64-0! It should be an impressive vote in any country, especially in Israel, where a simple parliamentary majority has been elusive since the State was founded. This was not to be. The vote on July 24 marks the vertical social, political and, above all, ethical divide within Israel. Over thirty weeks of continuous protests proved ineffective. At least for now.
The popular protests did not prevent the narrow Right-religious government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, from passing the bill limiting the powers of the judiciary. The Knesset vote enables the Netanyahu government and its successors to prevent the Supreme Court from overturning controversial appointments, decisions and rules. This is the first step towards marginalising and minimising the role and influence of the judiciary.
Even seven decades after its founding, Israel is yet to have a written Constitution, and hence, the judiciary has been the custodian of individual and social rights. Its duties are to establish norms and call out the increasingly corrupt political elites, undo discriminatory social policies and above all, weed out public corruption. As happens to several democracies, corruption and popularity co-exist but on different planets, and the voters are influenced more by freebies than ethics.
The Knesset vote also signalled the inability of the opposition and the popular protests to influence the ruling coalition. Since 1948, the Right had a grievance that the State, its history, policies and trajectory were slanted in favour of the Left at the former’s cost. If the Labor Party dominated politics, socialism remained the character of the Israeli society and economy. The electoral victory of the Likud in 1977 began a shift in these areas, and the market economy has gradually taken root in the last two decades.
The religious parties—nationalist, orthodox and ultra-orthodox streams—were quick to capitalise on the social shifts towards the Right. Though the Labor Party briefly came to power, the religious parties closely aligned themselves with the Right. In return for economic benefits and religious concessions, the Likud-led Right has secured the unwavering support of the religious parties on other national policies, including its hardline position vis-à-vis the Palestinians. In short, since losing its monopoly in 1977, the Israeli Left could not secure the support of the critical segment of Israeli society—the religious parties—which generally control about a quarter of seats in the Knesset.
This Right-religious combination enables Netanyahu to override popular protests. Even international criticisms, especially from the Jewish community in the US, could not dilute his resolve. That not a single member of the ruling coalition chooses to vote against or abstain during the critical vote is a reminder to the opposition that the wall-to-wall alliance of the Right-religious combo is intact.
Popular protests did not disturb the consciousness of any Likud lawmaker. The opinion polls, which predicted a clear victory for the Opposition, also did not disturb the Right. The Right honestly and deeply believes that restraining the judiciary is necessary for steering the State along its ideological lines.
However, the July 24 setback also has a few silver lines. The opposition is heterogenous and cuts across political, social, economic, class, religious and ideological divisions. Civil disobedience has spread to the apolitical and professional military. The new and unprecedented rebellion, manifested by reserve soldiers not showing up for duty, will undermine Israel’s national security concerns and policies and embolden Israel’s adversaries. Already there are jubilations in Iran and Hizballah. However, Israelis are fighting for the kind of State they seek to secure. In short, security for whom, rather than security against whom.
Two, like the coalition, the Opposition is equally united. Despite efforts and inducements, no one defected, and they left the Knesset in unison when the crucial vote was taken. Once again, this is unprecedented. The proportional representation system of election leaves no scope for mass resignation of the lawmakers, as resigning members will be replaced by the next person in the list submitted at the time of the last Knesset election.
Three, Israel is highly integrated into the global economy and politics. International credit agencies have already started lowering their credit ratings due to the vertical political split on judicial reforms. While Israel has extracted itself from severe economic crises in the past, this time, the situation is different and self-inflicted. Should a downward economic forecast or meltdown happen, Israel will have a deeper social crisis.
Four, the popular protests since early January have been massive and peaceful. Even the largest protests of over 200,000 persons were free of violence. The popular anger at Netanyahu bulldozing his agenda did not spell into violence, an uncommon phenomenon in the ever-turbulent Middle East. The protestors rallying around the Israeli flag prevented Netanyahu or his allies from delegitimising the opposition or seeking extra-constitutional repressions.
The protests are reminders of the cardinal principle of Jewish history: law above everyone. Rebelling and opposition are integral to Jewish life, and enlightened Jewish history begins with Moses and the Ten Commandments, codifying moral and ethical values. For his narrow, personal and shortsighted interests, Netanyahu seeks to undermine this Jewish principle that everyone, including the kings, should be governed by the same public law. Still, even in this soul-wrenching moment, dissent is expressed following norms. Democracy is not about voting but fighting for one’s beliefs, every time and in every manner, but within the confines of the law. Fighting Netanyahu—who seeks to undermine the legal system—peacefully and within the confines of the law is the true irony of the Israeli protests.
P R Kumaraswamy
Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East