Impasse to pause! Cornered by unprecedented and unexpected public outcry, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is forced to suspend his proposals to overhaul the judiciary temporarily. The spread and reach of the protests are unparalleled in Israel’s history. The opposition this time is largely apolitical and rallies around Israel’s soul as a thriving democracy and is widespread.
“Let my people go.” When Moses roared to Pharaoh Ramses II over four millennia ago, the Jewish prophet was challenging subjugation and seeking more humane relations with one another. The Ten Commandments he brought during the Exodus from Egypt were meant to codify human behaviour and make them accountable to divine laws. This time, ordinary Israelis are playing Moses, seeking accountability and demanding the political class live by the rules, norms and Jewish values.
However, rulers generally turn into Nero whenever their power and positions are challenged, and feel comfortable with courtiers and cronies who are enamoured by their ‘righteousness’. This time, Benjamin Netanyahu is playing the Roman emperor and still not fully ready to move away from the destructive path which angered thousands of ordinary citizens. Rather than being reined in by the judiciary, Netanyahu is seeking to make courts subservient to the executive, especially on core issues like the accountability of the elected officials.
For the ruling coalition, the corruption charges against Prime Minister Netanyahu and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri must be nullified at all costs. This antedated post-facto mechanism is critical for the survival of the 64-member coalition. Netanyahu seeks to ensure his stay in office through political control of judicial nominees, curbing judicial activism, and nullifying injunctions against indicted persons serving as cabinet ministers.
In some ways, it is easier to remove dictators from office. Seeing the masses in Tahrir Square, for example, the Egyptian military swiftly pushed out President Hosni Mubarak. Unfortunately, similar options do not exist in Israel. Will the Jerusalem-born Herzi Halevi, the chief of staff of Israel Defence Forces (IDF), walk up to Netanyahu, say, “Your time is up,” and escort the longest-serving prime minister of Israel out of his official residence in Balfour Street? Such dramatic moves are rare in democracies as both societies and states act at a snail’s pace. Israel is witnessing a struggle between the status quo and change in recent weeks. This time, the proposed judicial reforms are regressive and threaten the very soul of the Jewish state, hence the growing number of protests and protestors.
There is a catch. The demography of Jerusalem has transformed, especially since the late 1990s, and the city has a more religious population than ever before. Tel Aviv, on the contrary, continues to remain the habitat of a more diverse and liberal population. This is the main reason the coastal city has witnessed more protests than Jerusalem. Still, the city where all sovereign institutions are situated is also not trouble-free. In late February, an estimated 100,000 protesters gathered in Jerusalem around Knesset to voice their opposition to the proposed judicial reforms.
While the streets and highways of Israel are teeming with protesters of all hues and affiliations, the ruling coalition is strongly glued by the survival instinct. The prospect of them not getting the same seats in the next Knesset election is a major compulsion. Moreover, the coalition revolves around Netanyahu, the only leader of the Likud who still thrives on the TINA factor. Despite facing periodic dissent and challenges, he remained the party’s supreme leader ever since maverick Ariel Sharon bolted out of the Likud in 2005.
By systematically emasculating and out-manoeuvring other challengers and rivals, Netanyahu has established complete control over the party, which also enjoys greater internal discipline than the Labour party. For example, since the pre-state years, Likud and its predecessors only had four leaders—Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu—against over a dozen Labour leaders who followed founder Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.
The inability and refusal of Left and Centrist parties to co-opt at least some religious parties or their agendas only worked in favour of Netanyahu. In the current 64-member coalition, 32 seats—exactly half—are made up of religious parties. Hence, the political survival of Netanyahu and religious parties are intertwined.
Recently, there has also been growing opposition within the security establishment, with several reservists refusing to participate in their routine training. Though the numbers are smaller, this is a severe setback to the Israeli military, glorified as the ‘people’s army’. Reading these public sentiments, Defence Minister Yoav Galant on Saturday expressed his reservation over Netanyahu’s push to undermine the judiciary. The former Major General of IDF put Israel’s security over Netanyahu’s political survival.
As a consummate politician, Netanyahu could ignore, belittle and divert international condemnations, criticisms and caution. As his son Yair did, he and his dwindling supporters can even look for an international, mainly American, campaign against him. Netanyahu might even present the protest as an organised conspiracy to divert attention from Israel’s most serious threat: nuclear Iran. Public relations exercises often work internationally but rarely convince ordinary Israelis.
When the Ben-Gurion airport—the most inclusive avenue in today’s Israel—was shut down for a few hours, Netanyahu, known for political instinct and survival, recognised the writing on the wall. His decision to dismiss Defence Minister Galant on Saturday, within hours after the latter expressed his reservations over the reforms, only added fuel to the fire.
Far from consolidating his position, Netanyahu is now more vulnerable. Will the next defence minister be more loyal to him or the larger Israeli public, agitated over Netanyahu’s battle for survival? By all means, the temporary suspension of judicial reforms could unravel Netanyahu’s eventual downfall.
P R Kumaraswamy
Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East