After months of increasingly strident mass protests against his government’s plans to reform Israel’s out-of-control and highly partisan judicial system, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have given in to the pressure. He said he was going to be “delaying judicial reform to give real dialogue a chance.” But it’s highly doubtful that this will merely be a timeout that will help his supporters regroup and enable opponents to calm down and accept a compromise on the issue.
On the contrary, Netanyahu is waving the white flag on judicial reform—and everyone knows it. And since the ultimate goal of the protests was not just preventing legislation from being passed but to topple the government, it’s far from clear whether the prime minister can long stay in power after this humiliation since his allies are shaken and his opponents won’t be satisfied until he’s ejected from office.
Whether that will happen remains to be seen. But the one thing that is clear is that the consequences of the events of the last months go far beyond the future of the Israeli legal system.
Netanyahu’s announcement is leading to celebrations on the Israeli left as well as among their foreign supporters, especially in the Biden administration and liberal Jewish groups. And they have good reason to celebrate. The anti-Bibi resistance was able to sell the world a false narrative about their efforts being nothing more than a successful effort to defend democracy against the efforts of would-be authoritarians who wanted to create a fascist theocratic state.
But the notion that an uprising of the “people” has stopped a “coup” by Netanyahu and his allies is pure projection. What the world has just witnessed was itself a soft coup. Fueled by contempt for the nationalist and religious voters whose ballots gave Netanyahu’s coalition a clear Knesset majority in November and imputing to them their own desire for crushing political opponents, the cultural left has shown that it has an effective veto over the results of a democratic election.
In exercising that veto, they have given Israel’s enemies, who don’t care how much power the courts have or who the prime minister of the Jewish state is, ammunition that will make their international campaign to isolate their country more effective.
More importantly, they’ve broken rules and set precedents that will impact future Israeli governments no matter who is leading them. They’ve shown that not even an election can be allowed to break the left’s stranglehold on effective power via a system of courts and legal advisors that have effectively made Israel a juristocracy rather than a country ruled by the representatives of the people. That sends a dangerous message to the people whose votes determined the outcome of the election—that their views don’t matter and that they should lose faith in the ability of political action to have an impact on society.
The opposition didn’t play by the rules
Netanyahu and his fellow coalition members made a lot of mistakes in the last few months. The prime minister was inhibited by an outrageous ruling from the attorney general that effectively silenced him on the most important issue facing his country. Still, by concentrating most of his efforts on trying to rally reluctant Western nations to face up to the threat of Iran, he was distracted from what was going on at home.
He had been criticized for trying to force fundamental change to the justice system via a relatively narrow partisan majority without a national consensus. But those who say this are hypocrites. A left-wing Israeli government forced the disastrous Oslo Accords with an even narrower majority. Democrats like President Joe Biden, who make the same claim, also seem to be forgetting that the Obama administration he served did the same thing with health care despite the lack of a consensus or even making minimal gestures towards compromise.
Given the way his opponents have been willing to go to any length to defame or delegitimize him and even to drag him into court on trumped up flimsy charges of corruption, Netanyahu underestimating his opponents is hard to fathom. Having broken a three-year-long political stalemate by gaining 64 seats in the Knesset to form the first clear majority since he won in 2015, the prime minister somehow thought his foes would play by the rules and let him govern.
He failed to understand that—like the willingness of the American political left to do anything to defeat former President Donald Trump, even if meant dragging the country through three years dominated by the Russia collusion hoax—his opponents were prepared to set the country on fire, destabilize its economy and even weaken its national defense to throw him out. The notion that restraining the power of the court—something that opposition leader Yair Lapid used to support before he realized that latching on to the resistance would give him a chance to erase his defeat last year—was the point of the protests was always false. The same could be said of the claim that preventing the courts from selectively exercising unaccountable power without any basis in law was the end of democracy or the first step towards the creation of a theocratic state.
With the chaos in the streets—with the financial, legal, cultural, media and academic establishments joining with the left-wing opposition—the prime minister already had his back to the wall. But the widespread refusal of many reservists, especially among those with skilled positions such as pilots, to refuse to report for reserve duty threatened the country’s national security. Along with general strikes that forced closures at airports and shutdowns of medical services, that proved to be the last straw and led already shaky members of the coalition to lose heart.
The coalition was slow to mobilize its own voters, who, after all, did outnumber the opposition in the recent election. The government’s supporters were forced to watch impotently as their leaders faltered, feuded among themselves and failed to act decisively to fight the battle for public opinion.
Going forward in the face of a resistance that was ready to trash even the most sacred of Israeli civic traditions involving national defense in order to gain a political victory became impossible. And with his own party losing discipline, and the U.S. government and many leading institutions of American Jewish life similarly backing the opposition, Netanyahu had no choice but to try and prevent any further damage.
Netanyahu has made a career out of repeatedly proving wrong those who have written his political obituary. Still, if the protests continue—and there is no reason to believe they will fully stop until a new election date is set—the government can try to reset the debate as being one about the left’s appetite for power and not their supposed devotion to democracy.
Whether they succeed is not as important as the implications of a political battle in which large numbers of people were prepared to sabotage the country in order to preserve the establishment’s power to determine policy regardless of who wins elections.
Implications for the future
Will that happen every time the right wins an election from now on? Probably. That means not only will the juristocracy defend its power, but its supporters are permanently committed to thwarting the will of voters who may continue to outnumber them in the future.
And how will a theoretical government of the left—assuming, as many now do, that Lapid and his allies can win the next election—react if large numbers of right-wing opponents try to play the same game? If the debate over the disastrous Oslo Accords and the 2005 Gaza withdrawal are any gauge of their behavior, they will crack down on their opponents in ways that Netanyahu hesitated to do this year with widespread jailing of dissidents. Dismissals from the army of those who refuse orders rather than the gentle lectures the anti-Bibi refuseniks got will also be likely.
While the left threatened violence against their opponents and even civil war if they didn’t get their way about judicial reform, who really believes they will hesitate to initiate one if they are in power and the right rises up in the streets the way we’ve just witnessed?
Similarly, the implications for Israel’s foreign relations are equally ominous. The opposition has essentially legitimized American involvement in Israel’s domestic politics even on an issue that had nothing to do with the questions of territory and peace. That weakens the country’s independence at a dangerous time when, as Netanyahu has been trying to point out, the threat from Iran is growing.
What’s more, Netanyahu’s opponents have (whether they realize it or not) also legitimized arguments aimed at denying that Israel is a democracy. While his foes think that this will only apply to times when the right wins elections, they may come to realize that to the antisemites who assail the Jewish state in international forums and in American politics where the intersectional left is increasingly influential, that will also apply to governments led by parties not named Likud.
Ultimately, Israel’s citizens—whether through democratic elections or mob actions that break governments and Knesset majorities—will determine their own fate. And those who look on from abroad must accept the outcome of these struggles and continue to support the Jewish state against its enemies.
Yet far from defending Israel from authoritarian forces, the protesters have established a precedent that will haunt future governments of all kinds and shake the foundation of its democracy. Whether that damage can be undone remains an open question.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: Jonathans_tobin.
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