Israel: Where We are Now

A few weeks ago, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in the UK published a report entitled, “What do Jews in the UK think about Israel’s leaders and its future?” Comparable to Australia’s Crossroads23 demographic analysis, its authors, Jon Boyd and Carli Lessof, honed in on Jewish attitudes towards Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the “judicial reform” controversy.

From those who gave an opinion, 79% of British Jews disapproved of Netanyahu. The findings for the far-right Minister of Finance, Bezalel Smotrich, reached stratospheric heights at 85%. Moreover, this was not a survey of just a few hundred souls but one answered by close to 4000 people.

Yet Jewish organisations seem to have ignored this valuable exercise. Sections of the Jewish press buried it in the bowels of that week’s edition. Rabbinical leaders of central Orthodoxy looked the other way.

Such silence heartened those supporters of “judicial reform” who had demanded a silence — no uproar and no outrage. Jewish organisations aligned themselves with the far-right in keeping tight-lipped on events in Israel.

There appears to be three strands of opinion in the Diaspora: a diminishing band of hardline supporters, a growing band of critics across the political spectrum, and a group which calls for unity and compromise in the name of consensus. While the latter is an honourable aspiration, it is worth recalling former president Rivlin’s comments about the prospect of compromise on judicial reform: “You can’t have half a democracy!”

Central Orthodoxy and its synagogues purport to adhere to a studied neutrality and a desire for consensus, but history indicates that they too have their red lines.

More than 20 years ago, the then prime minister, Ehud Barak, floated ideas about administering the Temple Mount and the Western Wall to satisfy the needs of both Judaism and Islam. This possibility catalysed a rally in Jerusalem, attended by Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky, to protest against “any surrender of the Temple Mount”.

The late British chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks and several UK United Synagogue rabbis also attended this protest. They felt that a red line had been exceeded by Barak and therefore it was right to protest. There was no desire then to compromise or to search for a consensus.

There are, of course, numerous paths to “unity” — and one is the total withdrawal of plans for judicial reform and a return to the status quo ante.

Netanyahu and his followers have also attempted to project themselves to the Diaspora as the real exponents of democracy in that it is the will of a people’s government that is being deliberately flouted — a government elected in free and fair elections in November 2022.

This canard has been repeated in the Diaspora despite the fact that it is well-known that it is not the government that is elected, but the parties. It is then up to the largest party to negotiate with other parties to produce a workable coalition. Netanyahu chose Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, Deri and the haredim — and not others — to form a government.

Netanyahu believed that by this manoeuvre, he could ultimately control them, govern and thereby avoid a host of problems including the state’s legal proceedings against him. The Knesset passed an amendment in April such that a prime minister can only be removed from office if he is physically unable to carry out the functions of his office — so any criminal convictions, current or forthcoming, would be deemed irrelevant. Moreover, it appears that a goal of the Netanyahu government is to oust the Attorney-General, Gali Baharav-Miara, and replace her with a more pliable official.

Yet importing the far-right into government is an old trick which can have unintended consequences. Von Papen and other conservative politicians discovered this when they brought Hitler to power in January 1933, believing that he would be their marionette.

As the past year has demonstrated, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have run riot — office has not brought forth responsibility. As President Biden commented about Netanyahu’s choices for his government: “There are extremists in cabinet”.

US entrepreneur Arthur Danchik, the billionaire funder of the controversial right-wing organisation Kohelet, which worked towards the remoulding of Israeli society, recently announced that he had now ceased his donations to the group. Danchik commented that “when a society becomes dangerously fragmented, people must come together to preserve democracy”. This mirrored Miriam Adelson’s comments in the freebie Israel Hayom: “Let us not be ruled by sectarianism … or a desire to settle personal scores”.

Adelson and her late husband were enthusiastic American friends of Netanyahu and committed donors to conservative causes. Danchik’s long-time associate and fellow supporter of Kohelet, Jeff Yass, recently donated $US2.6 million to the Republican presidential hopeful, Ron DeSantis.

All this may indicate that Netanyahu’s refusal to drop the judicial reform proposal is counter-productive even in the eyes of his American right-wing sponsors and one-time allies.

“Even in Israel, Likud voters have been dismayed at the division in the country. Recent polls suggest that over 30% of Likud voters oppose judicial reform. Members of the party are a different matter. The New York Times correspondent in Israel, Isabel Kershner, in her recent book, The Land of Hope and Fear, writes: “The allegations of corruption had clearly made little impression on Netanyahu’s core base. The loathing of the old elites had transformed into a belief in an Ashkenazi deep state, a cabal that was using the judiciary and the mainstream media to persecute and bring down the prime minister.”

Even Haredi support for Netanyahu is beginning to fragment. Hedging their bets, Haredi notables met Benny Gantz in Bnei Brak last week.

In the wake of all this, Netanyahu has attempted to position himself as a centrist, the epitome of reasonableness, when speaking to the American media. In an interview with ABC, Netanyahu referred to any changes to the legal system as “a minor correction”.

Yet as many deeply understand, the first step into the abyss will be followed by others. In a chilling article in Ha’aretz, the writer and journalist, Benjamin Pogrund — who fought apartheid in South Africa for decades before leaving for Israel and subsequently campaigned internationally against the misuse of the term with respect to Israel — summises that today he is not so sure. As he writes: “Every day sees government ministers and their allies venting racism and following up with discriminatory actions.”

From his experience in South Africa, Pogrund now warns that autocracy takes incremental steps towards an ultimate goal while implying that the unimportant first step will be the last.

It is not surprising that Netanyahu, who lived in the US for many years, looks towards Washington as a model to imitate. Yet one criticism from other parts of the English-speaking world is that there are too many political appointees in the US who shape the judiciary and other parts of society.

In the UK, there is a separation of powers between government, parliament and the judges. An independent judiciary was guaranteed by the Act of Settlement in 1701. This has acted as a bulwark against the overreach of politicians who, like Netanyahu, wish to move the legal goalposts. In 2003, Tony Blair attempted to abolish the role of the Lord Chancellor and was thwarted. In 2019, Boris Johnson was blocked from attempting to prorogue parliament.

Netanyahu’s respect is accorded to figures such as Hungary’s Orban and Turkey’s Erdoğan, whose drip-drip gerrymandering has meant damaged democracies.

At home in Israel, Netanyahu’s supporters have attempted to nullify the protesters’ arguments by using time-honoured methods. The hundreds of thousands that turn out every Saturday night are labelled “Leftists” — ironically it is the same cry that was used to maintain Louis XVI on the throne as an absolute monarch during the French Revolution. Not exactly a flattering historical comparison to shore up Netanyahu.

Others label Israeli captains of industry, prominent lawyers and eminent doctors who speak out as “anarchists”. Some sections of the Israeli press have tried to discover “foreign funding” for the weekly protests, implying that those who oppose the judicial reform are not true patriots but agents of a foreign power.

Netanyahu’s hope is that the hot summer in Israel will cool popular ardour for opposition to his policies. Yet all 15 members of the Supreme Court will gather in mid-September to hear appeals against the amendment to the Basic Law on the Judiciary which would now dilute the reasonableness standard. The petitioners are led by the Israel Bar Association and the central charge is that it would effectively enfeeble the judges and empower the politicians.

Another charge is that the judicial reform would damage national security. An estimated 10,000 reservists have decided to abandon voluntary duty in protest and just a few days ago, the Israeli press reported that two Navy Brigadier-Generals had been suspended for a similar stand. Netanyahu, for his part, has all along refused to be briefed by IDF officials on this issue.

Ha’aretz has produced a valuable flow chart which indicates the different directions which the Netanyahu government could take following the decision of the Supreme Court. The intricate possibilities are not comfortable reading — compliance or opposition, total acquiescence or mass dismissals; independent civil servants or political appointees; respect for the rule of law or the removal of checks and balances. It concludes with constitutional crisis, unprecedented protests, civil uprising — and ends in the twin results of either “coup averted” or “dictatorship/autocracy”.

Unlike Hungary, Turkey and many other countries, Israelis have not caved in before the manoeuvres of Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. They have stood fast and understood what is at stake. Israelis abroad and their supporters in Jewish communities in the Diaspora have continued to stage public demonstrations and to gain national publicity. Their goal remains one of ensuring that Israeli remains a democracy in the image of its Zionist founders and governed by the rule of law.

Plus61j 29 August 2023

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