Over the weekend, it suddenly looked like Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was in serious trouble. The proximate cause of the problem was Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to fire Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, but the dismissal was only a symptom of underlying problems. I’m no expert on Israeli politics, so join me as I pull the string and see where the thread leads.
The reason that Gallant was dismissed was that on Saturday he had given a speech that called for a halt to controversial judicial reforms that Netanyahu supported. The reforms are controversial in Israel and there is wide opposition to the plan from both within the government and the opposition parties.
Pulling the thread, the next question is obvious. What’s the deal with Israeli judicial reform?
In a nutshell, the reform would transfer more power to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, to oversee and administer the court system. As CNN explains, Israel does not have a written constitution so the judiciary is the primary check-and-balance on the Knesset through judicial review. If the Knesset grows more powerful at the expense of the courts, there will be no force powerful enough to offset the parliament.
The reform is a package of bills that are being considered by the Knesset. The BBC details the three bills that have been proposed:
On one side of the argument are those who say that the judiciary and the Supreme Court have too much influence over public policy. On the other side are those who are concerned that a government that is not held accountable or in check by the courts could abuse its power. In practice, it is often the right that bristles at court rulings while the left views the judiciary as a protector of human rights.
Part of the problem is the structure of the Israeli government. Israel uses a parliamentary system in which the president lacks strong executive powers. Further, the Knesset is a unicameral body, unlike our Congress with its upper and lower chambers. As a result of this combination of factors, there is little to stop a runaway Knesset or a strong prime minister from running roughshod if the courts are removed as an independent force.
An additional factor may be that Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is frequently called by his nickname, “Bibi,” has been fighting a corruption scandal for the past several years. Back in 2020, Netanyahu was indicted on several corruption-related charges. His party subsequently lost elections and was relegated to the opposition, but in December 2022 he once again became prime minister even though he was currently on trial for corruption. (This is undoubtedly a feat that Donald Trump aspires to emulate.) The trial is still ongoing.
There seem to be valid concerns about a strong man in the parliament overhauling the Israeli judicial system at the same time that he is being tried for corruption. One might say that there is at least the appearance of a conflict of interests.
Early this week, the news of the firing of Yoav Gallant brought widespread protests around Israel. Tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets and the country’s largest labor union announced a general strike. Some members of the military threatened to not report for duty. Some members of the Israeli government, including the consul general of New York, have resigned in protest.
In his post this morning, Steve Berman provided context on the situation, saying, “This is as close as that nation has ever come to civil war, and in fact, it’s probably the strongest expression of the Israeli people short of actual violence, but violence—Jew on Jew, Israeli on Israeli—is so foul to Israelis that what we’ve seen is nothing short of a revolution.”
On the other hand, the judicial reform does have broad support on the right. Thousands of Israelis rallied in Jerusalem on Monday in support of reform. There have been months of opposition protests, but Monday’s rally was the first large demonstration in favor of reform.
The proposed reform seems deeply divisive, but polling from the Israel Democracy Institute shows that most Israelis oppose the initiative by a two-to-one margin. Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s coalition likely has the votes to force the reforms through against the will of the people.
At least, that was the case before last weekend. In the wake of the firing and protests, Netanyahu has already backed down. On Monday, Bibi temporarily suspended plans to vote on the reform package
“When it is possible to prevent a civil war through dialogue, I, as the prime minister, will take the time for dialogue,” Netanyahu said in a speech Monday reported by the Times of Israel.
But the opposition questioned whether the plan was dead or merely dormant.
“If the legislation really does stop, genuinely and totally, we are ready to start a genuine dialogue at the President’s Residence,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said. “If he tries anything, he’ll find hundreds of thousands of patriotic Israelis who are committed to fighting for our democracy standing opposite him, committed to be the fortification that protects the country and its democracy.”
And in fact, Netanyahu is indicating that the hiatus is only temporary. Current indications are that the reform bills will rise again in the Knesset’s summer session which begins on April 30.
As I said at the beginning, I’m no expert on Israeli politics. At the same time, if I was an Israeli, I’d be concerned too. Netanyahu, a popular war hero, has proved himself to be untrustworthy and then tries to push through an unpopular revamp of the judicial system that will (coincidentally I’m sure) give Bibi Netanyahu more power. That raises a lot of red flags.
In fact, any time politicians strip away checks and balances to give themselves more power, I get very suspicious.
To this American, it seems the best way to handle the core problem might be for the Israelis to write and enact a constitution. A balance of power between the parliament and the courts could be ironed out in no uncertain terms and it would lessen the danger of future power grabs by parliamentarians.
Of course, agreeing on a constitution is definitely easier said than done. I don’t think we could write ours today either.
NASHVILLE SCHOOL SHOOTING: I’m not going to go into detail on the Nashville school shooting except to say that it seems that we’ve become numb to these tragic events. I didn’t see much about the incident until late yesterday evening. That applies to both social media and news media.
I do think that it is obvious that we need to reform our gun laws, but we need to do so in a way that protects law-abiding gun owners and upholds the Constitution. Gun owners need to give a little and anti-gun activists need to stop giving oxygen to gun fetishists by talking about bans that will never happen.
My opinion remains that gun access by criminals and the mentally ill (confirmed by my look at a mass shooting database last June) is the root cause of both mass shootings and a lot of routine gun crime. That should be our focus, rather than turning law-abiding citizens into criminals.
If we can work toward resolving the problem of mass shootings, it will strengthen the right to keep and bear arms in the long run.
PROSTATE CANCER BLOG: A couple of people have encouraged me to share my experience with prostate cancer. To that end, I’ve started a new blog on Substack. You can subscribe for free here on the first post, and donations are accepted.
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