| Inside Israel |

Balagan, Rinse, Repeat

Now that the High Court can’t strike down the appointment of government ministers on the basis of a subjective test, what’s next?

Photo: Flash90


he scene in Jerusalem’s Yitzchak Navon Train Station on Sunday night neatly captured the stark tribal divisions that have rent Israeli society over the government’s justice reforms. On the upward escalator was a stream of flag-waving, largely secular protesters arriving from Tel Aviv to demonstrate in the capital. On the downward escalator was another river of flag-waving protesters — this time mostly religious and traditional — heading from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, to demonstrate at the Kaplan Interchange that has become protest Ground Zero.

Over the barrier in the middle, to the delight of those observers hungry for signs of pre-Tishah B’Av reconciliation, were a few handshakes — Israel’s equivalent of the famed New Year’s Truce of 1914, when British and German soldiers briefly emerged from their trenches to play football.

The dueling demonstrations were both sides’ last-ditch effort before Monday’s vote on the “reasonableness” law — the first tranche of the judicial reform to pass.

So, now that the High Court can’t strike down the appointment of government ministers on the basis of a subjective test, what’s next?

Will the government press on with other, even more contentious parts of the original agenda, or will Bibi quietly bury the whole thing? Will the opposition come to the table over the Knesset’s summer recess and try to achieve some form of compromise to stop the chaos in the streets? Having tasted defeat, will the protest movement lose steam, especially as families head out on summer vacation?

The simple answer to these questions is that nobody has the faintest idea.

Not for the first time in recent years, Israel’s political system has sailed into a nautical zone beloved of commentators, known as “uncharted waters.” But even in that unmapped maritime region, certain dynamics will shape the way forward. Here are six.

1: Any Compromise Will Do

One of the most important aspects of the week’s drama was something that didn’t happen: The coalition and the opposition almost came to an agreement over the law. The distance between the two sides narrowed to almost nothing, but the real story is about what would have happened had that breakthrough taken place. With the opposition co-signatories to even a small sliver of the reforms, the left’s united front would have crumbled from within, likely reducing the street protests to a die-hard rump. In parallel, Bibi would have had to slam the brakes on the reform thrust, promising to move ahead with the opposition wielding a veto. So, going forward, any agreement whatsoever could end the deadlock, reining in both sides’ flanks.

2: The Economy, Stupid

Of all the levers pressed by the Israeli left over the past few months, in a bid to pressure Netanyahu to abandon the reforms, the most serious external one is the economy. As demonstrated by Britain’s short-lived Liz Truss government last year, few leaders can survive a credit downgrade, which pushes up mortgages and hits ordinary people quickly. Israel’s protest leaders know what they’re doing by talking up the so-called “threat to democracy” overseas. The hysterical headlines, which the global media lap up, create a narrative of emergency, discouraging investment and weakening the economy in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Any push for further judicial reforms will be done with one eye on Israel’s credit rating.

3: Back to Barracks

Perhaps the most shocking development of the reform crisis has been the left’s use of army service as a lever against the government. With Israel’s military deterrent heavily dependent on the air force and intelligence —units still dominated by the old left — reservists in these positions have warned that they would stop serving if reforms continue. That lever is so potent that it was Defense Minister Yoav Gallant who blocked the first reform push before Pesach, and he was the government’s weakest link this time round as well. But unless widespread refusal to serve materializes, the government will press forward, with an anxious eye on the men in green.

4: Privileged Tribe

The long spasm of protests has fed into a widespread belief across the right that left-wing protestors get away with more than anyone else. National-religious politicians point out that when their protesters blocked roads in the run up to the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, they were clubbed. Others have contrasted recent heavy-handed treatment of Ethiopian and chareidi demonstrators with the laissez-faire approach sometimes seen in recent months. Whether allegations of privileged treatment are empirically true or not, protest leaders will be mindful that to keep public opinion onside, they can’t go too far, such as by repeating the Ben-Gurion Airport blockade. Hell hath no fury like a Israeli vacationer delayed.

5: Eisenbach’s Funding

As the protesters never tire of telling the rest of the country, they contribute more to GDP than their boorish, uneducated opponents. So it’s no surprise that their protests are well-funded and well-heeled; backed by slick PR campaigns and able to erect overnight in Jerusalem’s Gan Sacher a tent city that looks like an ad for a glamping company. All of which leads to an intriguing thought about how organic these protests really are: If the spigots were shut off, would the protests continue with quite the same intensity? Or would the rent-a-balagan division shut down, like an Eisenbach hafganah starved of funding?

6: Long-Term Thinking

Regardless, with former military men thick on the ground of both campaigns, both sides will be sitting down for a post-vote debrief. They’ll stress that the fight for Israel’s identity is a long-term campaign, and that the war will be a series of actions, rather than a single Napoleonic-style showdown. The struggle is as much about public opinion and the Home Front as it is about Knesset votes. And so, as Israelis head to tzimmerim in the North, or commit themselves to the tender mercies of budget airlines and overseas, they can rest assured that neither side has any intention of laying down arms.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 971)

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