Tuesday, Dec 5, 2023

Reform on Hold for Now

Prime Minister Netanyahu postponed the judicial reform until the Knesset’s summer session. Was this a panicked response to the events in Israel on Monday, when the entire state nearly came to a standstill? Was he afraid that the country was about to descend into chaos? Have the increasingly violent and vocal protests, and the nonstop fearmongering from the media, managed to overturn the right wing after its victory in the voting booths? On Monday evening, Netanyahu informed the nation that the judicial overhaul, especially the changes in the method of selecting judges, would be postponed until the summer. Is this a prelude to scrapping the reform entirely? Only time will tell.

 

Monday was a chaotic day in Israel. The country was descending into anarchy. An El Al plane that was about to take off on Monday afternoon was forced to return to the gate when a general strike was announced. The banks informed their customers that they were closing, the state prosecutors joined the strike, and massive protests filled the streets, including acts of violence and burning tires as the country was effectively paralyzed.

Starting on Monday afternoon, the country had a sense that something was going to happen. Prime Minister Netanyahu could not ignore what was taking place, even if it was essentially a rebellion against the government. At 7:00 in the evening, I spotted Netanyahu sitting in the horseshoe-shaped lounge behind the Knesset’s main chamber with two of his closest loyalists: Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, who is a candidate for replacing the defense minister whom Netanyahu just fired, and Justice Minister Yariv Levin. It was clear from their expressions that something dramatic was in the works. They were surrounded by about 20 guards, whose purpose was not to protect Netanyahu—after all, the only people permitted to enter that lounge are those who are authorized to enter the Knesset chamber—but rather to ensure that no one got close enough to overhear their conversation.

The State of Israel was burning. The economy had ground to a halt, and even parts of the medical system had announced a strike, with exceptions to be made for lifesaving surgeries. In the Knesset, Netanyahu was beginning to lose his supporters. Gallant was one person who turned against the prime minister, as I mentioned elsewhere, and MKs Yuli Edelstein and David Bittan had already taken a position against the judicial reform as well, but there was a sense that this was only the beginning. The Likud party was facing an internal rift that was likely to tear it asunder.

For two days, we had all been hearing all sorts of different statements. The chareidi parties had announced that they would support any decision made by Netanyahu, regardless of whether he chose to continue the legislative process or to cancel the judicial reform. There was also a third option—postponing the reform, which is the avenue that Netanyahu ultimately chose.

In the evening, Yariv Levin released a statement: “As a member of the Likud party, I will honor any decision made by Prime Minister Netanyahu regarding the legislative process of the judicial reform. This is with the knowledge that a situation in which every man can do as he pleases may lead to the immediate fall of the government and the collapse of the Likud party. We must all make an effort to stabilize the government and the coalition. It is incumbent on all of us not to make the mistake that was made with the downfall of the Shamir government, a mistake that led to the tragedy of the Oslo Accords.”

As soon as Levin released this statement, it was clear that the game was up. The anarchists had won; the only question is how much, and for how long, that victory would hold. The judicial reform might be scrapped entirely, it might be halted, or it might simply be frozen, as Netanyahu has put it, until after Pesach, in a bid to calm the raging tempers in this country and to lower the anarchists’ passions. At this point, anything is possible.

The Judgment of King Shlomo

At 8:00 on Monday night, at the exact hour when the news programs are aired, Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered an address to the nation. He began by referencing the famous judgment of Shlomo Hamelech, and his point was clear. As is the case in the story recounted in the novi, there is a true “mother” today facing off against an impostor. The opponents of the judicial reform, who are willing to destroy the country if they do not get their way, are clearly taking the place of the bogus mother. Netanyahu informed the nation that he had decided to halt the legislation temporarily, until the Knesset convened for its summer session, in order to allow time for dialogue and discussion.

The uproar revolved specifically around a law designed to change the method by which judges are selected in the State of Israel. The purpose of the law is to change the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee and to bypass the veto held by the judges who sit on the committee. The Israeli left considered this an intolerable threat—or, as they put it, the end of democracy itself. The Supreme Court is the most important bastion of liberalism; the judges, all of whom are drawn from the ranks of the left, have appointed themselves the true rulers of this country. If their power to ensure a left-wing court is taken away, then the left itself will be eliminated. That is their greatest fear, and that is the reason they were willing to set the country on fire to oppose this legislation.

This is also the law that continued moving forward. Even on Monday morning, the Constitution Committee, headed by Simcha Rothman, continued dealing with this bill. There were hundreds of reservations on the bill, and hundreds of votes were held. Rothman expelled unruly MKs from the committee session one after another, bulldozing toward a single goal: to prepare the bill for its second and third readings so that it would be passed by the Knesset either on Monday or Tuesday and thus become law. That is the reason that the protests on Monday reached record heights. And Netanyahu therefore promised explicitly in his speech that the final readings of this law would be postponed until the summer, “out of a sense of national responsibility and a desire to prevent a rift within the people.” He seemed to be tense and deeply troubled as he spoke.

“I Am Not Prepared to Divide the Nation”

One aspect of the protests that roiled the entire country was the wave of refusals to show up for service in the army. Soldiers, military officers, and even air force pilots announced that they would refuse to perform their reserve service due to the judicial reform, which they viewed as destructive. That is what led Defense Minister Gallant to decide that he was in favor of dialogue. Netanyahu also addressed this issue in his speech: “There is an extremist minority that is prepared to tear our country to shreds. They use violence, ignite fires, threaten to harm elected officials, stoke the flames of civil war, and call for refusal to serve in the army, which is a terrible crime. The State of Israel cannot exist without the IDF. Refusal to serve from one camp will lead to refusal to serve from the other camp, and that will be the end of our country.

“Three thousand years ago, here in Yerushalayim, the judgment of Shlomo took place,” Netanyahu continued. “Two women came to the king, each of them claiming that she was the real mother of a baby. King Shlomo ordered his servants to bring a sword and to cut the baby in two, giving half to each mother. One of the women was willing to have the baby cut in two, but the other refused to accept it; she insisted that the child remain alive and whole. Likewise, both sides of the debate today claim to love today’s ‘baby,’ which is our state.

“Those who are calling for refusal to serve in the army, for anarchy and for violence are knowingly tearing this ‘baby’ to pieces,” Netanyahu added. “The vast majority of Israeli citizens on both sides, however, do not want to divide the people. We are in the middle of a dangerous clash within Israeli society. We are at the height of a crisis that is threatening our basic unity. This crisis obligates us to act responsibly.

“I am not prepared to tear the nation apart,” Netanyahu declared. “For three months, I have called for dialogue time and again, and I have said that I would leave no stone unturned in my efforts to reach a solution. I remember, and we all remember, that we are not facing enemies; we are facing our own brothers. I will say this here and now: We cannot have a civil war.

“One way or another, we will bring about a reform that will restore the lost balance between the branches of the government while preserving the rights of individuals,” Netanyahu insisted as he concluded his speech. “I want to address the supporters of the nationalist camp: We have the majority that we need to pass this reform unilaterally in the Knesset, and thousands of our supporters have come to Yerushalayim to support the reform and to declare that it is necessary. I am proud of you. You are not second class citizens, and I appreciate the fact that you took to the streets today in order to make your democratic voices heard. This voice will not be silenced by anyone.”

Gantz Rises While Lapid Falls

After Netanyahu’s speech, the Histadrut workers’ union announced an end to the general strike that had been called earlier in the day. At the same time, the leaders of the protest movement announced that as long as the legislation wasn’t buried completely, the battle would continue. Opposition chairman Yair Lapid welcomed the freeze on the legislation, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (whose dismissal hadn’t been officially carried out) also greeted the decision with satisfaction.

A few hours earlier, on Monday afternoon, Gallant had released the following statement: “National security, the economy, and society are all being threatened. The entire nation of Israel is watching you. For the sake of the unity of the people, for the unity that we must have, I call on you to stop this legislative process immediately. I call on the leaders of all the parties in the Knesset, the coalition and the opposition alike, to place the citizens of this state above everything else and to act with responsibility and courage with no further delays. It is time to wake up now! This isn’t a political moment; this is a time for leadership and responsibility.”

Benny Gantz, the former defense minister and the chairman of the National Unity Party, was restrained in his own reaction. “I stood here several weeks ago and said that we were liable to find ourselves in a civil war and that Netanyahu would be responsible for it,” he told the press. “I welcome his decision to stop this. It is better late than never. There are some cynical politicians who do not rise to the occasion. Those who would burn the silos are continuing to inflame the tensions between Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv, between the kibbutzim and the development towns, but we will not allow that. We all need to call out in one voice, saying no to civil war, no to violence, and yes to consensus and dialogue. At the protests outside, there are Israeli flags on both sides; that is further evidence that we are brothers. I would like to once again thank the thousands of citizens who love the state and whose determined struggle is still not over; it will receive a place of honor in the history of the State of Israel.”

Gantz is actually the big winner in the midst of all this chaos and madness; his party is soaring in the polls. His strength is beginning to rival that of Yesh Atid, which is very frightening to Lapid and his men. Gantz has shown himself to be much more responsible than Lapid, with his constant incitement and hatemongering. In fact, there is a possibility that Gantz might join the government now and return to the post of defense minister, a position that he has held under Netanyahu in the past.

President Yitzchok Herzog also expressed his approval for Netanyahu’s move. “The president’s house is open for dialogue and discussion,” he announced. “Stopping the legislation was the right thing to do. This is the time to begin sincere, serious, and responsible dialogue that will urgently calm the raging tempers and lower the flames of dissent. I call on everyone to show responsibility. Demonstrations and protests on both sides are acceptable, but violence is not, under any circumstances. Even if one side wins, the country will lose.”

Nevertheless, none of this seemed to bring about an end to the protests. The leaders of the demonstrations announced that they will continue as long as the legislation isn’t buried completely. Merav Michaeli, the chairwoman of the Labor party—the historic party once led by Ben-Gurion, which was shown being wiped off the political map altogether by a poll on Monday night—also announced that the protests will end and the opposition will sit down to negotiate only if the reform is scrapped completely. “On the day when it becomes clear that Netanyahu learned from the Polish how to suppress protests, he is appealing only to his supporters once again, in a speech filled with lies and incitement against half the people,” she wrote scathingly. “We do not accept a postponement or any other ploy. How many more times can we fall into the trap of collaborating with Netanyahu? We have said throughout this process that we will accept nothing less than the complete burial of these dangerous laws.”

There were some voices that expressed the opposite sentiments. Simcha Rothman, chairman of the Constitution Committee, and Avi Maoz, chairman of the Noam party, called on the government to continue advancing the legislation. The leaders of Religious Zionism expressed the same desire. Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir threatened to resign (and thus break up the government) if the legislation was frozen, and he was summoned for an urgent consultation with Netanyahu. He emerged from that meeting satisfied with the result, which included additional funding for his ministry. A statement from Ben-Gvir’s office related, “I agreed to rescind my veto on postponing the legislation in exchange for a promise from Prime Minister Netanyahu that the legislation will be brought to the Knesset for approval in the next session, in the event that agreements are not reached during the recess.”

Meanwhile, the right wing staged its own counterprotest outside the Knesset in support of the reform.

The Left Holds the Power

Netanyahu’s speech followed an extended period of chaos that reached a peak with widespread protests taking place throughout the country since motzoei Shabbos. These demonstrations began spontaneously and intensified on Sunday evening after the dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as in the wake of the general strike declared by Histadrut director Arnon Bar-David. Earlier in the day, the Constitution Committee approved the law that would change the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee, after a major ruckus throughout the committee session. It was clear that as soon as this was announced to the public, it would further stoke the flames of controversy raging throughout the country. What became clear on this painful day is that the left is in control of the state, the economy, and all the focal points of power.

Just to give you an idea of the situation, until the prime minister’s announcement on Monday evening, there were demonstrations held throughout Israel, traffic was blocked on major roads including the Ayalon Highway (which paralyzed Tel Aviv) and Highway One (which blocked access to Yerushalayim), and disruptions were reported elsewhere in the country as well. The protest outside the Knesset brought out record numbers of protestors, making it impossible to reach the building. The Knesset Guard notified the members of the legislature that if any of them had trouble reaching the Knesset, they should call the hotline and the security guards would assist them. Most of the Knesset employees were asked to stay away from the building, and the legislators were asked to refrain from inviting guests, both because they would not be able to get through the crowds and because there was great concern that protestors might procure invitations and create havoc inside the Knesset as well. This, in fact, actually took place; it was impossible to seal the Knesset building hermetically. But the protestors were removed from the building as soon as they began shouting.

To cite my own personal example, the drive from my home in Givat Shaul to the Knesset takes about 12 minutes on a regular day, but on Monday afternoon it took me two hours. As I drew close to the Knesset, I encountered a number of roadblocks that forced me to turn in different directions. Even though I had received precise instructions from the Knesset Guard as to which routes to follow and how to get to the building, the police hadn’t coordinated with them. When I told the police officers manning the roadblocks that the Knesset Sergeant-at-Arms had authorized me to pass through, I was told that they had no interest in what the Knesset security official had to say.

At first, I drove into the neighborhood of Nayot, where the police redirected me to Rechov Herzog. If I had been allowed to make a left turn there, I would have been able to reach the Knesset from the direction of Sacher Park; however, the police forced me to turn right, toward Hadassah Ein Kerem, which took me further away from the Knesset. I kept in touch with the Knesset Guard, and they insisted that I should try to make it through the roadblock in Nayot again. It took me a full hour to get back there, but this time I was even more insistent, and the police allowed me to pass.

The city of Yerushalayim was brought to a standstill by the protests, and so was Ben-Gurion Airport. There were no takeoffs or landings. Train service was also suspended, and even the light rail in southern Yerushalayim was placed on a partial schedule. The public relations office of the Histadrut labor federation notified the public that they planned to extend their strike to the stock exchange on the following day. Perhaps the most disheartening announcement came from Magen David Adom, the emergency medical service, which announced that due to the possibility that gas stations would be shut down or gas would not be delivered, all emergency vehicles should be refueled immediately, before the crisis began.

Sidebars

The Court Flexes Its Muscles

With fantastic timing, the Supreme Court once again made its own statement as to who is truly in charge in this country.

A short time ago, the attorney general (who was appointed by the previous justice minister, Gideon Saar) notified Prime Minister Netanyahu that he is prohibited to be involved in the judicial reform. The reason for this directive was that Netanyahu had signed a conflict of interest agreement, and any involvement with the reform was considered to be in conflict with his personal interests as the defendant in a criminal trial. She threatened to have him declared unfit to continue serving as prime minister if he did not abide by this ruling.

Last week, the Knesset approved the Incapacitation Law, which states that a prime minister can be declared unfit to serve only for medical reasons, thus rendering her threat meaningless. Netanyahu immediately went on to deliver a speech about the judicial reform, calling for calm. In a jab at the attorney general, he added, “My hands are no longer tied. I will now speak about the reform as much as I desire.”

Of course, this was automatically followed by petitions to the Supreme Court demanding that the prime minister be declared unfit to serve, in keeping with the attorney general’s warning. On Monday, a panel of three justices (Alex Stein, an American-born yarmulke-wearing judge; Yitzchok Amit, who is slated to become the next chief justice; and Khaled Khabub, the Arab judge) rejected the petition. Justice Stein faulted the petitioners for failing to approach the prime minister or the attorney general with their complaints before turning to the courts. He also opined that the petitioners had distorted the attorney general’s position in order to strengthen their arguments. The Supreme Court charged the organization 5000 shekels in legal fees to cover the cost of the case, and Stein added, “In the petition before us, we were asked to issue a ruling that was extreme by any measure.”

This is all very nice, but the bottom line is that the judges dismissed the petition because they felt that it was not justified, while making it clear that they felt they had the power to declare Netanyahu unfit to continue serving—in spite of the provisions of the newly passed law.

Knesset Passes Budget for 2024

After all is said and done, it seems that the government and the state still must go about their regular business. The state may be mired in chaos and the streets might be burning, the winners of the election might have been defeated by the protests, but the Knesset is busy passing the state budget nonetheless. On Monday, the budget for the years 2023 and 2024 was passed in its first reading by a majority of 63 members of the Knesset. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who was dismissed by Netanyahu, absented himself from the vote, but Netanyahu still had a majority in the Knesset.

The state budget for the year 2023 stands at 484 billion shekels. For the year 2024, the figure will increase to 513 billion shekels. The budget and the Arrangements Law underwent their first reading in the Knesset after receiving approval in the cabinet and will now be transferred to the Knesset committees for further discussion. The second and third readings are due to take place in about two months.

Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich presented the budget to the Knesset and announced, “In light of the economic challenges, we have formulated a responsible budget today. This budget will make it possible for the government to carry out its policies while preserving the fiscal responsibility that will help stabilize the economy and prevent inflation from worsening. Responsible economic leadership is necessary now in order to surmount the challenges facing us. At this time, it is very important for us to act responsibly. Approving this budget is a critical step, which will send the message to the public, the ratings companies, and investors that Israel is acting with responsibility, and will help guarantee stability.” Alluding to the events taking place outside the Knesset, Smotrich added, “The State of Israel and Israeli society are going through difficult times, but we, as a state, are strong and will continue to build the State of Israel for the sake of all of its citizens. With Hashem’s help, we will pass this budget and will continue working for you.”

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