Yesterday morning, sitting in my living room, I suddenly heard loud music. It was Rosh Chodesh Adar, the beginning of one of the happiest months on the Jewish calendar, and a truck was driving by, musically announcing: “When Adar enters, we increase our joy”. But as I read the morning news over breakfast, I saw that President Isaac Herzog described feeling “sorrow” – not joy – due to the controversy over the judicial reform bills beginning to make their way through the Knesset. The contrast was jarring.
By nature, I’m an optimistic person. But I must admit that over the past few weeks, I have been feeling kind of like the president does. Indeed, regardless of which side of this debate one is on, feelings of sorrow – and even despair and alarm – seem commonplace right now. The rhetoric on both sides has reached a fevered pitch, theatrics in the Knesset and poisoned languages from both sides are worrying and embarrassing, and fears of violence – which at one point sounded like empty hysterics – are now starting to seem like a genuine concern.
Watching the tens of thousands of protesters packing the streets in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and elsewhere, I’m reminded of earlier moments in Israeli history that saw mass protests against the government – coming from a different segment of society: the right-wing protests against the Oslo Accords and, later, against the Disengagement from Gaza. There are a lot of parallels between those situations and ours; in many ways, they are mirror images of each other.
Like the right-wing crowds back then, the vast majority of the (mostly leftist) participants in the recent protests are patriotic, passionate, and peaceful Israelis who care deeply about their country and are alarmed at a plan that, in their opinion, will bring devastating results. People on all sides of the debate who care about Israel should be happy that our country allows peaceful and forceful protest, and that so many people care enough to take time off of work and their personal lives to express their opinions about their beloved country.
But there is also a small number of loud extremists – including some prominent politicians and public figures – who have spoken openly and dangerously about civil rebellion, armed insurgency, and murders of public figures. These also mirror the vocal extremists who spoke out against Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo accords in the months prior to Rabin’s assassination, raising concern that history could repeat itself.
The crazy thing, though, is that a solid majority of Israelis – as much as 65-70% according to some polls – support a compromise based on the proposal presented by President Herzog about ten days ago. With such widespread support favoring the middle ground, why does this argument threaten to tear the country apart? How did we get into this situation?
On one level, the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of politicians on both sides. Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Simcha Rothman, Chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, must be blamed for spreading panic among opponents of their plan by pursuing the legislation at breakneck speed, refusing to pause for even a short time to engage in dialogue. And certain MKs from all coalition parties are to blame for publicly gloating about their power, and flexing their political muscles by threatening to pass all sorts of provocative legislation blatantly targeting their opponents’ constituencies.
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid and others in his camp must be equally blamed for refusing to enter talks, and even setting an unrealistic 60-day total legislative freeze as their minimum requirement. And all these politicians, together with many others from both camps, are to be blamed for the incendiary rhetoric and cheap political stunts, trying to gain attention and score points with their voters at the expense of badly needed national solidarity, unity, and brotherhood.
But here also, all these politicians – on both sides – can argue that they are merely following Israeli precedent.
Right-wing defenders of Levin and Rothman point out that when past governments implemented controversial leftist policies with very far-reaching consequences that were opposed by large segments of the public – as Rabin did with the Oslo accords and Ariel Sharon with the Disengagement – they used their legal authority to push their policies through in the face of even larger demonstrations than the impressive ones we are currently seeing. Those leaders also mocked their political opponents instead of acknowledging their pain and listening to their legitimate concerns.
And Lapid’s supporters point out that his tactics are similar to those used by the previous Knesset opposition, led by the very people composing today’s government. They used every tactic they could think of to bring down the Bennet-Lapid government, regardless of the consequences. This included employing rhetoric equally poisonous to what we’re currently hearing, boycotting Knesset committees to inhibit the ongoing functioning of the parliament even on consensus issues, and even voting against important laws that they supported – causing damage to the nation that they openly acknowledged – just to bring down the government as soon as possible.
Our political leaders are following the pattern of the past – despite the immense harm this does to our country and society – because it works. Netanyahu and his partners managed to overthrow the previous government after just one year by using tactics like these, and they were rewarded by the voters. And now Lapid and his people are clearly trying to use the same tactics to return to power – because they work.
In a democracy, politicians will always do whatever it takes to win votes. The reason is simple: those who win the votes win the election, and politicians who – due to moral principles, national responsibility, or any other factor – refuse to engage in those despicable tactics, lose. So ultimately, our leaders will always be those who say and do exactly those things that voters support.
And therefore, my friends, it’s up to us. If we, the public, support President Herzog’s call to lower the flames of the argument, speak respectfully to each other, seek unity, and engage in real and meaningful dialog resulting in a genuine compromise based on his proposal – then we need to demand that of our leaders. This change will never be led by politicians; it must come from a grassroots movement among the people.
Non-political leaders, influencers, and members of the general public on both sides must stand up and demand this from the politicians.
The opposition protests must continue, but they must change their tone. In addition to chants supporting “Dem-o-krat-ya”, there must also be calls for “Hee-dab-root” (dialogue)! Lapid and other opposition leaders must be told loudly and clearly by their voters that they want real dialog, not political posturing. They must drop the counter-productive demand for a total legislative freeze and enter talks immediately, with no preconditions.
And voters for coalition parties must let their leaders know that while they support judicial reform, there must be real compromise, not a mere façade of dialog and cosmetic changes to the legislation. Real compromise means neither side gets everything it wants. In this case, real compromise will mean that the High Court’s composition and power will change significantly, but that Levin and Rothman will also not get the total, unchecked government control they seek.
Compromise means that in one sense, both sides will lose, but in a much bigger sense, both will win. And if the public demands this and makes clear that we will no longer support shameful, disrespectful politicians and their zero-sum policies, they will change their tone. And then, we will all win.
My friends, it’s up to us.