What Bibi plans for his next step is a mystery to all of Israel

With the vote looming on the PM's legal reforms, next week will provide the biggest test yet for both sides in the struggle for the future of Israeli democracy


Thousands of Israeli protesters rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on February 04, 2023. Photo by Gili Yaari /Flash90 *** Local Caption *** הפגנה שינויי חקיקה כיכר הבימה פעילי שמאל שינויים במערכת המשפט דמוקרטיה דגל ישראל רפורמה משפטית מהפכה משפטית הפגנת שמאל

February 09, 2023 13:18

Professor Hagai Levine, head of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, became a household name during Covid-19. He was one of the more prominent health experts explaining how Israelis should protect themselves.

Many were surprised to see him in the Knesset this week, offering his expert advice to the Law Committee, which was debating the first elements of the government’s legal reforms.

Every session so far has descended within into chaos in minutes with opposition MKs clamouring to lodge their objections to the coalition’s plan to change the Judicial Appointment Committee’s make-up, giving the government effective control over who will be the Supreme Court judges.

As Professor Levine tried to explain why, in his opinion, an independent supreme court was crucial for public confidence in the health system, one coalition MK sneered that “the reforms are harming the opposition’s mental health” and another shouting-match ensued.

Next week could be crucial for the future of the reforms. The opposition is trying to organise widespread strikes and bring as many protestors as they can to Jerusalem on Monday. But that may be just another day of committee meetings, and the actual vote could take place later in the week.

For both sides it will be their biggest test yet in the struggle for the future of Israeli democracy. But no-one is sure when exactly it will come.

Within Likud and the other coalition parties, there are persistent rumours that Mr Netanyahu is intending to “put the brakes” on the legal reforms, at least temporarily, once the first vote is held next week.

He has been surprised by the ferocity of the protests and the negative response from abroad. Once the coalition wins the first vote, he will be open to negotiating a compromise from a position of respect, at least according to one source who claims to be close to the Prime Minister’s thinking.

Another coalition member, a true believer in the changes to the judiciary, wouldn’t deny that there was a possibility of Mr Netanyahu slowing down the process. “Don’t ask me,” he said. “I’m not a Bibiologist. I’ll try and continue pushing it, but I can’t predict if we’ll have Netanyahu’s backing.”

The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), once a quasi-governmental think-tank run by the Jewish Agency but today an independent body, has launched a massive campaign, online and on large hoardings in Israel’s main cities, warning of civil war and calling upon both sides to immediately climb down and agree to hold talks on the legal reforms.

I asked JPPI President Professor Yedidya Stern if he wasn’t overdoing it. His answer was chilling: “In our lifetimes, Israel was most split after Rabin’s assassination in 1995 and during the disengagement from Gaza in 2005.

But then it was just one side of the political divide who felt threatened. This time, both sides are feeling as if the other is threatening their very identity and definition of what Israel means. And I fear we are the closest Israel has ever been to civil war.”

US relations
Six weeks into the government and it’s impossible to define its relations with Israel’s most important ally. Benjamin Netanyahu was a marmite leader for previous US administrations.

President Biden has so far, however, remained inscrutable.

The national security advisor, CIA chief and Secretary of State have all visited Israel, signifying that the relationship remains of the highest level. But the customary invitation to a meeting with the President at the White House has not been forthcoming, its absence much remarked upon.

Washington keeps sending mixed messages. Last week, when Secretary Antony Blinken was in Jerusalem, much was made of his subtle departures from protocol.

In his remarks to the media while meeting Mr Netanyahu, he pointedly listed “respect for human rights, the equal administration of justice for all, the equal rights of minority groups, the rule of law, free press, a robust civil society,” as the values America hopes to continue sharing with Israel. If that wasn’t enough, he had advice for the Israeli government and its quest for legal reform:

“Building consensus for new proposals is the most effective way to ensure they’re embraced and that they endure.”

Secretary Blinken’s meeting in Jerusalem with “emerging leaders” of “civil society” was another hint. US diplomats discreetly briefed that this was the kind of things secretaries of state usually make a point of doing when visiting non-democratic countries.

At the same time, America was sending another message. The first joint US-Israeli Juniper Oak military exercise was taking place on land, sea and in the air.

This was the largest American deployment ever for such an exercise, including an air carrier group, B-52 bombers and HIMARS rocket batteries launching unprecedented quantities of munitions at targets in the Shedma range deep in the Negev.

Israeli helicopters simulated a search-and-rescue mission for a pilot shot down over Golan.
Juniper Oak was made even more remarkable by the fact that the US Central Command, based in Qatar, had suggested it and set everything up in a couple of months. Much smaller joint exercises are planned years in advance.

“It was astonishing to see how fast the Americans can move,” said one IDF officer. “We were happy to stay in the backseat and just feed the American elephant.”

But one thing the Americans did not do is make a big public-relations festival, just releasing a few photographs of planes flying in joint formation. Unlike previous joint manoeuvres, journalists weren’t hosted on the carrier or at any of the bases and briefings were off-record. No-one tried to keep the exercise secret but there was a marked lack of appetite for public back-slapping.

America has strong strategic alliances with non-democratic countries, in the Middle East and elsewhere. An international superpower’s foreign policy demands that. As the geopolitical order is increasingly challenged by Russia, China and Iran, Israel’s value to the US as its “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the Middle East can only increase, whatever the internal policies of the government in Jerusalem.

But for two countries who have invested so much over decades in their “shared values” rhetoric, especially with millions of US Jews invested in those values as well, pivoting to a relationship based more on pragmatic, hard-nosed shared interests instead will be a jolting experience for many.

February 09, 2023 13:18

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