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Alan Edelstein

The stakes could not be higher

As Haviv Rettig Gur pointed out so well a few days ago, we have a desperate, ineffective prime minister beholden to unqualified, extreme ministers and heading up a barely functioning, ineffective government.  It cannot maintain order and it cannot agree on a budget, two minimal requirements of any government.

Tens of thousands of Israeli citizens have been demonstrating in support of democracy every week for nine weeks in front of  the President’s Residence and at the Knesset in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, and on bridges and city squares throughout the country.

The crowds are diverse, and the size and determination of the protesters have not declined. The polls show a majority of Israelis against the legislation that would eviscerate Israel’s judiciary.  They also show that if an election were held today, Likud would lose nine seats.

The proponents of the effort to destroy  Israel’s independent judiciary have said they are willing to discuss the proposals. But they have not been willing to suspend the efforts to jam the proposals through the Knesset so that discussions are something other than a fig leaf.

The proponents have also tried to label the opposition leftists.  Prime Minister Netanyahu said they reminded him of anti-vaxxers.  If all of the people against these proposals were leftists and anti-vaxxers, Netanyahu and his allies would not be in office and Israel’s hospitals would be overflowing with Covid patients.

Benny Begin, Menachem Begin’s son and a long-time Likud Member of Knesset, has demonstrated against the proposals.  He has declared that the Likud party of his father is gone. Yossi Klein Halevi and Daniel Gordis, stalwart centrists and long-time explainers of Israel to the American Jewish community and to Americans in general, have called upon American Jews to weigh in on behalf of Israel’s democracy.

Hundreds if not thousands of former judges, former Shin Bet and Mossad chiefs, former generals and other IDF officers, economic experts, venture capital leaders, former heads of the Bank of Israel, former Netanyahu appointees, former attorneys general, and top law firms have all spoken out against the attack on the judiciary.

These are not extreme people. They have all concluded that the proposals will basically neuter the judiciary and place unchecked power in the Prime Minister and the Knesset, and that they leave voting rights, minority rights, unpopular views, and minority populations unprotected.

They have also concluded that they will result in a huge transfer of capital out of Israel, a self-inflicted wound that is already occurring.

They have concluded that this attack on the judiciary, combined with other coalition proposals to boost funding to Haredi schools without requiring any secular education or training, and the carving out of parts of the responsibility of the Ministry of Defense and giving it to unqualified zealots such as Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, pose a very real threat to Israel’s security and its future as a vibrant and healthy democracy.

Avichai Mandelblit, formerly Chief Military Advocate General and Netanyahu’s former Cabinet Secretary and Attorney General, and definitely not a leftist, spoke strongly against the proposals Tuesday night, asserting that “We are experiencing a regime coup, not so-called legal reforms.”  

Moshe Koppel, the computer scientist, non-politician, and founding chairman of the Kohelet Policy Forum, the organization from which many of the proposals originated, has reportedly now called the provision that would allow the Knesset to override a Supreme Court decision by a simple majority vote, “stupid.”

Koppel has also appeared to distance himself from the extreme form of the proposals.   He has written that Kohelet is not the main sponsor or the driver of the proposals.

One gets the feeling that, as a free-enterprise, conservative think-tank, Kohelet and Mr. Koppel discussed and advanced a lot of different ideas for reforming a system they felt needed reform.  Koppel apparently never thought a politician would bundle them altogether in their most extreme forms and try to jam them all through at one time and with no substantive debate.

There are arguments to make that the Supreme Court appointment process, or the Supreme Court’s standard of review, or other aspects of the court’s role need review and possible modification. And there is room, after study and debate, for reasonable reform proposals.

This is not what is happening here. The proposals would basically eliminate any effective check on the Knesset by the judiciary. And the proponents have tried to jam them through because they know they would not hold up to scrutiny.  They’ve done it for one simple reason: they think, or thought, they can.

The proponents’ often-stated argument that these proposals will simply turn the clock back to the 1948-1995 status quo is ironic. They seem to not know or not care that many on the right were highly critical of the government during that period. They considered it overbearing, unchecked, disrespectful of individual liberty, arrogant, and uninterested in alternative views.

In the last few days a few on the right have recognized that these extreme revisions of law could come back to bite them in the event that a center/left government is returned to power some day. They have basically said, “Hey, wait a minute. If we pass this stuff and lose power, there will be no checks on the state.” Funny how that realization can cause one to have a different perspective on the proposals.

Some military and legal experts have pointed out that former officers and parents of young officers should be very worried, especially if they like to travel abroad. Increasingly, top jurists are warning that if international courts conclude that Israel’s judiciary is no longer robust and independent, they will not defer to it and will increase their investigations and prosecutions for alleged illegal conduct in the territories.

Whether one is guilty or not, the expense and the years taken to defend these charges can consume one’s life and resources.  Again, this should give some people some second thoughts.

This is an extreme attack on basic tenets of Israel’s democracy and independent judiciary.  The opposition is large, broad-based and committed.  The Prime Minister is single-mindedly focused on staying out of jail, and he is beholden to some very extreme players who have previously proudly touted their fascist, racist, and homophobic views.

One hopes that Israel will continue as a thriving, tolerant, robust democracy with its world-respected judicial system.  At this point, however, the outcome is unpredictable, and the stakes could not be higher.

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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