argues that “the ability of so many Israelis to nonviolently voice their dissent was a testament to the vibrancy and the strength of democracy” in Israel. (ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo). 

 

The turmoil over Israel’s democracy reached its peak on Sunday and Monday, beginning with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and ending with the launching of consensus talks on judicial reform.

The two days of pitched emotions capped three months of dramatic debate between the Right and the Left about how to save Israeli democracy.

At issue is the fast-tracked judicial overhaul plan that the Right believes will save democracy and the Left fears will turn the country into a dictatorship.

Within a 48-hour period that included Netanyahu firing Gallant and the launching of consensus talks, the domestic turmoil, which included a nationwide labor strike and huge protests, reached fever pitch.

As tensions calm slightly, here are 10 takes that look at some of the wins, losses and implications.

1. Israeli democracy flexing its muscles

Israel is a country whose democracy has already been eulogized – but on Monday, it showed that pronouncements about the demise of civic freedoms have been premature.

irrespective of opinions on judicial reform.

The Histadrut national labor union declared a strike that closed Ben-Gurion Airport, as well as banks and malls, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis spontaneously held protests throughout the country.

The events generated a wave of hope that ordinary citizens could affect policy.

2. Anti-judicial overhaul activists make change

Netanyahu’s decision to suspend for a month the final vote on a bill to empower politicians to select Supreme Court justices signaled an initial victory for opponents of the government’s judicial change plan.

This was followed by an agreement from him to hold consensus talks with the opposition, in an effort to broker a compromise bill.

But the victory comes at a potential cost. Monday’s massive protest came after a three-month build-up of rallies.

The month of negotiations will occur around the Passover holiday as well as Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and Victims of Terrorism, and Independence Day. As the public turns its focus to other things and the talks offer the possibility of a solution, the momentum of activity could be lost. It could be more difficult to spontaneously generate a second round of mass protests, if needed, that would be powerful enough to stop government action in its tracks.

3. Netanyahu keeps coalition but takes a political hit

The prime minister kept his coalition and his party intact, despite initial threats by some ministers to quit should he suspend the legislation.

Initially, it seems as if Netanyahu would have to choose between his government and the demands of the protesters. At times during the day, it seemed like the government could collapse, sending the country to new elections.

But polls by channels 11 and 12 showed Netanyahu’s popularity tumbling by seven seats from the 32 he received in last November’s election. His support has not been this low for a decade.

4. Consensus talks finally begin

Netanyahu has been under domestic and international pressure to hold consensus talks from the moment the government began fast-tracking judicial reform legislation in the Knesset this winter. The opposition had insisted that such talks could only be held if legislative work was suspended; the government insisted that talks should happen concurrently. Until Monday, there did not appear to be a way to bridge those differences.

The timetable for consensus talks on judicial reform between opposition and coalition politicians facilitated by President Isaac Herzog is tight – just one month.

But the fact that they are being held at all, offers the hope that if successful they could provide a model for the rest of the reform process that could quell opposition fears and end the internal turmoil that has dominated the process.

5. Gantz’s popularity rises

The day’s events turned into a political victory for National Unity leader MK Benny Gantz, with a Channel 11 poll giving him and the party he leads 21 seats and Channel 12 allocating him 23 seats, compared to the 12 he received in the November 2022 elections.

Those results placed the former defense minister back in contention as a potential prime ministerial candidate, a place he had held in the elections of 2019 and 2020. They jettisoned him to a position on par with opposition leader MK Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), who was Netanyahu’s chief rival in the last election.

Lapid received 22 seats in both polls, a drop from the 24 he garnered in the 2022 election.

The Channel 11 poll showed that 37% of those polled thought Gantz was most suited to be prime minister, compared to Lapid at 32% and Netanyahu at 30%.


One big winner from recent events is key opposition figure Benny Gantz, head of the National Unity party, who has recieved a huge boost in popularity according to recent polls. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Lisa Ferdinando)

6. Gantz renews ties with Netanyahu

Gantz has skillfully branded himself as one of the leading politicians pushing for a consensus-based process in a way that could be amenable to the coalition.

Netanyahu actually thanked Gantz in his Monday night speech for his “good faith” efforts and called on others to follow his example.

The two politicians appeared to be reestablishing ties, after their bitter disputes caused the government to collapse in December 2020. It’s an important step, because Gantz is believed to be a potential political partner for Netanyahu should any of the coalition partners quit the government.

7. Gallant becomes a hero

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant became the sudden hero of the anti-judicial reform movement for standing up to Netanyahu. Gallant warned him that a contentious judicial reform process harmed the country’s security and asked him to suspend the proceedings. He did so, even though it could cost him his job.

8. Gallant isn’t fired?

Netanyahu announced on Monday that he had fired Gallant from his post for his opposition to judicial reform, a move which was one of the catalysts for Monday’s massive protest. Gallant has, however, remained in his post and has yet to receive an official dismissal letter. As of Tuesday, it was unclear if he would be let go or reinstated. Until the matter is clarified, he remains the country’s defense minister.

9. Ben-Gvir to get National Guard

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir secured a written pledge from Netanyahu that he would be given control of the country’s nascent national guard used to quell riots and maintain order in public events. In exchange, he agreed not to pull his Otzma Yehudit Party out of the coalition, a move that would have caused the government’s collapse.

Netanyahu promised Ben-Gvir he would hold a government vote this Sunday to cement the deal.

10. Coalition still holds legislative cards

The bill that allows politicians to select Supreme Court judges has been one of the more contentious pieces of legislation within the judicial reform process. It has now passed all preliminary votes and bureaucratic steps. Should consensus talks fall apart, the coalition can bring the legislation to a vote at any moment.

Tovah Lazaroff is the Deputy Managing Editor of The Jerusalem Post, where she has worked as a correspondent since 2000. 


Israeli protests: Government forced to put judicial reform on hold

Ran Porat

The Lens (Monash University), March 28


The crisis of the past few days was triggered when the widely-respected Defence Minster Yoav Gallant gave a televised address on March 25 calling for a half to the reforms because of the security risks they were causing, leading to his sacking by Netanyahu. (Image: Youtube Screenshot). 

In a dramatic televised address, Israeli PM Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu announced yesterday (27 March) that he was putting his government’s controversial judicial reform package on hold until the resumption of the next session of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, beginning on 30 April.

The government and the opposition will use the next week for intense negotiations to try to find a compromise on reforming the balance of power between the judiciary and the executive, and more specifically, the procedures for nomination of judges. Hopes are that the talks can be a starting point for healing a very divided nation.

Netanyahu’s statement was a response to unprecedented scenes a day earlier, as hundreds of thousands of protesters spontaneously blocked major roads and clashed with the police in Tel Aviv, while in Jerusalem, huge numbers of people marched towards the Knesset, and demonstrated outside the houses of ministers and the PM’s official residence.

Meanwhile, a statewide general strike was declared that looked likely to shut down most of the country.

This was the climax of 12 consecutive weeks of widespread protest against the judicial overhaul proposals.

Yesterday’s volcano of anger from Israelis from all walks of life was sparked by Netanyahu’s sacking of his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, on the evening of Sunday, 26 March.

Hours earlier, Gallant had issued a stark warning that unless the government paused the procedures to enact the legal reform, Israel would face “a clear and present danger” to its security.

Gallant was mirroring in public what he, and the PM, have heard behind closed doors from the chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and other heads of Israel’s security organisations – that the intense and emotional disagreement over the judicial reform plan had now penetrated deep into the ranks of the army, and was threatening to undermine the IDF’s ability to function.

The birth of a patriotic liberal camp

Israel has known fiery waves of demonstrations in the past, such as the extensive right-wing protest against the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians during 1990s, and the anger against Israeli withdrawals from territories later handed over to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in 2005, which necessitated the forced evacuation of Israeli citizens from their residences in those areas.

To many in the Israeli right, including members of the current government, the failure of those demonstrations to stop the then government’s moves remain an open, painful wound.

That is part of the reason ministers in Netanyahu’s right-wing government have dismissed the protestors as anarchists, and refused to compromise, citing the fact that no such flexibility happened when “the other side” was in power during the Oslo years.

Yet, unlike past protests, this time the anti-reform camp succeeded in forcing the government to put its actions on hold.

What was the secret of the success of this mostly independent protest, only loosely led by the opposition parties in the Knesset?


The anti-reform protest movement emphasised patriotism, turning their demonstrations into seas of Israel flags (Photo: ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo)

The leaders of the anti-reform movement were able to crack the code for applying real pressure on the government with a strategy based on three concepts.

  • The main message that led to the amalgamation of a patriotic liberal campThe anti-reform camp convinced Israelis that the judicial overhaul is an attack on democracy by weakening the courts, and specifically the Supreme Court, considered the bastion protecting human rights in Israel.The government, on the other hand, failed to refute the slogan that its program, along with other government bills and public attacks on the press, was a step towards dictatorship, or “illiberal democracy”, in a similar fashion to what has happened recently in Hungary and Poland.
  • Physically rallying around the flagAnti-reform processions have turned into a sea of blue and white Israeli national flags in a clear sign of patriotism. While the issue of women’s rights was also somewhat in the forefront of the protests (with women dressed up as characters from The Handmaid’s Tale), other groups have been sidelined to avoid inner dissent, including LGBTQI rights, and particularly groups focused on the Palestinian issue.As a result, many sectors within Israel’s society found it easier to empathise with the demonstrators, even if they disagreed on these other issues.
  • Finding the softest spot of the state, the IDFThe army is Israel’s last holy cow, and a symbol of unity. Previously, refusing to attend Israel’s mandatory army service for political reasons was a marginal phenomenon, heavily rejected by almost all Israeli society.Yet in recent weeks, Israeli reserve soldiers from all units, including the most elite forces, joined the protests by stating they would refuse to attend their periodic reserve-duty army service. Their argument was that the IDF is the people’s army, and the moves towards what they perceive as a dictatorship “break the contract” with the state, releasing them from their civil obligation to serve in the army.

The army’s operational abilities in many units, especially the strategically vital air force, is very much dependent on an estimated 400,000 reservists, who together constitute 70% of Israel’s fighting forces.

These men and women regularly leave their families for short and long periods to participate in army drills and training, as well as often life-threatening operations.

Defence minister Gallant was shocked to learn that up to 30% of reservists had failed to heed call-ups to attend army service in recent weeks.

Even more alarming was the fact millions of Israelis apparently now consider refusing reserve service as a legitimate form of political protest, opening up a potential slippery slope towards a type of reservists-based military coup.

Gallant also heard stark warnings from the security agencies that Israel’s enemies – Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist organisations – see recent events as proof of prophecies that they have long believed that Israel will crumble from within, and may use this perceived weakness to strike.

Moving too fast

The government’s original sin was hubris. Intoxicated by its narrow election victory in November last year, Netanyahu’s coalition of extreme right-wing factions and ultra-orthodox religious parties felt empowered and unstoppable.

This was especially true in the wake of several years of political deadlock that included five election campaigns, and two coalition governments that lasted a year or less.

Armed with the notion they had won a mandate to govern, the ministers set out to make rapid and dramatic changes.

Minister of Justice Yariv Levin swiftly announced his judicial reform program, aimed at both changing the make-up of the Supreme Court to include more conservative judges, and drastically limiting the power of the judiciary to strike down government decisions and laws.

Yet despite its Knesset majority, Netanyahu’s government learnt very quickly about the limits of its own power.

Mass protests erupted across Israel. In Europe, Netanyahu heard foreign leaders urging him to find a compromise over the judicial overhaul lest Israel lose its essence as a liberal democracy.

The PM has yet to be invited to the White House, and had to endure instead a call from US President Biden reprimanding him over the efforts to push through the judicial reforms without seeking any sort of political consensus.

Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich was unsuccessful in trying to dismiss or counter warnings by international and local economic experts about the dangers of the overhaul to Israel’s economy.

And then Netanyahu fired Gallant.

Social cohesion – crucial for national security

The overall lesson of this episode appears to be that Israel’s democratic culture and traditions prevailed.

In any country neighbouring Israel, any similar mass opposition to the actions of the state would have been crushed and violently silenced.

Democracy is clearly a key value that a large majority of Israelis are willing to fight for. In the battle over the longstanding question regarding the essence of the state – where the balance lies in making the nation both Jewish and democratic – the debate has, at least for now, been won by the pro-liberal camp.

In coming days, a middle way must be found to rebuild Israeli social cohesion, likely involving reforms that can claim some measure of national consensus. Almost everyone now understands this is crucial for Israel’s success, safety and security.

Dr. Ran Porat is an Affiliate Research Associate, Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, Monash University. 


Editorial: Israel judicial reform: Time for both sides to come in good faith

A less highly charged atmosphere would help to ensure that the country does not approach that brink again any time soo

Jerusalem Post,  MARCH 29, 2023


Mediation efforts by Israeli President Isaac Herzog will be key to finding a workable compromise on the judicial reform proposals (Photo: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo).

 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did the right thing on Monday evening by suspending the judicial overhaul legislation for at least a month to enable negotiations toward a compromise formula.

Granted, Netanyahu should have done this two months ago when he saw that Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s sweeping proposals were tearing the nation apart. But, as National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz said after Netanyahu froze the legislation, “better late than never.”

However, suspending the legislation alone is not enough, although even that significantly and palpably lightened the country’s mood.

Sincere and genuine efforts are now needed by both the coalition and opposition to reach a compromise to ensure the total independence of the judiciary, while recouping for the Knesset and the government some of the policy-implementing powers they have lost over the years.

And once that is ironed out, the sides should start working on a long-overdue Constitution and Bill of Rights to finally regulate life in this country – spelling out who has what authority, as well as defining and anchoring into law the rights and duties of each citizen. If the current crisis gives birth to this constitutional moment, then the trauma of the last three months will not have been in vain.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – first things first. And the first thing is for the sides to agree on judicial reform. That in itself is no small task, and for it to happen, both sides must demonstrate good faith.

Unfortunately, things did not get off to a very auspicious beginning.

Although both Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Gantz’s National Unity parties immediately set up teams to negotiate with the Likud under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog, the coalition submitted for a second and third reading the contentious judicial appointments bill that passed the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Monday. This does not mean that the bill will come before the Knesset plenum, something that Netanyahu pledged would not occur during the current Knesset session, but it means that the coalition could bring the bill for a vote at a moment’s notice.

Though Knesset officials described this as merely a “technical” matter, it is a counterproductive move that does not build trust at a time when trust is both desperately needed and sorely lacking.

Coalition and the government are both wary of each other

The opposition is wary that Netanyahu’s freeze of the overhaul plan is just a tactical ploy to take the wind out of the sails of the demonstrations; the coalition is suspicious that the opposition is not as interested in judicial reform, as it is in sowing chaos so that it can bring down the government.

Netanyahu will need to prove that this is not just another of his notorious “shticks and tricks,” but rather, that he is genuinely interested in reaching agreement with the opposition over judicial reform. To do that, he needs to come up with confidence-building measures to offer the opposition.

But the opposition MKs must also offer an olive branch of their own.


The decision to freeze the legislation is an undeniable victory for the massive protest movement – but its leaders should not lose sight of their initial aims, the Post argues. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Hanay). 

Netanyahu’s decision to freeze the legislation, something he refused to do just two months ago, is an undeniable victory for the massive protest movement. Our hope, however, is that the opposition and leaders of the protest movement do not become so intoxicated by this victory as to lose sight of the initial aim: preventing the government from ramrodding through fundamental changes as to how this country is governed.

One of the critical factors in the ultimate success of the protests was the threat of reservists in the air force and other elite units in the IDF not to show up for volunteer reserve duty or training. A representative of the pilots announced following Netanyahu’s freeze of the legislation that they will now return to their regular training schedule: this is a welcome development. Gantz and Lapid would do well to call for a pause of the protests to lower the national temperature and give the talks a chance to succeed.

With Netanyahu’s announcement, the nation on Monday stepped back from the brink. A less highly charged atmosphere would help to ensure that the country does not approach that brink again any time soon.

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