What’s happening in Israel is not what it seems. The left, in all its component parts, is not fighting against an effort by the government and the Knesset to destroy Israel’s democracy.
We know this for three reasons.
First, the leaders of the fight against judicial reform, who claim that if Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s judicial reform package now making its way through the legislative process in the Knesset passes, Israeli democracy will die, know that this isn’t true.
In a past address to the Kohelet Forum, opposition leader Yair Lapid set out a position on judicial activism completely aligned with Levin’s package. Indeed, Lapid’s remarks laid the foundations of the current reform.
In that speech, Lapid said, “I have opposed, and I still oppose, judicial activism of the sort introduced by [former Supreme Court President and the father of Israel’s judicial revolution] Justice Aharon Barak. I don’t think it is right that everything is justiciable. I don’t think it is right for the Supreme Court to change fundamental things in accordance with what it refers to as the judgment of ‘the reasonable person.’ That’s an amorphous and completely subjective definition that the Knesset never introduced to the legal code. It’s not right in my mind that the separation of powers, the sacrosanct foundation of the democratic method, should be breached by one branch of government placing itself above the others.”
Lapid is not alone. Nearly every prominent member of the opposition has made similar statements over the past several years. One of the most incendiary leaders of the protests against judicial reform is former defense minister and IDF chief of General Staff Moshe Ya’alon. Having lost his bid for reelection to the Knesset, Ya’alon restyled himself as a vigilante protest leader. At a press conference this week Ya’alon said the legal reform package will transform Israel “from a democracy into a dictatorship.” He called the Netanyahu government “criminal and illegal.”
Ya’alon called for a general strike and declared that “the thought of the State of Israel as a fascist, racist, messianic and corrupt state” is keeping people up at night.
But in a speech in 2009, when he first entered politics, Ya’alon sang a different tune. Back then Ya’alon railed against the very forces he now claims to represent. “The media here is biased,” he began.
“Unfortunately,” Yaalon continued, “today there are forces, call them the elites, who are influencing the discourse in Israel in a distorted way. It’s manipulative and misleading to the point where we need to be very worried today. I am still very worried. They have a lot of power. They have influence, if you like, on the prime minister. There’s a situation today where we have power centers with authority and no responsibility…. This isn’t democracy. The wealthy have become such a force. The media is a force like this. The Supreme Court is a force like this.”
Statements like these reflect polls that show the vast majority of Israelis believe the legal system is in need of reform. But this brings us to the second way we know that the current unrest ostensibly about judicial reform isn’t actually about judicial reform: No one in the opposition is willing to engage in a debate about the package itself. Opposition lawmakers on the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee aren’t discussing anything. Instead of discussing the draft and suggesting changes, or bringing bills of their own, MKs from the opposition parties insist the Knesset majority and the government have no right to do their jobs. The process in which the democratically elected Knesset and government advance proposals that match the pledges they made to voters, is illegitimate and anti-democratic.
In a speech before the Knesset ceremony marking the Israeli parliament’s 74th anniversary on Sunday, Lapid warned, “the price of the legislation you are leading now is not just the erasure of democracy, it is the painful breakup of our common life.” The left, he said, would disengage and secede from Israel, which would cease to exist as one unified body politic.
In his address, Lapid didn’t offer any path for averting the threatened societal breakup, except for the government to abandon its proposals. The word “compromise” never crossed his lips. Lapid didn’t offer to sit down with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Levin and reach a deal that everyone can accept. He told them to stand down or he and his camp will tear Israel apart.
Likewise, former prime minister and IDF chief of General Staff Ehud Barak not only rejected compromise last Friday. Barak demonized President Isaac Herzog as Neville Chamberlain for daring to offer to host negotiations between the government and the opposition to avoid the civil clashes and violence promised by the likes of Barak, Ya’alon and their allies.
The final way we can see that the fight isn’t about judicial reform is by looking at the left’s talking points. Speaking before the Knesset plenary this week, Likud MK Ariel Kallner noted how the leftist establishment in politics, academia and the media are using the exact same talking points they used multiple times in the past.
Today, opponents of the reform insist that if it passes, Israel will become an international leper. In 2011, Ehud Barak warned that Israel would face a “diplomatic tsunami” and become a pariah nation if it didn’t bow to every PLO/Obama administration demand for territorial surrender. In 2015, then-opposition leader Tzipi Livni said that if Netanyahu failed to bow to the PLO/Obama administration’s demands for territorial surrender, Israel would face a “diplomatic tsunami” that would foment an “economic tsunami.”
On Jan. 23, the Committee of University Heads signed a letter warning that if the judicial reform package passed, it will constitute “a devastating blow to Israeli academia.” In 2012, the same group signed a letter warning of the destruction of Israel’s academia if the government enabled Ariel University, then a “university center,” to receive full university status.
In 2015, Lapid and his partners on the left warned that if Israel harvested the natural gas deposits it discovered in its territorial and economic waters, the move would destroy Israel’s economy, social fabric and democracy.
In 2018, ahead of the Knesset’s passage of Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, the left warned that passage of the law would cause investors to flee Israel. Israel’s credit rating would be downgraded. And Israel’s democracy would be no more.
In sum, we know the fight isn’t about judicial reform because leading members of the camp now insisting the reform will destroy democracy spoke on behalf of it in the past; because they oppose all discussion and reject all compromise on the legal reform package; and because their entire fight is based on slogans recycled from their previous campaigns that have nothing to do with the reforms on the table.
So if it isn’t judicial reforms they oppose, what is driving leading members of Israel society to call for civil war, threaten to murder Netanyahu and his ministers, threaten to pull their money out of the country and destroy its economy, lobby foreign governments to adopt policies hostile to Israel, and announce and organize insurrections, general strikes and violence?
A good way to understand what is actually moving the left is to ask what the judicial reform package has in common with not giving in to PLO/U.S. demands for territorial withdrawals, harvesting natural gas, passing the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, and permitting Ariel University to be a university.
The answer is twofold. First, the policies in question are not leftist policies. From this we can conclude that the left is unwilling to accept that when the right wins elections it has a right to implement its policies. The left isn’t worried about democracy. It doesn’t like democracy. It likes its oligarchy.
The current hysteria and threats of violence are driven by the central role the Supreme Court plays in preserving leftist power and privilege. Through a self-perpetuating selection process which Levin’s reform will correct, the Supreme Court today is dominated by ideologically rigid and radical justices. Legislating and dictating policies from the bench, the justices cancel the policies of right-wing governments and compel them to implement leftist policies.
By removing the left’s chokehold on policymaking and legislation, the government’s judicial reform plan will—like many previous right-wing initiatives the left ran political and lawfare campaigns to scuttle endeavored to—facilitate the expansion of Israel’s economic and strategic power and independence. And this brings us to the Biden administration and to the left’s open lobbying of the administration and other foreign governments to oppose the reforms.
For the Biden administration, like the Obama administration before it, Netanyahu is a threat primarily because he opposes the administration’s anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian and pro-Iran policies. And even worse for the White House, by advancing policies that increase Israel’s strategic and economic independence, Netanyahu’s government reduces Israel’s dependence on the U.S. and the administration’s power to force Israel to toe its line.
Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said, “We’ve reached a point where foreign policy is domestic policy, and domestic policy is foreign policy.” This is true for the Israeli left as well.
The Israeli left cultivates relations with foreign powers not on the basis of how those relations advance Israel’s national interests, but on how they serve the left’s interests against the right. In the Lapid-Bennett government’s willingness to give the U.S. veto power over Israel’s Iran policy and in its agreement to cede Israel’s natural gas deposit near Lebanon to the Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese government, it showed how the left is willing to concede Israel’s economic and strategic interests and independence in exchange for U.S. political support.
The similarity between the Democrats’ castigation of Republicans as a threat to democracy and the Israeli left’s current assault on the legitimacy of the government underlines their cooperation.
On Thursday night, leftist protesters burned tires and blocked major traffic arteries in Jerusalem. Former Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said that violence is inevitable. Parents used their children to block a major traffic artery Thursday morning in Tel Aviv. And leftist reservists and retired generals from the IDF Armored Corps held a march to Jerusalem. The main effort of the protests is to bring the economy to a stop on Monday and hold a pitched riot outside Knesset as the votes begin on the judicial reform package. The leftist Movement for Quality Government has petitioned the Supreme Court asking that the justices force Netanyahu from office by ruling that he is unfit to lead. And with each hour, more and more calls for violence are heard from leftists.
How this will end is still unknowable. But if the reforms do not go through, the biggest loser will be Israel’s democracy.
Caroline Glick is an award-winning columnist and author of The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East.