Devin Sper

What is really behind the protests in Israel?

Leaders of the opposition to Israel’s proposed judicial reforms speak in apocalyptic terms about the end of Israel’s democracy, and perhaps even the end of Israel itself. Prominent Israelis have even urged violence, assassination and civil war to stop the legislation. The majority of protestors are nonviolent but believe and repeat slogans about the judicial reforms that signal the end of Israeli democracy.  Neither they, nor many in the United States, appear to be fully aware of what the actual reforms entail or the motivations behind their creation.  I would therefore like to begin by explaining what the proposed reforms actually are and then discuss, what I believe, is behind the violent opposition to them.

Goals of the reforms

Broadly speaking, the reforms aim to rebalance the roles of the legislature and judiciary.  Because Israel has no constitution, these roles were never precisely defined.  As a result, Israel’s judiciary has gradually aggrandized power at the expense of the legislative branch (i.e., the Knesset and government), and it is this imbalance that the reforms seek to redress, specifically:

Judges will no longer appoint themselves.

Judges were originally chosen by the Knesset.  Today the judiciary and legal profession have a permanent majority on the committee that appoints judges, that is to say that Israel’s judges appoint themselves.  They are not accountable to the voters and have thus remained a closed group impervious to outside influences and increasingly out of step with the Israeli people.  The proposed reforms seek to bring Israel in line with other democracies where judges are either appointed by the people’s elected representatives or directly elected by the people, and thus better reflect their will.  The current Israeli system in which unelected members of the legal profession appoint themselves is fundamentally undemocratic, and requires change.

Judges will no longer be able to overturn laws and political appointments.

Israel’s judiciary has appointed itself the ultimate political authority, overturning laws and political appointments passed by the Knesset.  They have at times cited a standard of “reasonableness” as their basis for doing so.  Reasonableness is subjective and what is reasonable to one person may not be reasonable to another.   In no other democracy is reasonableness, in and of itself, a basis for legal rulings.  The reforms will eliminate this standard ensuring that legal decisions are based instead on the law.

 Legal advisors will advise and not dictate to the government.

Unelected legal advisors are embedded in each ministry and sit in on every cabinet meeting. These “advisors” have taken it upon themselves to dictate policy to the elected government, something found in no other democracy.  The proposed reforms will retain legal advisors but confirm their proper role as advising the government regarding legal ramifications of specific policies.  Final decisions however will remain with the elected government, not unelected bureaucrats.

The proposed reforms will still allow the Israeli Supreme Court to overturn laws but only by a special majority and the Knesset will then vote to override the Supreme Court’s decision. 

Opposition to the reforms

Even the opposition admits that the Israeli justice system needs reform and yet their rhetoric has become increasingly apoplectic. Former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who lost the recent election to Netanyahu, called the proposed judicial reforms “an attack on our families, our children and our way of life.” Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said that Israel will no longer be a democracy within a few weeks, labeled the recently elected Israeli government “an illegitimate regime” and stated that people are duty-bound to reject its authority. Former Chief of Staff Moshe (Boogie) Alon, and former Israeli Attorney General Avichai Manelblit have both labeled the proposed judicial reforms a “coup d’état.”

Others have gone further, calling for the violent overthrow of Israel’s recently elected government.  Speaking in front of 90,000 people, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said that “dictatorships can only return to be democracies through bloodshed.’ Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert explicitly called for civil war stating that “What is needed is to move to the next stage, the stage of war, and war is not waged with speeches. War is waged in a face-to-face battle, head-to-head and hand-to-hand, and that is what will happen here.”  Zeev Raz, a former combat pilot who led the air force squadron in the 1981 bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, called for the assassination of Prime Minister Netanyahu:` “If a leader behaves in a dictatorial way, there’s an obligation to kill them.’”

This increasingly violent rhetoric by opponents of the reforms is as unwarranted as it is irresponsible and will inevitably lead to violence and civil strife, which Israel cannot afford.  Protesters have already blockaded members of the ruling coalition in their homes to prevent them from casting their votes in the Knesset in favor of reform.  Sara Netanyahu was blockaded at her hair salon, feared for her safety and had to be rescued by the security services. They have also been blocking major roads, preventing average people from getting to work. Police, attempting to reopen the roads have been assaulted, all ironically, in the name of defending democracy.

Another danger arises from the opposition’s insistence that the judicial reforms will destroy the Israeli economy. Although there is no factual connection between the proposed reforms and the economy, psychology always plays a role in economics.  Israeli tech companies whose owners oppose the reform are threatening to move their capital and business overseas. Opponents may well create a self-fulfilling prophecy, spooking foreign investors and sending the Israeli economy into a downward spiral.

Equally corrosive is the effect of the opposition’s lie about the reforms being the end of Israel’s democracy overseas.  This plays directly into the hands of Israel’s detractors and undermines her standing with other democratic allies who see shared values as the basis for their support of Israel.  Leaders of the opposition who engage in such rhetoric cannot be oblivious to the potentially serious economic and political damage they are doing to the country.

Rather than debating and seeking compromise in the Knesset, the opposition has wasted two and a half months in disruptive street protests demanding that the legislative process be halted. They clearly hope to delay the legislation until the Knesset’s spring recess and beyond in the hope that the government might fall before being able to see the reforms through.

Why the urgency?

The government, however, is determined to see the judicial reform through because they are the essential prerequisite to a long list of other necessary reforms that this government was elected to implement.  These include putting a halt to the murderous rampage of criminal gangs plaguing the Arab community, re-establishing law and order in the Negev, where the government has largely lost control and which is being terrorized by Bedouin criminal gangs, and ending the wave of Palestinian terror in which Israelis are being murdered almost daily.  Most urgent of all is the government’s need to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue.

None of these things can be accomplished prior to enactment of the judicial reforms.  Past experience demonstrates that the Israeli supreme court will overturn any law it deems “unreasonable” and will likely obstruct these important changes due to their antipathy towards Netanyahu and the current government. 

Why the hysteria?

Whether one agrees with the proposed judicial reforms or not, nothing in them threatens Israeli democracy or justifies the opposition’s dire predictions.  The judicial reforms do not eliminate free and fair elections, freedom of speech or assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of religion or any democratic right whatsoever.  Which begs the question:  Why the violent rhetoric and mass hysteria, what is actually going on here?

After ruling Israel for Israel’s first three decades the labor party lost power for the first time with the election of Menachem Begin and his Likud party in 1977.  This came as a shock to the old Israeli elites who demonized Begin and claimed that his election would bring fascism and an end to democracy in Israel. When Benjamin Netanyahu became leader of the Likud party and was elected Prime Minister the old elites focused their vitriol on him.

For years the opposition has vilified Prime Minister Netanyahu calling him “crime minister” and staging noisy nightly protests outside his home.  The judiciary has spent the last decade threatening to try Netanyahu on various trumped-up charges. When finally forced to present their case in court it has fallen apart with one key prosecution witness after another contradicting the prosecution’s assertions.

Despite their best efforts at character assassination, the majority of the Israeli public does not accept the opposition’s view of Bibi as the root of all evil. They have repeatedly elected Netanyahu, making him the longest serving Prime Minister in the history of Israel and have now once again reelected him Prime Minister.

The opposition is a fundamentally anti-democratic movement that does not accept election results and the principle of majority rule.  This is a temper tantrum by Israel’s old guard that cannot accept the fact that the public has rejected their leadership in one election after another.  For this they blame Netanyahu, whom they label “the magician.”   The old guard’s real issue with Netanyahu is that he is in power and they are not.

Despite ever shrinking representation in the Knesset, the old elite has continued to maintain a large measure of control over the state via the judiciary, the media, academia, the army and other institutions.  The judicial reforms begin to threaten their real power base and hence their violent reaction.

Corruption among the elites

Beyond an unhealthy attachment to power there is also a good deal of corruption among Israel’s old elite. Multiple key prosecution witnesses in Netanyahu’s trial have stated in court that the prosecution and police threatened and attempted to intimidate them into giving false testimony against Netanyahu. This alone would have resulted in immediate dismissal of the charges in any properly functioning legal system.

Another prime example of corruption in the current judicial system is Avi Himi, one of the leading opponents of the reforms, and until recently, chairman of both the Israel Bar Association, and the committee that appoints judges.  A female lawyer recently reported that when she came before Himi to request his recommendation as a judge, he performed lewd acts in front of her, imagining that he could get away with it because of his position of power.  Another outspoken opponent of the reforms is Ehud Olmert, a former Prime Minister, who was convicted and imprisoned on a long string of bribery and corruption convictions.

That such morally bankrupt people feel they have the right to hector the Israeli people and their democratically elected government about dangers to democracy, illustrates the hypocrisy, sense of entitlement, and arrogance among Israel’s old elite. The judicial reforms are an absolute prerequisite for breaking the elites’ stranglehold over the country and ensuring a government more sensitive and accountable to the will of the Israeli people.

About the Author
Devin Sper was born and raised in New York and lived in Israel for 10 years. He holds a degree in Jewish History from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and served in the Israel Defense Forces. Devin Sper is the author of The Future of Israel, winner of a 2005 GLYPH award.