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Protest movement fails Netanyahu’s ‘reasonableness’ test

If the country was so aghast about judicial reform just two months ago, why are the current protests drastically smaller?

Anti-judicial reform demonstrators block a road and clash with police in Pardes Hanna-Karkur in the Haifa district ofn Israel, on July 11, 2023. Photo by Shir Torem/Flash90.
Anti-judicial reform demonstrators block a road and clash with police in Pardes Hanna-Karkur in the Haifa district ofn Israel, on July 11, 2023. Photo by Shir Torem/Flash90.
Alex Traiman
Alex Traiman is the CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate).

On Monday night, Israel’s governing coalition passed in first reading a bill that would limit the Supreme Court’s authority to overturn legislation or executive action on the basis of the undefined criteria of “reasonableness.”

As expected, the anti-reform protest movement called for a “day of disturbances” across the country in opposition to the bill’s advancement. Protesters blocked major highways, as well as Ben-Gurion Airport’s international terminal.

The advancement of the bill and the protests that followed are the latest in a months long showdown over the makeup and power of Israel’s Supreme Court—the strongest of the country’s governmental institutions.

Shrinking violets

Particularly noteworthy is that the latest anti-reform protests were barely a fraction the size of earlier ones. Left-wing media outlets—the majority of Israeli media—that previously boasted maximalist size estimates of earlier protests numbering in the tens or hundreds of thousands, now stated only that “masses” of protesters had taken to the streets. During protests last week, in which a few hundred people blocked Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway with a bonfire, outlets were claiming that the protests evoked scenes similar to those seen in March. Instead of wide-angle aerial photographs, outlets are increasingly relying on closer-angle shots of protesters.

If the country was so aghast at judicial reform just two months ago, why are the current protests drastically smaller?

There are two primary reasons: First, the reform bill presented by the government this week looks nothing like the bill presented several months ago. Second, the current protests are by no means spontaneous, and the true nature of the protest movement’s die-hards and its organizers have been on full display.

A singular reform

The reasonableness bill represents but a singular component of a significantly broader judicial reform package proposed by the government earlier this year.

The complete reform package proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition several months ago comprised multiple elements, including: changes to the judicial selection committee; limiting the scope of cases that are “justiciable” to begin with; enforcing a principle of standing for plaintiffs; limiting the legal authority of the attorney general and ministerial advisers; and a controversial clause enabling the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority.

For many Israelis, while some degree of judicial reform was seen as necessary, the concept of a Knesset override was a poison pill. Furthermore, the government did a poor job of explaining to a confused public each reform it sought to enact. Mass protests ensued, culminating with a general labor union strike which temporarily shuttered flights from Ben Gurion Airport, among other critical infrastructure including banks and hospitals.

Left with little choice, Netanyahu pulled the reforms package from the legislative agenda.

Insincere negotiations

Netanyahu agreed, at the behest of President Isaac Herzog, to engage in negotiations with the opposition toward reaching a broad consensus on a more moderate reform package. Since then, he has repeatedly called for a compromise, and openly stated along with other judicial reform proponents that the controversial override clause would be completely removed from the agenda.

Negotiations began, with media reports that the coalition was willing to give up on many of its proposed reforms in favor of a compromise, and opposition leaders willing to acknowledge that certain reforms were warranted.

The concept of judicial reform is not foreign to the opposition. Many opposition leaders, including Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Gideon Sa’ar and Avigdor Liberman, have all previously called for reigning in the court’s overreaching authority. Herzog believed that a compromise could be reached whereby the coalition would get some meaningful degree of judicial reform, while the opposition could prevent some of the more controversial aspects.

It is now clear, however, that the opposition leaders are not interested in any form of consensus or compromise. Hell-bent on crashing Netanyahu’s stable right-wing government, the opposition has little interest in handing Netanyahu even the most minor of political victories. Nor is the opposition any longer interested in weakening a court with the power to overturn policies with which it disagrees.

As such, it was the opposition that broke off negotiations on the very day on which their own candidate was voted onto the judicial selection committee. For close to a month, Netanyahu has called for negotiations to resume. Without negotiations, Netanyahu has decided to advance a singular component—restricting the court’s ability to rule on “reasonableness.”

This component was selected precisely because its passage appears reasonable to a plurality of Israelis. As such, the overwhelming majority of Israelis who protested in March have stayed home since.

Most expensive campaign in Israeli history

And yet, while the majority of protesters are now staying home, the stalwarts have hit the streets week after week in what was already the most expensive political campaign in Israeli history. Each week, protesters arrive with Israeli flags, large, printed signage, T-shirts and costumes. The names of the protest movement and messaging change from week to week.

The current protests are clearly a continuation of the same anti-Netanyahu protests organized throughout five successive election cycles over the past four years. Protest leaders continuously recycle the claim that Netanyahu is leading the country toward a civil war—nothing could be further from the truth—while they angrily call for mass civil disobedience and try to bait police into using force to clear illegal demonstrations. Instead of protecting the nation, Israel’s overburdened police force is being forced to manage protests week after week after week.

At this point, the protests have become more than a public nuisance. Israelis across political lines have grown tired of repeated road closures on major highways and in already-crowded cities. Israelis, who value travel abroad, and tourists trying to visit the Jewish state are vehemently opposed to protestors’ repeated storming of Ben-Gurion Airport.

Protesters now repeatedly harass government ministers and other right-wing leaders, protesting outside of their homes, intimidating spouses and children and disturbing otherwise quiet residential neighborhoods.

Worse yet have been organized threats by left-wing reservists, air force pilots and cybersecurity soldiers, declaring that they will refuse to serve should any judicial reforms advance. Until now, right-wing and left-wing soldiers have always shown up to carry out orders whether they agreed with them or not. Politicization of the military—particularly when it is not even an objection to the orders soldiers are receiving—is a red line almost no Israelis are willing to tolerate, especially as the security situation in and around the country continues to deteriorate.

External pressure

Recognizing that they are losing the domestic debate and their influence over a predominantly right-wing electorate, the opposition is grasping at any possible external lever to pressure Netanyahu’s government. This week, Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli publicly accused protest organizers—disgraced former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yair Lapid—of colluding with the White House to denigrate Netanyahu’s coalition partners and pressure the government to remove judicial reform from the agenda.

The opposition has similarly lobbied for criticism of the Israeli government from Diaspora Jewish leaders, and even flew in Israelis to protest government ministers at New York’s recent Israel Day Parade. The opposition has lobbied business owners to take their investments out of Israel, as the pro-Israel community strives to fight BDS initiatives by anti-Israel actors.

What comes next?

Now that the first reading of the “reasonableness” bill has passed, two final readings are being scheduled. The ball is currently in the hands of the opposition, which must decide whether or not they are willing to re-engage in negotiations, and whether such negotiations will be held in earnest. Should the bill pass into law, questions remain as to whether the court would overturn the legislation, creating a constitutional crisis in a nation without a constitution.

And would the court overturn the “reasonableness” bill on the principle of reasonableness itself?

All the while, the protesters continue to warn against what they call the “tyranny of the majority,” otherwise known as an electorate that has conclusively voted for the policies its government is attempting to advance. For years, Israel has suffered the tyranny of a minority that has proven its willingness to do anything to remove Netanyahu and his loyal right-wing allies from office—presently under the guise of their opposition to judicial reform.

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