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March 14, 2023 11:35 am

Stopping Radical Judicial Reform Could Be the Israeli Right’s Big Moment

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avatar by Josh Feldman


A general view shows the plenum at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem. Photo: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Despite the “Yes Bibi, No Bibi” divide that has defined Israeli politics in recent years, Benjamin Netanyahu has achieved something rather unexpected since returning to the prime minister’s office in December: his coalition’s light speed push for radical judicial reform is provoking opposition and angst among even his own supporters.

No matter how much he insists that those protesting against the reforms are “anarchists,” the numbers speak for themselves. One Channel 12 poll found that 52% of Likud voters are afraid the reforms will harm the Jewish state’s economy. In another, 44% of Likud voters said the legislation should pause during negotiations, something MKs Yariv Levin and Simcha Rothman — the reforms’ major proponents — appear fiercely opposed to.

For those who have long warned of Israel’s dangerous rightward drift, the recent formation of an unprecedentedly right-wing government that handed power to bigots and extremists of the first order appeared to be a great, albeit terrifying, vindication. At best, the Israeli Right was willing to tolerate the indefensible; at worst, it was wholeheartedly endorsing it.

But as protests against the judicial reforms sweep the nation (protests on March 11 reportedly attracted between 300,000 to 500,000 Israelis), growing dissent among the government’s own supporters has provided right-wing voters with a historical opportunity to speak out against the dangerous trends that have taken hold on the political right, and led to the situation in which Israel now finds itself. While Israeli society as a whole is undergoing a transformative moment, it would be remiss for those who voted for the current government not to take this opportunity to confront the extremism they unleashed — much of which is now giving them pause — and to drag their side of the aisle back toward responsible governance.

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To understand what is at stake, it’s important to take stock of the Israeli Right’s transformation in recent decades. In the 1980s, when the racist Rabbi Meir Kahane would rise to speak in the Knesset, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir would lead his Likud faction out of the room in protest. Today, Netanyahu — who succeeded Shamir as Likud leader — has handed Kahane’s ideological heir Itamar Ben-Gvir unprecedented powers as National Security Minister. Ben-Gvir, for his part, has been rapidly mainstreamed after spending years on the fringes of the Israeli far-right. In Israel’s March 2020 election, his Otzma Yehudit party received 0.42% of the vote. Today, his slate is the Knesset’s third-largest.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, was for years a staunch defender of the court’s independence. A “strong, independent court allows for the existence of all other institutions in a democracy,” he passionately declared in 2012, adding that he was “doing, and will continue to do, everything I can to protect the court system [so that it remains] strong and independent.”

“Every time a bill comes across my desk that could harm the independence of Israeli courts,” he said, “we’ll take it off the table.”

But Bibi, as observers have noted, is a changed man. Tormented by a corruption trial that he is desperate to escape, he has come to view his personal interests and the Jewish state’s interests as one and the same. And after beginning in recent years to slowly but surely undermine Israeli democracy, he has finally launched an all-out attack on the country’s democratic institutions.

For his critics, November 1 was the proof they didn’t want to see: Likud voters were standing by the man who has prioritized himself over the well-being of the citizens he is privileged to represent. But even supporters of Likud — a party that has had only four leaders in its 50 year history — will let Netanyahu drag them only so far through the mud.

And now they have reached a pivotal moment. They can, like the many Likud MKs who reportedly oppose the judicial overhaul but won’t speak up, stay silent. Or, along with the approximately 500,000 Likud voters fearful of the direction in which their government is heading, they can make it clear to Netanyahu and Levin that they will not tolerate such an unprecedented attack on democracy.

Similar concern is also fomenting among Israel’s Religious Zionists (not to be confused with the Religious Zionism party). However, as Israeli author Micah Goodman recently noted, “While many people on the religious Right feel uncomfortable with these reforms, they’re afraid that [if] they speak out, then they’ll be branded as left-wingers.”

But that may be changing, albeit slowly. Each protest brings with it new accounts of religious and right-wing participants. For weeks, there have been protests against the judicial overhaul in Efrat, a staunchly religious and right-wing community in Gush Etzion. On Saturday night, a 300-strong “Responsible Right” rally in Jerusalem called for negotiations over the judicial reforms. And as Anton Goodman recently wrote for Haaretz, “Since the November elections, the tectonic plates under Israel’s Religious Zionist community have been unsettled. There is a sense of friction and change in the air … [and concerns that] a political red line has been crossed.” All indicators point to similar sentiments among Likud voters too.

Even some of the reforms’ architects have begun to backtrack. Last month, Moshe Koppel, chairman of the Kohelet Policy Forum, which was instrumental in drafting the reforms, called the proposed override clause “stupid.” On Tuesday, Kohelet publicly called for compromise, even suggesting that the override clause could be dropped from the reform altogether.

These are all small yet encouraging signs. But there’s still some way to go. Despite widespread right-wing opposition to the government’s handling of the reforms, a March 10 poll from the Israel Democracy Institute found that only 6% of right-wing, 6% of national religious, and 8% of traditional religious Israelis have protested against them. If these Israelis want their concerns to be heard, that needs to change.

November 1 was a disturbing indictment of where certain segments of the Israeli Right are heading. The forces that propelled Itamar Ben-Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich to power and that are threatening Israel’s democratic fiber won’t be defeated overnight. But should enough voters on the Israeli Right will it, they can drive a historical change not just for their own political camps, but for the trajectory of the Jewish state. It’s an opportunity they can’t afford to miss.

Josh Feldman is an Australian writer who focuses primarily on Israeli and Jewish issues. Twitter: @joshrfeldman

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