Who’s pushing Israel to the brink? The blame game begins

As the recriminations gets under way, there's support for the protesters from a surprising voice


Anti-judicial overhaul demonstrators block a road and clash with police during a protest against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul in Pardes Hanna-Karkur, northern Israel, on July 11, 2023. Photo by Shir Torem/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** קפלן הפגנות רפורמה משפטית חסימות פרדס חנה כרכור

July 13, 2023 12:45

On Sunday, a special cabinet meeting was convened to discuss the treatment of the anti-government protests over the past six months. There was only one way it was going to go.

The heads of Israeli law enforcement were hauled in front of the ministers for what one legal source described as the “witch-burning” of Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara.

One after another, the ministers, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, lambasted her and her colleagues over what they claimed was “preferential enforcement” of the law against the protesters.

The current government’s deep animus towards Baharav-Miara and her subordinate, State Prosecutor Amit Eisman, is clear.

They are both appointments of the previous Bennett-Lapid government, who are opposed to the judicial overhauls planned by Justice Minister Yariv Levin.

Since they both have fixed terms of six years, they will be very difficult to fire and replace (though it will be easier to do so if the coalition manages to pass its laws weakening judicial review).

What was surprising in the cabinet meeting was that the senior official who most angered the ministers was somebody else.

National Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, a gruff disciplinarian who spent nearly his entire career in the paramilitary Border Police, was appointed by the previous Netanyahu government as someone who was seen as convenient to their purposes and is about to retire at the end of the year.

He has often been at loggerheads with his minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, over the past six months, which is the main reason he won’t receive the optional fourth year as commissioner; but he still has friends in the government, mainly among the Likud ministers. So it was something of a surprise when he was the one who piped up in defence of the protesters.

“In these protests, the attacks on police are relatively zero,” said Shabtai. In fact, he added, over the past six months of protests, “Not one police officer has been taken for treatment in hospital.”

This flew in the face of the image ministers and government supporters have been trying to build of the demonstrators as “a handful of dangerous anarchists”, and it wasn’t something they had been expecting from the commissioner, of all people.

So much so that when some of them tried to contradict the “non-violent” label, they did so when addressing the attorney-general instead.

One minister grumbled: “They’re not violent only because you let them do whatever they want.”

But Shabtai’s remark is also remarkable beyond the context of the contentious cabinet meeting.

For the past six months, Israel has been going through the broadest and most prolonged period of mass protest in its history.

Many Israelis on both sides have warned that the country is on the brink of civil war, and yet not one police officer has been wounded and of the small number of protesters who were hurt by mounted police charges and water cannon, there were barely any serious injuries.

The coalition claims that this is because the law-enforcement agencies are “politicised” and therefore “soft” on the protesters.

The opposition insists that this is because they are inherently a non-violent movement.

There is some truth to both sides’ claims, but the real reasons for the lack of smashed skulls and broken bodies is first of all luck and, second, the fact that the protesters really are true patriots from the mainstream of Israeli society and the police are fully aware of that.

None of this, however, is a guarantee that in the next couple of weeks, as the final readings in the Knesset of the law limiting the Supreme Court’s power to rule against government decisions based on the “reasonableness” argument draw near, and as new senior police officers appointed by Ben-Gvir take command, matters will not get out of hand.

Both sides want to portray the other as violent and prepared to push Israel over the brink and into chaos. Hopefully, neither side will get what it wants in this respect.

At present, the only person who seems to be doing all he can stop that from happening is Benny Gantz.

While criticising the government’s push to pass the law, Gantz is the only opposition party leader who has also called upon reserve officers not to threaten to stop turning up for their voluntary service if the law is passed.

In previous months, Gantz’s National Unity party led in the polls, overtaking both Likud and Yesh Atid, as many Israelis saw him as the leader most likely to be able to achieve a national compromise.

He also overtook Netanyahu in the surveys of whom the most Israelis wanted to see as prime minister.

In recent weeks, National Unity and Gantz have lost some ground in the polls, as the talks held under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog broke down and the coalition relaunched its legislation.

Now he is frantically trying to rebuild his unifying image, calling for an immediate return to the talks.

A legal expert close to Gantz said this week: “Benny is trying to find every possible point in the reasonableness clause in which he can potentially find common ground with the coalition so he can present a compromise.”

A senior member of his party admitted, strictly off the record, that “if there’s an opportunity to join this government, replace Ben-Gvir and get an agreement on suspending the legislation, we should take it, even though it would mean rehabilitating Netanyahu and taking a huge amount of flak from the protesters.

"The alternative to that could be civil war.”

In interviews and press conferences, Gantz himself has alluded to proposals he has received to join the coalition, but insisted it wasn’t on the agenda.

Which leads to the question: why would he be saying the proposals even exist if he wasn’t at least considering them?

A senior Likud minister recently made two important observations on the US-Israel relationship.

The first was that the Biden administration is being overly harsh with its open criticism on the Netanyahu government’s internal policies.

The prime example: seven months since his reelection, Netanyahu has yet to be invited to meet the president in the White House, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose policies have been far more deleterious to democracy in his country, not to mention its Muslim minority, than anything being proposed by the Netanyahu coalition, was given the full red-carpet treatment in Washington last month.

The second observation is that despite the political differences between the Israeli government and the American administration, “Biden is a true Zionist, more than any previous American president and almost certainly more than any future one.

"He has a real instinctive love for Israel.”

Both observations go a long way to explaining the statement that came from the White House on Monday urging “authorities in Israel to protect and respect the right of peaceful assembly”.

Some observers commented that this is the kind of statement that is usually reserved for non-democratic countries, but while that may be true, the US has a different relationship with Israel.

It’s not just the long decades of military and economic support, but also the intimacy that many of the administration’s officials have with the state. There’s no other country where Biden prides himself on having met every prime minister over the last 50 years.

He mentioned that again in his interview last weekend with CNN, where he also said that the current government has “some of the most extreme” ministers he’d ever seen in an Israeli cabinet.

The administration sent a senior presidential emissary on a mysterious emergency mission to Israel.

While he was meeting Netanyahu on Monday in Jerusalem, this emissary had close family members who were protesting outside the Supreme Court, against the Netanyahu government. You could hardly say any of this about any other country.

The discrepancy between the closeness Biden feels towards Israel and his alienation from the Netanyahu government is unprecedented.

But while some fear that this could lead to serious damage to Israel’s most crucial relationship, there is also hope that he could help it out of its current mess.

July 13, 2023 12:45

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