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The ball is in the opposition’s court

Opponents of judicial reform should take a lesson from ancient Athens and seize the opportunity Netanyahu has given them.

Then-Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and then-Prime Minister Yair Lapid in the Knesset. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Then-Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and then-Prime Minister Yair Lapid in the Knesset. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

Some 2,500 years ago, the Greek city-state of Athens was riven by political divisions. A wealthy elite ruled over all aspects of society and had essentially reduced the majority of citizens to absolute servitude. Something like civil war broke out, but neither side could defeat the other.

In despair, the two sides agreed to submit themselves to the mediation of the statesman Solon. Solon proved to be a radical reformer, laying the groundwork for Athenian democracy and ending the domination of the city by the rich.

Perhaps the most important lesson of this founding narrative is a strategic one: By agreeing to compromise with their enemies, the Athenian opposition eventually got more or less everything they wanted.

This lesson is decidedly relevant to today’s Israel. Like ancient Athens, the Jewish state is riven by intense political divisions, mainly over the judicial reforms proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. Thus far, all attempts at bridging this divide have failed.

On June 29, however, a small possibility for compromise presented itself. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Netanyahu confirmed that he has dropped the most controversial of the reforms: the “override clause,” which would give the Knesset the power to strike down Supreme Court decisions.

Netanyahu was unequivocal. Of the “override clause,” he simply said, “It’s out.” Moreover, he strongly implied that he had chosen to drop the clause as a concession to popular opposition, saying, “I’m attentive to the public pulse, and to what I think will pass muster.”

While it has not prompted a media firestorm, this is a major development, because the override clause was the most dangerous of the proposed reforms. It would have effectively castrated the Supreme Court, leaving the Knesset unchecked and unbalanced. One can support or oppose the other reforms, but they are not an attempt to “balance” a power grab by the judiciary with a power grab by the legislature.

The question now is what those in the opposition will do. Will its members recognize the value of Netanyahu’s concession and reach a compromise? Or will they dismiss it as a political maneuver and return to the struggle?

One must admit that the opposition can justify choosing the latter. Netanyahu is not, by and large, a particularly honest man, and everything he says and does is part of a larger chess game. Moreover, in the past he has acted with considerable bad faith towards opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, which gives them little reason to trust him.

Nonetheless, there are very good reasons for the opposition to seize this opportunity.

First, reaching a compromise is in the opposition’s interest. If they dismiss this concession, they will only damage their cause. They will appear obstreperous and uncompromising and further confirm the suspicions of the government’s supporters that all of this is about nullifying their votes in the national election.

Moreover, by agreeing to compromise, the opposition can take an important step towards healing the rift in Israeli society and get a great deal of credit for doing so. Thus, they will likely emerge politically stronger than before.

The opposition should not fear Netanyahu’s chess game. While he can be deceitful, the opposition can count on the fact that he is an unabashed realist. He knows that half the Israeli public is opposed to the reforms to some degree. If he continues without compromise, he will lose, and he knows it. Netanyahu does not like to lose.

The American Jewish community and the Biden administration are also opposed to the reforms, and as much as Netanyahu—and vast numbers of Israelis—loathe the idea of outside forces acting on domestic politics, these forces exist and Netanyahu cannot ignore them. As a realist, he knows this as well.

The ball, then, is in the opposition’s court. If they are smart—and this is an open question—they should take a lesson from the ancient Athenians and choose the path of compromise rather than continued division.

This is not just the politically astute choice, it is a moral obligation. Netanyahu and his government share responsibility for the current rift in Israeli society but the opposition is part of it too. Thus, the opposition has a responsibility to find some way to repair it.

Unlike the ancient Athenian opposition, Israel’s opposition is unlikely to get everything it wants through compromise but it will get a great deal of what it wants. Its members should remember the Athenians’ lesson that compromise is not by definition capitulation. It is sometimes a way to achieve one’s goals in part—and perhaps in full—when the only other option is to achieve nothing or, worse still, bring on disaster.

There are those on both sides of the divide who are sanguine at the prospect of such a disaster, which they view as an opportunity to utterly vanquish their rivals. But the only thing that would be vanquished is Israel itself. This cannot be allowed to happen. The opposition has a chance to make sure it doesn’t. It should take it.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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