In October1962, the United States and the Soviet Union were on the verge of nuclear war. During that time, President Kennedy and Soviet First Secretary Khrushchev were exchanging cables in order to avert a war. Kennedy was standing tough, but Khrushchev sent a cable which led the United States Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, to state, ”We’re eyeball to eyeball and the other fellow just blinked.” Khrushchev eventually backed down and nuclear war was averted.
In Israel, after a new, racist, religious, right-wing government was recently elected and came to power, it introduced a series of proposed “reforms” which would give the Knesset control over Israel’s courts. The most onerous provision of that legislation would give the Knesset the power to over-ride decisions of Israel’s Supreme Court. Stated differently, if the proposed over-ride provision is passed, Israel will no longer have an independent judiciary, something that virtually every other democracy in the world has. Opponents of the proposed legislation maintain strenuously that the proposed legislation will be the end of democracy in Israel.
One of the people who believes this is Joe Biden, the president of the United States. Biden has said so very publicly despite the fact that he has always maintained that criticism of Israel would be kept private.
Up until yesterday (Sunday March 19, 2023), the new right-wing coalition had ignored Biden’s statement. Rather, the coalition has refused to change its approach of ramming the legislation through by the end of March, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been protesting the assault on democracy weekly. In the United States, there have also been significant protests and major Jewish organizations have opposed the proposed legislation.
Yesterday, Biden and Bibi Netanyahu had a telephone conversation. According to press reports, in that telephone conversation Biden again asserted the United States’ position. In response. Bibi assured Biden that “Israel was, and always will remain, a strong and vibrant democracy”.
Subsequently, Netanyahu announced that the over-ride provisions would not be passed until at least April 30, 2023. The headline in this morning’s Reuters reads “Netanyahu softens judicial overhaul after Biden call”.
There are two pieces of the proposed legislation which Netanyahu refused to postpone. I don’t care much about either of them. The first is a bill which would allow Netanyahu to appoint convicted criminals including Haredi Arye Deri (Shas), a Minister in the new cabinet. Since the Haredi parties always vote as a block and their Ministers would take the same actions as members of the cabinet anyway, that really does not matter much to me.
The second piece of legislation has to do with how judges are appointed. There are different ways around the world and among the different States within the United States in which judges are appointed, not all of them particularly democratic. The United States is a good example. When a Republican is elected President, the Federal judicial nominees are sure to be conservative. When a Democrat is elected President, the Federal judicial nominees are sure to be liberal. In either case, in order for the nominee to take office, their appointment must be approved (ratified) by two-thirds of the undemocratic United States Senate. Still, the United States is considered a democracy. So will Israel, even if the legislation to change the way in which judges are appointed passes.
I have been a nonviolent protester all my adult life. I am just old enough to have been involved in the tag end of the American civil rights movement, getting arrested once in the process. If there was a national protest in the United States against the war in Vietnam between 1967 and 1970, I was sure to have had some role in it. Now I am old. Still, week after week, I have been part of the crowd in Tel Aviv which has protested the proposed legislation. I have participated waiving my blue and white Israel flag proudly. My Hebrew is still lousy, but I have learned to chant with the rest of the crowd “democratziah” and “booshah” (“shame”). It makes me feel good about myself. I am fulfilling what I feel is my moral obligation to scream “no” when democracy is threatened. (Adolph Hitler was elected, too, but not enough Germans screamed “no” when his actions were undemocratic after he was elected.) Nonviolent protest is good for my soul. Can we protesters both here and in the United States have made Bibi blink? I certainly hope so. It would make me feel even better.