Anyone who says that Israel’s political system doesn’t need reform to strengthen its democracy is either ill-informed or lying. Democracy is the balance of the will of the majority with the protection of minority and civil rights maintained by a separation of powers. Yet, no system is perfect.
Anyone intellectually honest must agree that Israeli courts do overreach their authority, whether it be Supreme Court Justice Barak forcing Prime Minster Rabin to fire Deri before he was indicted or pressuring a government to keep the attorney general appointed by the now opposition. Do you think Tony Blair kept the same legal advisers as John Major and Margret Thatcher? Yesterday a court told the government they can’t legislate to stop paying foreign workers benefits should they break their visa requirements. But this is precisely the type of policy the majority elected them for, and it makes common sense: we’re not running a youth club… this is a country.
However, anyone intellectually honest must also agree that court intervention is rarely out of political partisanship. It’s often the result of poorly worded laws that have not undergone a rigorous analysis and debate. Yet, my understanding of the current wording of the bill to curtail the reasonable test, is that it will further reduce the requirement for tighter wording and the level of analysis and debate that should be required to make good laws.
Baseball player Yogi Berra once quipped: “In theory there’s no difference between practice and theory – in practice there is”. And there in lays the rub – that is why I am a fierce opponent of THIS change in the balance of powers.
I’m not naïve about corruption in the entire political class, irrelevant of party affiliation or geography. Tony Blair’s large road building program in Scotland used English taxpayers’ money to fund projects that were not needed, while other parts of the UK sorely needed infrastructure upgrades. Why did he do it? New Labor understood that unemployment in Scotland increased the risk of the Union breaking apart. If that were to happen, their party would never have a majority in Westminster again. That’s institutional corruption of the highest degree. Blair also knew that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction – almost every European spy agency said as such. In fact, the dossier Blair and Bush based their war policy on was later found to have been based entirely on a scene from The Rock starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage. I couldn’t make that up!
However, Westminster does still possess a cultural element of shame. Boris Johnson won a bigger landslide for the Tories than Thatcher ever did, winning working class votes who saw labor leader Corbyn as a “champaign socialist” and career politician from a posh London neighborhood. Corbyn had no skin in the game. He was telling blue collar workers in the north what was good for them. At the time, Johnson planned material budgets for wealth creation and social mobility in those northern communities. At the time I felt he would go down in history as one of the greatest post world-war two prime ministers.
Yet Boris’ personality and moral compass did not go down well with the British public. Found to have organized a wine party at 10 Downing Street against his own covid rules while people died alone in austere NHS hospitals – well the British public couldn’t accept that, and he was forced out in shame. Subsequently, Boris was deemed to have lied to the inquiry about the affair – he was banned from being a sitting member of Parliament for 90 days. His successor Liz Truss’ popularist economic policies almost destroyed the UK’s pension system and gilt markets. She fired her ill experienced finance minister, but the British understood the buck stopped with her, and she was forced out after 6 weeks. The media joked that a lettuce would have remained fresh for longer than her tenure.
Israel simply doesn’t have that culture. As a people, we don’t have the same level of shame as the British – often for better, but also for worse. Our political culture certainly doesn’t have any shame. Instead of re-wording the bill to stop benefit payments to foreign workers breaking visa rules, the interior minister replied, “this is the reason we must neuter the courts – they want to encourage non-Jewish immigration to Israel”. What’s more, the context smells fishy: he and his brother lost an appeal last week regarding payments to their late father’s caregiver of 11 years. He’d had a visa problem when he returned to the Philippines for a family bereavement.
A catalyst for the current debate on judicial overreach was Netanyahu’s appointment of Deri to the ministries of interior and health early in 2023. Deri has been convicted of financial crimes several times and was then on a suspended sentence for fraud. The court stopped his appointment. Indeed, the legal considerations are complex. But one doesn’t need to be a legal scholar to understand the lack of trust created amongst a large portion of the public through such an appointment irrelevant of policy or law.
Large portions of the public are concerned about having an interior minister with a criminal conviction for incitement to terror. This week he effectively told the President of the USA to get lost (which to be clear is his right) and is requesting powers of administrative detention and a budget for a security force outside the regular chain of command. The UK’s culture and constituency based system would simply prevent such people from holding high office. But as a nation and political class, we have very little political shame.
The bottom line is, that on paper and in isolation, the governments ideas to change the balance of powers does have strong intellectual merit. But the issues are twofold:
- The history and personalities of those involved show us they have no shame, and as such they are very hard to trust when it comes to protecting our civil rights. The result has been tribalism and infighting while the Lebanese are creating facts on the ground against UN resolutions. The Lebanese prime minister is refusing to retreat saying “that land is ours”. It’s barely spoken about. The current Israeli government wouldn’t have kept quiet if such actions occurred under Lapid. Our neighbors sense weakness – and that is truly frightening.
- While the government’s ideas have merit in isolation, they do not in context. And this is where the I will begin by criticism of the opposition
The former two prime ministers are also guilty of sapping trust from much of the population. Firstly, whatever his motives, Bennet’s electorate were simply disenfranchised. Lapid should have brought the Lebanese maritime border agreement to the Knesset. But let’s take a step back.
The left and proverbial left offered two major policies to Israelis over the past 30 years: Oslo and the disengagement. I still cannot take a bus ride in Israel today. Why did it make sense for Peres and Belin to forge back room deals to arm, fund and repatriate long forgotten terrorists fading in exile in Tunis? Why was it sensible to make a unilateral decision to withdraw from Gaza without knowing that all the outcomes were in our favor? I had a colleague whose parents are still pained by their forced removal from Yamit in the early 80’s! The people hurt were not machines – and on a human level their pain was belittled and ignored by society. Financial compensation will never fill that hole.
Subsequently, the left has offered us nothing other than discussions about the temperature of the air conditioning on the trains. For a decade their entire electoral strategy has been: “it’s him or us!” They even used that slogan in one election cycle. There’s a reason why demonstrators in Tahrir square didn’t take control. There’s a reason the occupy wall street movement faded into insignificance. Taking power requires more than the ability to organize people – it takes a vision of what tomorrow will look like.
It is inconceivable to me that neither Lapid, nor Gantz have provided the public with a concrete alternative vision to Netanyahu’s. And let’s not be naïve – if the reasonableness doctrine is stopped, and the opposition are re-elected, they will not reverse the legislation. They are not against it – they are against Netanyahu and his side having such power. Given the lack of shame in our political class I support their stance in principle, but their methods are intellectually bankrupt and as popularist as Ben Gvir’s. They have no vision – they are not leaders – they are at best management consultants.
To Gantz and Lapid I say – accept the government’s judicial changes publicly – but with a catch. The legislation must come with what’s called a sunrise clause – that means that the law will only come into effect once certain other laws are passed. You must present these other laws as a vision:
- A second higher chamber of parliament with a different election cycle, with certain powers to return certain bills to the Knesset for full debate, better analysis and tighter wording. No one affiliated with a political party will be allowed to stand for this house.
- Half the Knesset seats should be based on constituencies
- Devolve more power to different centers of authority (municipalities etc.)
That’s a vision in which every Israeli can feel represented by people more incentivized to care about them. In that context, the legislation to stop judicial overreach is both theoretically and practically acceptable. We will all benefit whatever our tribal identity – and we can get on with the business of creating a shared and bright future for all the Jewish people.
Gantz and Lapid – you must up your game if you want a seat at the adult table. This is not a youth movement – it’s a real country.