Weakening Israel’s high court is a top coalition priority
OLD FRIENDS, NEW DEMANDS: Bibi and Agudah MK’s Meir Porush (left) and Yisrael Eichler (Photo: Flash90)
“I guess we won’t break Churchill’s record after all,” observed a source in prime minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu’s office, after early results from the US midterm elections shattered expectations of a Republican majority in both chambers of Congress.
Like the UK’s iconic World War II leader, Netanyahu has spoken before both houses of Congress no less than three times. The most recent and controversial of the three speeches was delivered in 2015, at the invitation of the Republican majority, in the teeth of President Barack Obama.
That speech, whose entire purpose was to circumvent President Obama and sway public opinion against his nuclear deal with Iran, Biden pointedly absented himself, leaving his seat empty. But Biden the vice president is not Biden the president.
“Bibi, I don’t agree with a thing you said, but I love you,” Biden recounted telling Netanyahu once, highlighting their personal friendship, despite the unbridgeable ideological divide between the Democratic president and the conservative prime minister.
The president’s first phone call to Netanyahu after his victory in Israel’s election sounded like a conversation between two old friends.
But no amount of courtesies could hide the elephant in the room: Bibi was waiting breathlessly for a red wave to sweep the American capital. He spent most of his previous 13 years in power under Democrats Clinton and Obama, with whom he clashed constantly.
In his last term, during much of which he presided over caretaker governments between elections, Bibi benefited from the pro-Israel Trump administration, which transferred the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and signed the Abraham Accords.
Netanyahu has explained many times — including in his new autobiography — the advantages of serving alongside a Democratic president shorn of a congressional majority. And while he refrained from commenting publicly on this year’s midterms, there could be no question where his sympathies lay. One could sum it up by saying that Bibi won in Israel, but lost in America; while Biden, who felt much more comfortable with the outgoing government, won in America but lost in Israel.
IN Netanyahu’s coming term, the Iranian nuclear threat tops the list of priorities, while party politics and portfolios are at the bottom. Somewhere in the middle lies reform of the justice system, which could directly impact his ongoing trial.
But for his natural allies in the right-wing bloc — all of whom sport yarmulkes, whether knitted or black — the order is reversed. Bibi can worry about the international scene — for them, the big issues lie close to home.Ben Gvir, of whom we’ll have plenty to say in this space, is focused primarily on public security, aiming to crack down on rampant crime and protection racketeering in the north and south. The chareidim are focused on issues of religion and state, and demand a return to the status quo (which the outgoing government took every opportunity to trample), as well as an increase in stipends for Torah learners.
“The voters have spoken, and we’ll never again apologize for the demands we make for the Torah world,” Shas chairman Aryeh Deri tells Mishpacha.
Smotrich, for his part, has his sights set on reform of the justice system, with his Law and Justice plan calling for a comprehensive overhaul, and on the passage of the override clause, which would prevent High Court justices from striking down Knesset legislation and restore balance to Israeli democracy.
And this is where it gets interesting. Netanyahu reportedly requested that his allies drop their ideological demands for now, in the interests of forming a government as early as Tuesday this week so as not to leave Lapid in office for a moment longer than necessary. And who do you think put their feet down and insisted on including the override clause in the government’s basic guidelines?
If you guessed Smotrich, you’d be wrong — it was the chareidim.
To understand the reason for this, we have to go back three years, to the roots of Israel’s four-year political crisis. Multiple versions of the coalition’s draft law had repeatedly been struck down by the High Court, on the grounds that it violated the principle of equality enshrined in Israel’s basic laws.
It was the High Court’s ruling that led then-defense minister Avigdor Lieberman, who had always been considered part of the right-wing bloc, to climb the highest tree and announce that he would adopt the Defense Ministry’s proposals for the draft law. Shas’s Council of Chachamim, as well as Degel HaTorah’s Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, were willing to swallow a watered-down version of the Defense Ministry’s bill, but the chassidish Moetzes of Agudas Yisrael refused to compromise.
The result was an immediate break with Lieberman, who went on to become the chareidim’s biggest bête noire. Now, with the right wing enjoying a clear majority, the Torah councils have ordered the chareidi MKs to accept nothing less than the override clause as part of the coalition negotiations, to enable passage of an acceptable draft law, without further interference from the courts.
With every one of the four right-wing parties holding the keys to a coalition, point-blank demands can’t be ignored. The road to a coalition will run through a settlement of the status of yeshivah bochurim and the repeal of what is known on the chareidi street as the gezeiras hagiyus.
The current president, Isaac Herzog— unlike his predecessor, Ruvi Rivlin, who was put on the spot in the aftermath of every one of the four previous elections— barely has a job left to do. The unequivocal election result made each party’s recommendation for prime minister at the president’s residence a mere formality.
But a single slip-up was enough to bring Herzog back to the headlines. At the end of his meeting with the Shas representatives, Herzog continued speaking, without realizing that the microphones were still on, and expressed concern over the international reaction to their ally, Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir.
Next day it was Ben Gvir’s turn to flub, accidently posting a draft of the speech he was to give at the Kahane memorial event on social media. And while Ben Gvir disavowed Kahane’s dream of expelling all Arabs from the country in his remarks, his very participation in the event as a keynote speaker captured media attention and drew a fierce American condemnation.
Ben Gvir’s presence as the rightist flank of the incoming government may become Netanyahu’s biggest headache in the next term. Ben Gvir is entering the government to act and not just to talk. In terms of influence and power, the student Ben Gvir is set to surpass his teacher, Rabbi Meir Kahane.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 936)
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