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Alan Edelstein

Making history–unnecessarily

For the 30 or so years that I wanted to make Aliyah and didn’t, I often said that, when history is written a thousand or two years from now, this period will still be viewed as the re-birth of the Israeli nation. I wanted to experience that and, if I could, play some small role in it.

My wife and I did make Aliyah about 12 years ago. And, in the last month, we did play a very small role in an historic moment, the effort to defend Israel’s independent judiciary and democracy from a legislative “reform” package that is in no way a reform, but a decimation of Israel’s independent judiciary.

It was the fulfillment of an aspiration that I would have been very happy doing without.

The last three months have been among the most consequential months in Israel’s history. None of it was necessary.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has burnt so many bridges and has alienated so many potential partners, that he is left with a Likud Party that, in the words of Menachem Begin’s son Benny, is not his father’s party, and with coalition partners who are extremist, racist ideologues. One proudly describes himself as a “fascistic homophobe.” Netanyahu has given them some of the most sensitive positions with extraordinary power.

Whether one agreed with his politics or not, there was a time when Netanyahu was a responsible leader. He defended Israel’s robust and world-respected judicial system, and he used restraint in the use of military power. Now defending himself from criminal charges, his only objective appears to be to hold onto power and to stay out of prison.

If Netanyahu was not the leader of the Likud Party and Prime Minister, Likud could easily abandon the extremists and form a coalition with the center and center-right parties that will not join in a coalition with him.

It is with this background that Netanyahu’s coalition tried to jam through legislation that would definitively change the nature of Israel’s democracy and society. Virtually eliminating the power of the judiciary to strike down legislation and empowering the Knesset to overturn judicial decisions by a simple 61-vote majority would be devastating to Israel’s democracy.

Israel has only one house in its parliament, the Knesset. It does not have an independent executive branch; like other parliamentary systems, its prime minister is the leader of the legislative branch. It does not have a constitution or a Bill of Rights.

In short, an independent, robust judiciary is key to Israel’s democracy, particularly to the protection of minorities and minority points of view.

Last Saturday night was the 13th Saturday night of demonstrations across Israel in support of democracy and against the attempts to undermine its independent judiciary. We joined the one in Jerusalem. It was especially poignant and important.

The Minister of Defense, Yoav Gallant, had scheduled a press conference during which he was reportedly going to announce his opposition to the legislation. He was reported to be very concerned about the impact the current crisis is having on the willingness of reservists to show up for service and on the morale and preparedness of the army in general.

Instead of making the announcement, Gallant went to a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and then postponed any statement. Then Netanyahu took to the airwaves. He announced that, contrary to the Attorney General’s position, he was going to ignore the agreement he had made not to get involved in the debate over the judiciary because of his conflict of interest with the criminal charges he is fighting.

Netanyahu also announced that the government would pass a slightly modified version of the legislation giving the governing coalition control of judicial appointments, and then he would make all of the other parts of the package acceptable (at least to him).

He then flew off to London for a brief unnecessary and unproductive meeting with the British P.M. and a nice stay at the taxpayers’ expense for he and his wife at the Hotel Savoy. He and Mrs. Netanyahu were then spotted having dinner out at a nice London restaurant.

On Sunday night Gallant publicly called for the legislation to be halted or suspended. But, it was later reported that he stated that, if the bill was brought up, he would vote for it. The one or two Likud Knesset members who had also expressed concerns about the legislation also said that if it is brought up, they would vote for it. Profiles in courage.

After Gallant’s public statement calling for a halt to the legislation, Netanyahu fired him as Defense Minister. It felt like shades of the Saturday Night Massacre when, at the height of the Watergate scandal in 1973, US President Richard Nixon fired his Attorney General because he would not fire the Special Prosecutor.

At around 10:00 p.m. calls went out for spontaneous demonstrations. People responded throughout the country. As I grabbed our flag and we walked down our steps to the street, I expected the demonstration to consist of my wife and I and a couple of hundred young people who had been drinking and eating in the bars and restaurants on Aza Street, the main street of our neighborhood and the location of the Prime Minister’s home during the restoration of the official residence. After all, it was late already. Most people our age were surely not going to get out of bed or off the couch to come into the streets.

I was wrong. People of all ages and backgrounds started coming out of buildings and down the streets, flags and signs in hand. As I looked back from the gathering spot, they just kept coming. I had not seen anything like it since anti-Vietnam War days.  There was a feeling that we were coming together to defend something precious.  The crowd kept growing.

The firing of the Minister of Defense because he expressed concerns about the impact of the legislation on the nation’s security struck a chord with a broad swath of Israelis. If this is how Netanyahu reacted to an objection based on Israel’s security, he really was putting himself above the nation. Nothing but his survival mattered, not even the people’s safety and the future of the nation.

The demonstrations continued on Monday. Busloads of protesters made their way to Jerusalem and gathered near the Supreme Court building. Reports on Monday morning were that  Netanyahu would announce a suspension of the legislation. He didn’t. His announcement kept being delayed as he apparently met with different people, trying to negotiate his way out of the mess he created for the nation and himself. “Desperate flailing” are the words that came to my mind.

Finally, at around 6:00 p.m., in a brief speech in which he tried to characterize his actions as selfless and Solomon-like, Netanyahu announced a suspension of the legislation for a month.

No one died in the demonstrations. Few were injured. There was some damage to roads and other infrastructure in Tel Aviv, but given the size of the crowds and the intensity of the issue, it was very minimal. There was no violence toward the persons with opposing views, until Monday night when the right called a counter-demonstration and some extremist thugs beat up some innocent Arab residents in downtown Jerusalem. A disgrace.

The parties are negotiating at meetings at the President’s Residence. No one opposed to the legislation trusts Netanyahu (a decent number in his own camp don’t either). No one knows if the negotiations will be real and result in a good-faith compromise that a large part of the nation can endorse, or that at some point Netanyahu and his allies will do a few amendments and attempt to jam the package through.

While we take comfort and some pride in our temporary victory, we fully recognize that the fate of Israel’s future as a democratic nation with an independent judiciary is still very much an open question.

At one of the demonstrations, the crowd started marching. I asked a gentleman where everyone was going. His response: “Nobody knows where we are going.” We shared a sigh and a laugh.

The only redeeming thing coming out of this emotional, exhausting roller coaster has been to see the spirit of and commitment to democracy of so many Israelis. Hundreds of thousands, the equivalent of millions if it was the US, have taken to the streets to support and defend Israel’s democracy. Contrary to what Netanyahu and his allies have asserted, these are not a bunch of leftists and anarchists.

They are the heart and soul of Israel: hi-tech workers, doctors and nurses, educators, shopkeepers, reservists–pilots, submariners, medical personnel, etc.–who said they will not serve their reserve time if Israel is not a true democracy with a robust judiciary and who, in the days leading up to Netanyahu’s announcement that he was temporarily suspending the legislative efforts, started refusing reserve duty in significant numbers.

Former leaders of the Shin Bet, the IDF, the Mossad, former Likud members and leaders, former diplomats, former Attorneys General, and on and on all spoke out.  The ambassador to France and the Consul General of New York resigned. One of Netanyahu’s own lawyers quit working for him.

My wife and I met a young woman from a community in the north. She has been traveling regularly to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to join in the protests. When I said “good for you,” her response was a spontaneous “I have to, it’s my country.”

It is unclear if the current negotiations will bear fruit, or if the governing coalition will eventually try to jam through the legislative package, but it has been heartening to see so many Israelis from diverse communities making real sacrifices to try to keep Israel’s democracy healthy and alive. I am proud to have been able to join with them and play a very small part in fighting for the future of our homeland.

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Two recent op-eds that capture the situation well:

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/28/opinion/israel-protest-bibi-netanyahu-democracy.html

https://danielgordis.substack.com/p/what-you-just-witnessed-was-one-of

About the Author
Alan Edelstein made Aliyah in 2011 and lives in Jerusalem. He was the founding partner of a well-respected California government affairs firm and was involved in California government and politics as a lobbyist and consultant for 30 years. He blogs at www.edelsteinrandomthoughts.com. He can be reached at ae@edelsteinstrategies.com
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