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Fire and Chaos
Domestic pressures in Israel are extreme and the Coalition Government seems intent on fueling fire rather than looking for a way to douse it.
Even before last Tuesday’s horrific terror attack in the West Bank, Israel’s political cauldron was approaching full boil, again.
Within hours of confirmation that four Israelis had been murdered by two Hamas terrorists in a roadside gas station, groups of settlers attacked Nablus and several Arab towns and villages in the northern West Bank, torching whatever they could. Cars, homes, businesses, agricultural fields. The violence continued unabated, even during the sabbath.
In the midst of this most recent turmoil, Simcha Rothman, a Religious Zionist MK, spoke late last week with Israel Army radio. As Chair of the powerful Constitutional Committee of the Knesset, Rothman has been the coalition’s most public face of the judicial reform that has led to extreme polarization in the country.
During his radio interview, Rothman said, improbably, that it is inconsistent that “…when one protests against [judicial] reform you can call to take up arms and be violent but when you protest against a ‘trivial matter’ like four people being murdered then that’s not alright?”
I know. I, too, re-read that comment several times.
Rothman is actually comparing the settler reprisal violence and arson with the conduct of what he regards as the “leftists” who oppose the judicial reform he champions so fiercely.
1) The settler violence is extreme, with groups torching villages, cars and cultivated fields;
2) Judicial protesters have been peaceful with a small number of exceptions, and even then, the violence was on an incomparable scale; typically minor scrapes with police or pro-reform antagonists who show up at protests with the intent to provoke;
3) There have been rare, oblique references made by protesters or their supporters of the possibly of resorting to armed resistance in order to save the country. But that is a far cry from organized mass arson;
4) No one is applauding the murder of four innocents nor treating it as a “trivial matter.” Why Rothman chooses to resort to such deliberately inflammatory misrepresentations is highly irresponsible for a man in his position; and
5) During some of the earlier and largest protests – in Tel Aviv in particular – large bonfires were lit on the Ayalon highway, which was blocked to traffic for hours. For Rothman to pretend that campfires are in any way comparable to the torching of villages is absurd.
So. What is Rothman really talking about?
The RZ community has been at full fury since 2005, when all Jewish settlers were forced to evacuate their communities in the Gaza Strip under the terms of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the area. They have long felt that they were treated more harshly by the authorities than the anti-reform protesters are today.
They bristle at what they regard as being a two-tier approach to justice in Israel. The “elites”, they contend – which is basically anyone who opposes the coalition government – openly favor their own. They will not be cowed by the opposition. Au contraire. In recent days, Itamar Ben Gvir – the radical Minister of National Security – has been exhorting Israelis to “take more hilltops”. Translation: Establish new settlements wherever you can, no matter what the “authorities” say.
He - along with Smotrich and Rothman – have railed against the notion that there is any difference between their supporters and the non-violent protests opposing judicial reform.
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To them, lighting a bon-fire is as egregious a crime as setting ablaze civilian homes and property.
It took a few days but on Saturday the IDF and Shin Bet issued a statement condemning settler violence, unequivocally. Again, this enraged the RZ representatives, who dismissed such censure as misguided “equivalency”.
Today, Ben Gvir let loose at the state authorities for referring to the rampaging settlers as terrorists in the twitter thread (the first of which is reproduced, above).
And PM Netanyahu is reduced to being a powerless spectator, incapable of controlling or managing this chaotic inferno – which came into being to satiate his power lust. Even in his customary Sunday morning address at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting today, Netanyahu made no mention of the settler violence as being criminal or terrorist in nature. I mean…
Since late March, when the Knesset recessed for one month, there has been a mild release of pressure in Israeli society; a desperately needed exhale. People opposed to the sweeping judicial reform initiative allowed themselves to hope that, perhaps, the “talks” being mediated by President Isaac Herzog, will result in a compromise that no one liked but with which all could live.
But, when there is no genuine intention to concede any “ground”, then there is little chance of a negotiated outcome. And the governing coalition was clear from the outset that they intended to continue ramming the controversial judicial reform legislation down the gullet of the nation. They said it, repeatedly, gloating that if nothing came of the talks they would forge on, full bore.
Minister of Justice, Yariv Levin, Finance Minister and Religious Zionist leader Bezalel Smotrich, his deputy Simcha Rothman and others have been at the forefront of this effort throughout. In spite of the coalition’s agreement to participate in the negotiations, it was no more than a cynical ploy. The key coalition power brokers on this issue managed their constituencies by assuring them, repeatedly, that if the talks led nowhere they would pick up where they had paused. In other words, they’re really saying, “we’re indulging Netanyahu and Herzog for appearance’s sake, but we are highly unlikely to make any meaningful concessions”.
I, for one, believed Levin, Smotrich and Rothman. With time, their rhetoric has become fierier and the delivery surlier.
The zeal to “push ahead” is rooted in a decades-long festering sense of grievance on the part of various hard-right political factions, as well as religious fundamentalists. The one thing they all seem to have in common is a disdain for liberal democracy.*
Outside the coalition interests, of course, is “everyone else” – the numerical majority – which opposes the judicial reform in its current iteration. Included in this diverse population are many Likudniks, who are members of a party that has been a very accommodating tent, historically. But in recent years Netanyahu’s conduct has resulted in many of the more moderate Likud members defecting. What is left, for the most part, is not the cream of a once great political movement. Secular nationalists will never support the vision promoted by the extreme right-wing and fundamentalist cohort of Israeli society, which values religion and Jewish law over liberal democracy, the nation state and an independent judiciary.
The ”everyone else” tribe prefers liberal democracy to a heavily religious-based autocracy.
And so does PM Netanyahu, but he lacks the gravitas to manage his coalition partners.
OK. So, if the majority – including many Likudniks – prefers liberal democracy, then how did Israel create this mess?
The answer is in the lie that this government was elected and that the public supports and voted for extreme judicial and democratic reform.
Yariv Levin and Simcha Rothman have been working towards this moment for the last twenty years. They are intent on remaking Israel’s messy but functionally dysfunctional judicial and legislative system in a manner that many – myself included – consider to be too much, too fast. The proposed changes are extreme, leading many to believe that liberal democracy may well be the ultimate casualty.
Rothman has become the face of this reform – even more so than Minister of Justice, Yariv Levin. Because to many, he is the architect of the evisceration of an independent judiciary in Israel, which is the foundation of any healthy liberal democracy. Rothman, of course, sees things differently; that the current system is a closed clique controlled by a small, left-wing elite that promotes its own and dismisses the religious and right-wing constituencies.
As always, the truth is a little messier, but there is little disagreement on the fact that Israel’s judicial system and constitutional framework are long overdue for a “refresh.” But as the Rothman-Levin fiasco demonstrates, bulldozing controversial legislation through a democracy is not an effective approach.
“There was an election. And we won.”
Yes. There was an election. And yes, Likud received the largest share of the national vote and was successful in negotiating a governing coalition. But, here is where it becomes something less than democratic.
Likud goes behind closed doors to wheel and deal with each party and even factions within parties. Standard stuff in the proportional representation system. But what happened in this case was qualitatively different from past negotiations in one critical respect: Likud was so desperate to retain control of the government that it acceded to obscene demands from its “partners.” For the ultra orthodox it was money and a promise for a blanket exclusion from the IDF draft to be enshrined in a new Basic Law – Israel’s closest thing to a constitution.
For the Religious Zionist party it was expanded finance allocations and support for settlement expansion and the implementation of Rothman and Levin’s judicial overhaul plans.
For the Otzma Yehudit party it was a key appointment for Itamar Ben Gvir to lead the former Public Security Ministry – with significantly enhanced security-related powers and a new name. He sits as Minister of National Security.
Both Smotrich and Ben Gvir were also given powers that were certainly understood by Minister of Defence, Yoav Gallant, and much of the Israeli public – to encroach on the authority of the army high command. Too many cooks in that kitchen, for which precision and consistency are critical, was a recipe for unmitigated conflict and disaster.
And yet, Netanyahu agreed. He caved to demands that meant that the government would have to support rather extreme policies. And many of these changes were never put to the electorate to factor in to how they voted.
So, yes. You won. But then you went on to patch together a coalition that was committed to some massively controversial changes about which there had been no public discussion.
And this is where it all becomes something other than democratic.
No party – other than the Religious Zionists – campaigned on a platform of judicial reform. And yet, this policy has been the focus of a ferocious push by Justice Minister Levin and Rothman; to ram the extreme overhaul legislation through the Knesset.
These policies were never put before the public for consideration by Likud prior to the November, 2022 election. Levin may have been planning this blitz all along. But the draft legislation and scope of the planned reform were not available to the public.
Yet. The moment the cabinet was sworn in they let it be known that they were tabling in the Knesset, immediately, a comprehensive, complex draft of judicial reform legislation. They were ready.
Well, half ready. They had the documents but no one had spent any time strategizing from an issue management or communications perspective. With such sweeping change those plans are often more important than the legislation itself. And that’s when things became chaotic.
Bibi figured he’d do what he’s always done – and control his coalition with his Machiavellian brilliance. But he can’t. No one fears him any longer. He is seen to be too weak and vulnerable to impose order on his renegade coalition because he needs them more than they need him.
In the last week or so, when it became clear that President’s Herzog’s efforts had yielded nothing, Netanyahu’s allies have ratcheted up the rhetoric. Minister of Finance, Bezalel Smotrich, sneered that President Herzog as a committed leftist who cannot be trusted to mediate with integrity.
Minister of Justice, Yariv Levin, does not even pretend to care about what Netanyahu thinks of the issue and has taken to assuring Israelis that he, Levin, is more committed than ever to passing this legislation and quickly.
Minister of Justice, Yariv Levin, does not even pretend to care about what Netanyahu thinks of the issue and has taken to assuring Israelis that he, Yariv Levin, is more committed than ever to passing this legislation and quickly.
Bibi is not even acknowledged by Levin.
And Simcha Rothman, Levin’s henchman at Committee and in the Knesset, echoes the unfortunate tone of his party leader, Smotrich, when speaking of President Herzog. The contempt is unbridled and unmasked.
Rothman and Levin have vowed to revive the judicial reform bill this week and made clear they will neither pause nor stop this time.
Just as they said in early April, they intend to push through their reforms, no matter what.
*In brief, below, the political stances that underlie the various interests in the coalition:
1) Haredi ultra-orthodox leaders and communities support judicial reform and make no secret of their deep contempt for the Israeli Supreme Court. Bottom line is that the rabbinate rejects man-made nation-state law and adheres to halacha – the compendium of Jewish religious legal scholarship and decisions. They want an eviscerated Court and a legislature with unfettered power so that they need never be required to accept any degree of oversight from a non-religious state-run authority. One haredi MK has stated repeatedly that he would like to blow up the Supreme Court. This constituency is not nuanced in expressing its loathing of the secular state and its institutions;
2) Religious Zionists mix fundamentalism with extreme nationalism, which makes for a toxic brew. In so saying it is important to clarify that I do not take a position on the ultimate fate of the West Bank. But I do oppose strenuously the messianic, literalist zeal that the RZ party brings to the issue. Their rhetoric and tactics are destructive and extreme. This group, as well, remains enraged by the manner in which the Gush Katif settlements in the Gaza Strip were forcibly evacuated by the IDF and, as they allege, supported by the Israeli Supreme Court. I’ll leave discussion of the faux analogy of Gush Katif to the judicial overhaul legislation for another dispatch. But I will say that among the most strident and consistent “justifications” RZ’s offer for the judicial reforms is – Well, we were treated terribly in Gush Katif. We were arrested for demonstrating. We weren’t allowed to block highways. Look at what you leftists in Tel Aviv do every weekend with your demonstrations. And nothing happens to you.
They believe their mantras. What they do not raise is the fact that Bezalel Smotrich was arrested during the Gush Katif evacuations and reportedly had conspired with others to plant explosive devices on the Ayalon highway, which bisects Tel Aviv. Smotrich was in Shin Bet custody for some time and released with no further prosecution.
And, what they just overlook is the fact that however much they may loathe the state apparatus for having carried out the will of the Knesset in unilaterally withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, that issue has no parallel with the intentions of the current government;
3) Otzma Yehudit is basically a variation on the RZ camp. Both parties are personality driven. Otzma’s Kahanist leader, Itamar Ben Gvir, is a larger and louder personality than Smotrich but there really is little, if any, difference in their political views. In fact, they ran on a united ticket during the election in order to ensure that the right wing vote was maximized – in the event that one of their parties should fall below the electoral threshold. As soon as they could they split back into two parties, surprising no one.
4) Likud become a shadow of what it once was. Formerly a tent that accommodated diversity – ethnic and religious – it has devolved into a race to the bottom. More intelligent and refined Likudniks have jumped ship. The few remaining quality MKs and stalwarts are tethered by the legendary Likud loyalty. And a faint hope that perhaps they may redeem their once great political home.