Israeli judicial reform must pass in order to secure Israel’s future as a democratic state. Over the past four months, the public’s trust in its officials and democratic elections has fallen due to the uncompromising campaign against the reform. Thus, the right-wing coalition needs to enact the policies it was elected to pursue, though compromises will need to be made and the unity of the country preserved.
The political landscape of developed countries in Europe and the U.S. is similar in many ways to Israel’s and understanding what has happened in those countries can help us better understand our current power struggle.
There are generally two opposing political factions in almost every developed country. There is the right, which tends to be conservative, committed to traditional family values, in favor of lower taxes and supportive of limited government. The left tends to be more liberal, supports higher taxes and more active government, advocates for the separation of church and state, promotes more “progressive” social policies and uses power structures to advance its narrative.
While each country is different and does not necessarily conform exactly to these models, most political scientists agree that these characteristics define political leanings and identity in democratic countries.
In Europe and the U.S., the political right and left are clearly defined and adversarial. In the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, the entire mainstream media lined up behind Democratic Party candidate Hilary Clinton. For months, the media aired unrelenting attacks against Republican candidate Donald Trump. In the end, Trump beat Clinton, and we were witness to the media’s wall-to-wall mourning.
Over the last decade, Europe has seen sharp political divisions on the issues of illegal immigration, economic policy and membership in the European Union.
Israel is similar in regard to issues separating right and left.
Political turmoil and disagreement existed well before Israel was founded in 1948. There were divisions over whether to confront the British diplomatically or with military force, the status of religion and the composition and mission of the armed forces. The latter reached a breaking point when the nascent IDF sank the Altalena, a vessel carrying arms that was controlled by the right-wing Irgun militia. The incident left deep scars and mistrust for many years to come.
From its founding in 1948 until 1977, Israel was tightly controlled by the left-wing Labor Party. In 1977, Menachem Begin and his Likud Party won the election, bringing the right to power for the first time. The 1977 campaign was vicious, with left-wingers slinging racial slurs at Sephardi Jews and mass protests on both sides. Still, even after Begin’s victory, little changed in Israeli policies, power structures and socialist economy.
From 1977 on, Israeli governments have typically been comprised of a combination of left-wing, centrist and right-wing parties. As a result, one side of the ruling coalition has tended to block the other from enacting major policy changes. Moreover, unlike other countries, in which government staff change after each election, in Israel they retain their positions no matter which political camp is in charge. This creates institutional inertia.
As a result of these factors, right-wingers have been excluded from leading positions in Israel’s government institutions, unions and the army.
Since 1977, only two coalitions have been composed solely of right or left-wing parties, allowing them to make major changes in policy. The first was the left-wing government of the early 1990s led by Yitzhak Rabin, which enacted the Oslo Accords. The second is the current right-wing coalition. In the four months since it took control, its main focus has been to implement judicial reform.
The Supreme Court is sacred to the Israeli left. Since former Chief Justice Aharon Barak greatly expanded the Court’s powers in the 1990s, the Court has stymied right-wing policies and become an unelected left-wing political actor. Thus, the right’s efforts to curtail this power through judicial reform have been met with fury from a left that is hellbent on preserving the status quo. The left-wing and its allies have led boycotts against Israel, moved hundreds of millions of dollars overseas, encouraged Israelis to refuse IDF service and pushed for nationwide strikes.
During the last election campaign, judicial reform was part of the right-wing parties’ platforms. Those parties won a clear victory in the election and have every right to enact the promised reforms.
Yes, the government should make concessions in order to broaden public support for the reforms. It should reach a compromise with the opposition that will be accepted by a large majority of the Israeli public. However, the government should not bend to pressure from those who shout about democracy, but whose real goal is to suppress the Israeli right.
The next few months will require strength, patience and responsibility from politicians on all sides in order to preserve Israel’s unity while, at the same time, passing judicial reform that will restore balance to Israel’s government institutions and uphold Israel’s ability to conduct democratic elections in the future.
Benjamin Sipzner is an advisor to the minister of aliyah and integration and was the director for international operations at Ad Kan. He was the Anglo outreach and events coordinator for the Religious Zionist Party during Israel’s last two elections. He can be found on Facebook and reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.