Editorial: Unrest sweeps across Israel, and Netanyahu has only himself to blame
Published in Op Eds
Israelis embrace the ideal of democracy with the same fervor that Americans do. It’s why, on Monday, the people of Israel effectively shut down their country’s economy in a defiant, urgent statement against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dangerous bid to overhaul — and in doing so weaken — the country’s judicial system.
Protests that have persisted for weeks peaked on Monday, as tens of thousands of demonstrators filled streets of Israel’s two largest cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “Save our startup nation” read a massive banner held aloft by legions of protesters jammed into a major Jerusalem roadway. Overnight, security forces resorted to water cannons to disperse demonstrators.
The nation’s largest labor union called a general strike. Banks, government offices and many businesses closed, and hospitals barely functioned with skeleton crews. For hours, flights were halted at Ben Gurion International Airport, though later they resumed. Israeli embassies and consulates around the world also closed.
Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, pleaded with Netanyahu to heed the backlash from Israelis and suspend his government’s push to weaken the nation’s Supreme Court. “The entire nation is rapt with deep worry,” Herzog said early Monday. “Wake up now!”
Ultimately, Netanyahu relented and announced Monday evening local time that his government would postpone legislation seeking an overhaul of the country’s judiciary. His move, however, only delays the legislation — he’s not abandoning it.
Regardless of what happens with the measure, Bibi’s legacy will now include the ignominious stain of having plunged his nation into arguably one of the worst political crises in Israel’s 74-year-old statehood. If the measure becomes law, the Israeli leader risks severely compromising one of the world’s leading democracies, and even destabilizing a vital U.S. ally in the volatile Middle East.
It’s a crisis that was wholly avoidable.
Last fall, Netanyahu made the disastrous mistake of succumbing to political expediency by forging an alliance with far-right Zionist leaders to maintain a grip on power. The coalition he assembled between his center-right Likud party and the far-right Jewish Power party and the Religious Zionism party enabled his victory in national elections.
The alliance wasn’t just about votes. Netanyahu still faces a trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. His new far-right allies are vehement critics of Israel’s Supreme Court and have joined with Netanyahu in his push for a weakening of Israel’s judiciary. An Israeli high court stripped of some of its authority could enable Netanyahu to sidestep justice and avoid jail.
If enacted, the ruling coalition’s proposal would skew to Netanyahu’s advantage membership on a committee that selects Supreme Court judges. Netanyahu also wants to dramatically curb the Supreme Court’s authority to overturn laws that it rules as legally indefensible.
It’s easy to understand why Israelis who so fiercely entwine democracy with national identity would revolt against such a measure. The Netanyahu government’s attack on the judiciary directly threatens Israel’s principle of checks and balances. A weakened high court dominated by Netanyahu loyalists becomes a mere lever for the ruling right-wing coalition, rather than a protector of citizens’ rights — particularly the rights of non-Jewish minorities.
And it becomes a get-out-of-jail card for Netanyahu.
Netanyahu should have been all too aware that his government’s anti-democratic agenda would lead to national turmoil. He had been warned repeatedly.
Speaking in Tel Aviv in January, Herzog cautioned: “The absence of dialogue is tearing us apart from within, and I’m telling you loud and clear: This powder keg is about to explode. This is an emergency.” That same month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Netanyahu and later talked about the need to preserve “core democratic principles and institutions,” a remark clearly aimed at the Israeli prime minister’s planned judiciary overhaul.
On Saturday, Netanyahu’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, criticized the overhaul and urged his prime minister to abandon it. Netanyahu responded by firing Gallant, a move that triggered massive protests across Israel Sunday night. Many of those demonstrating were Israel’s military reservists incensed by Gallant’s firing.
President Joe Biden has a long-standing relationship with Netanyahu, and Americans and Israelis alike can expect him to work to persuade the prime minister to drop the overhaul plan and become a defender of checks and balances, rather than a foe.
Ultimately, however, Netanyahu must decide what’s more important — self-preservation or the future of his nation and its democracy. A postponement of the judicial overhaul is far from sufficient. Outright abandonment of the plan clearly is the best option.
The choice should be easy. But even after the tidal wave of civil unrest his nation experienced Monday, there’s no sign at all that he’ll make the right choice.
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