In justice reform controversy, Israel's Left is winning the battle of the narrative
Photo: AP Images
Monday last week was a mixed bag for the coalition, with an easy victory in the judicial reform’s first Knesset test offset by a PR disaster outside the walls of the chamber. And the cheers from the coalition benches after the legislation’s late-night passage made it easy to forget that some within the coalition itself are profoundly concerned by Levin and Rothman’s hard-line agenda.
In the spirit of the approaching Purim, it was a week of masquerades: Protesters wore cloaks and masks outside the Knesset building, and some answered in ad delo yada fashion when asked what all the fuss was about. But during the coalition’s celebrations as well, many coalition members wore triumphant masks to conceal their qualms over continuing the legislative process.
During this period, feverish negotiations would normally be underway for a two-year budget, to give the government some breathing room. And while Naftali Bennett’s prediction that his government would last after he passed a budget is still remembered with derision, there’s no comparing Bennett’s hodge-podge coalition of 61 with the relatively homogeneous coalition of 64 MKs led by Binyamin Netanyahu.
Instead of celebrations over passing the budget, we got a carnival of protests. The state budget was sidelined as the judicial sinkhole swallowed the budget legislation that’s normally so crucial in stabilizing a new government in its first year. None of the wranglers over budget allocations (of which more later) have any idea what the Israeli economy will look like a day after the revolution.
To count on future revenue from foreign investments in this chaos is akin to basing a plan of action on the assumption that the Biden administration will say a good word about Netanyahu. From day to day, more and more reputed financial institutions are joining the chorus of dire warnings, and who knows better than Netanyahu that economics is all about the atmosphere?
While the Knesset building was besieged by fewer protests than last week, the rhetoric inside only intensified. The escalation was taken to a whole new level — characteristically — by former deputy head of the Mossad Ram Ben Barak, who made comparisons to 1930s Germany. But the behavior of a number of protesters who received entrance permits from Yesh Atid also brought to mind the January 6 US Capitol riot.
Netanyahu can handle the buzz, but for him it’s more about the international reaction. Almost two months after returning to power, Bibi has yet to receive an invitation from his friend of 40 years in the White House, and Biden isn’t phoning, either.
Instead, the president communicated his view of the judicial reform in the most humiliating way possible: in public, through his representatives, in a manner that smacked of an official dressing down. First through the administration’s ambassador to the media, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and later through US ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, speaking on a podcast. The pair’s remarks echoed the talking points of the protest movement in Israel.
In a world where Israel’s strength depends on its ties with the leader of the free world, such statements carry consequences across the board. From the diplomatic front to the economic one, the American message to Netanyahu is crystal clear. If it were solely up to Netanyahu, a temporary cease-fire would likely have been declared even before the bill came up for its first reading on Monday last week. But despite attorney general Gali Baharav-Miara’s rejection of his request to address the issue publicly, Bibi wore a confident smile throughout the long hours of Monday night’s vote.
One Likud minister compared Bibi’s feelings about Yariv Levin to Begin’s feelings about Ariel Sharon after the outbreak of the First Lebanon War. Netanyahu is still scarred by the “Balfour protests” that erupted during his fugitive government with Benny Gantz. If he had one wish, it would be to start his sixth term — leading a government in which he’s boxed in with extremists — in an atmosphere of relative calm. When Bibi green-lighted the judicial reform, he was thinking of measured reforms that might cause a tremor here or there, but not a 7.8 magnitude earthquake such as devastated Turkey.
Once the protests started, folding before passing the bill in its first reading would have projected weakness. But Bibi is fuming about Levin’s modus operandi — starting off with a declaration of total war and making the other side feel that it has nothing to lose.
Netanyahu doesn’t share Levin’s messianic drive to change the face of the justice system. As far as he’s concerned, judicial reform is just one of many goals and can be used as a bargaining chip. Bibi fretted over the extremists in the cabinet, hoping to find ways to curb Smotrich and Ben Gvir in the finance and police ministries respectively, but Justice Minister Levin and chair of the Law, Justice, and Constitution Committee Simcha Rothman have made the former look pale by comparison.
Netanyahu’s circle was signaling this week that as soon as the bill was passed in its first reading, the prime minister would ask Levin to lay off and give dialogue a chance, while using the option of a second and third readings as leverage in the talks.
Some in the coalition are proposing a window of time — shorter than 60 days, to avoid being perceived as capitulating to Lapid’s demand for a 60-day freezing of the process — in which to pursue talks with the opposition while holding off on the second and third readings. But in the chaotic new reality, and with few figures remaining who can bridge between the two camps, it’s highly doubtful that there’s a way back.
Netanyahu may have given Levin the green light, but if he’s shaken by the speed, he has the option as prime minister to slam on the brakes. And in tests of character like this, Bibi has failed in the past. If the story ends with revolutionary legislation passing a third hearing, we’ll be able to say that the character of Netanyahu’s sixth government has changed — perhaps in spite of its leader.
“We need to start a dialogue with no preconditions, and the demand for preconditions calls to mind the Palestinian approach to the peace talks,” Netanyahu said this week, after the Knesset victory.
Chair of the world Likud and former Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Danon, now a coalition malcontent, pulled out the archives to remind Netanyahu that he himself agreed in the past to enter negotiations on the basis of preconditions and that to this day, he continues folding to the Americans’ dictates.
Danon brought up Netanyahu’s agreement to freeze construction in Judea and Samaria during the Obama administration, as well Bibi’s public clarification last week that he wouldn’t be legalizing outposts.
“When Bennett was prime minister, we didn’t see a public statement about freezing construction and legalization of outposts,” Danon told me this week. “I wonder what opposition leader Bibi would have said of Prime Minister Bennett in such a scenario.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 951)
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