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Playing chicken with the Jewish state

The conflict over judicial reform is really a battle between the two blocs of Israeli society.

Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against the government's judicial reform program, March 04, 2023. Photo by Gili Yaari/Flash90.
Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against the government's judicial reform program, March 04, 2023. Photo by Gili Yaari/Flash90.
Victor Rosenthal (Credit: abuyehuda.com)
Victor Rosenthal

What’s really going on in Israel?

What are the massive demonstrations and disruptions in the streets, the revolt of the reserve pilots and the countless testimonials and petitions in Israel and the U.S. about?

They aren’t just about changing the balance of power between the Israeli Supreme Court and the elected government and Knesset. If they were, the parties could soon reach a compromise that would maintain a degree of judicial review and protect minority rights without prioritizing them over the survival of the Jewish state.

But that’s not what’s really going on. What’s going on is a power struggle between two blocs in Israeli society.

On one side, which I will imprecisely label “the left,” are the legal, judicial, academic, artistic and media establishments, along with much of the upper class, based mostly in the center of the country. This alliance is supported by the Biden administration and liberal American Jewish denominations. Insofar as it has a spokesperson, it is Yair Lapid.

On the other side, which I call with equal imprecision “the right,” are Orthodox Jews, Mizrachim, Russian speakers, the lower classes and residents of Israel’s periphery. The right is larger than the left, but the left’s control of the media and the legal system weighs heavily on the scales. The undisputed champion of the right is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel was a one-party state from its founding until 1977, when disgust with the Labor government’s failure to prepare for the Yom Kippur War and the accumulated anger of the Mizrachim at their paternalistic and exclusionary treatment resulted in Menachem Begin’s election as prime minister. When the left returned to power, it foisted the Oslo Accords on a generally unwilling public, which then endured the horrifying terror attacks of the second intifada.

That was virtually the end of left-wing governments in Israel. From then on, successful coalitions would be formed by the center and the right, many of them led by Netanyahu.

The left was shocked by Begin’s victory and depressed by Netanyahu’s continuing success. They realized that, due to demographic trends, they were unlikely to win a Knesset majority again. But they retained control of the legal establishment and used it to “protect” the country against the “excesses” of right-wing governments.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, the legal establishment arrogated more and more power to itself. For example, legal advisors throughout the government were given veto power over any official action. This veto need not be based on whether the action was illegal, but on whether it was unreasonable.

In another historic move, the Supreme Court handed itself the power of judicial review. In 1995, for the first time, it overturned a law passed by the Knesset.

Soon, the judiciary began to interfere in issues that were more political than legal. This gave rise to the demand that limits be set on its power. Were it not for one thing, that might have happened quietly, in a way that would be acceptable to both sides.

That one thing is Netanyahu. More specifically, the left’s hatred of him. As a result of this, what should have been a matter of discussion and compromise has become a conflict between the country’s two major blocs.

This is what lies behind the well-financed campaign against judicial reform. This campaign is dishonest and hysterical. If the reforms pass, opponents say, the justice system will be destroyed and Israel will become a fascist dictatorship. The economy will be wrecked, capital and tech workers will flee, the army will not fight and Israel will become a theocratic state soon to be overrun by her enemies.

This is nonsense. Even if the reforms are enacted in full, the situation would be no different than it was prior to the 1980s. If a compromise version of the reform were to pass, democracy in Israel would be enhanced, not damaged.

None of the reform bills have passed more than the first of three readings, so there is plenty of time to negotiate and compromise, and the government is willing to do so. The opposition, however, refuses to talk unless the process is frozen. The coalition believes that if the process is frozen, it will never be thawed, and insists that there can be negotiations during the normal legislative process.

In the meantime, opponents are ramping up their disruptions to the point that there are real fears of serious violence. The opposition sees blood in the water—Netanyahu’s—and can’t face the prospect of losing their veto power over the actions of any right-wing government. They have decided to keep their foot on the gas in the game of chicken until Netanyahu and his coalition blink.

What should happen is for the grownups in the opposition to work out a compromise with the government that will restore judicial balance without harming either side or the nation. This is perfectly possible.

What might happen is that the left has unleashed forces that cannot be controlled. In that case, the game of chicken could end in a fiery head-on collision.

Victor Rosenthal is a retired software developer who lives in Israel.

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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