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Yedidia Stern
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Dialogue should prevent Israel’s slide into civil war

If legal experts with differing opinions could just hash everything out, we might see real, consensus-based reform
Protesters estimated by organizers to number 145,000 rally in central Tel Aviv, on February 11, 2023, against controversial legal reforms being touted by the country's far-right government. (Screenshot of drone footage; used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)
Protesters estimated by organizers to number 145,000 rally in central Tel Aviv, on February 11, 2023, against controversial legal reforms being touted by the country's far-right government. (Screenshot of drone footage; used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

The judicial reform proposed by the minister of justice is perilously tearing Israeli society apart. We have seen bitter clashes in the past: the Oslo Accords of the 1990s and the disengagement from Gaza in the 2006 are two most prominent examples from recent history. But the present crisis could prove even more serious. In the earlier cases, the debates revolved around the location of the country’s borders. The current crisis, in the eyes of many, puts the country’s very character and future at stake.

Unlike the previous cases, where the threat emanated from only one side of the political map, this time the threat is alive and tangible from both sides. On the right, Israel’s security forces assess that the attorney general — the legal adviser to the government — is under the highest degree of threat. From the left, in addition to the extreme statements voiced by many (some of which have, thankfully, been partially retracted or proven to have been misconstrued), the rhetoric of  Ron Huldai — the head of the “State of Tel Aviv” — deployed before tens of thousands of demonstrators, about the possibility of moving from “words to actions” could certainly be interpreted as encouraging taking the law into one’s own hands, even if that was not his intention. Israel is skating on thin ice, and the cracks are visible.

The only immediate way to stop this descent down the slippery slope is to join the call for dialogue — now. Anyone with eyes in his head realizes that what is taking place in the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee is not real dialogue, but rather a gallop toward a predetermined destination. Most Israelis are not happy about this. Even among voters of the right-wing bloc, close to a third (31%) feel that the government lacks a legitimate basis for significant constitutional change without broad consensus. Our leaders must come to their senses and allow a serious dialogue process to take place, supported by legal experts with differing opinions, with the aim of achieving real, consensus-based reform.

Compromise is necessary. I was there, in 1995, when a student from the faculty of law where I then served as dean murdered the country’s prime minister. I changed my life in the assassination’s wake, devoting most of my time to grappling with the deep questions that arise from the encounters between the different identity groups that make up Israeli society. After the Knesset decided in 2005 to carry out the disengagement from Gaza and uproot the residents of Gush Katif — the “salt of the earth” — from their homes, I was appointed to the state commission of inquiry that examined the state’s treatment of the evacuees. It turned out that these people, who withstood the test of statehood (mamlachtiyut) with impressive dignity and did not resort to violence, were failed by the state.

Now I clearly feel that a dark cloud, darker than any that came before, looms in our public skies. Israelis understand the depth of the crisis: 60% believe that there is a risk that the conflict over the reform will degenerate into violence. Even worse: 35% — a third of the Israeli public — believe that the fear of civil war is real, not media spin. These are numbers we have never seen before. Gas fumes permeate the Israeli street, and the spark that could  ignite the entire country may be at hand.

All of us, from both camps together, must call for dialogue.

We at Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) will be submitting a mass petition to the president of Israel, the prime minister, and the head of the opposition, as a wake-up call, before the country slides into civil war. Sign JPPI’s petition for dialogue now.

About the Author
Yedidia Stern is the president of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and a professor of law (emeritus) at Bar-Ilan University.
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