PM Netanyahu's Assault on Israeli Democracy Courts Disaster
And MK Simcha Rotman D-d-d-dresses down Ambassador Tom Nides
On Sunday, Religious Zionist MK, Simcha Rotman, chair of the Constitution, Justice and Law Committee of the Knesset, drew a lot of the wrong kind of attention to himself.
In a matter of weeks, the once obscure political-legal activist has become a central figure in the massive overhaul of Israel’s judicial system and, in the view of many, its democracy.
Rotman has quickly established a reputation for being gratuitously abrasive in committee, but, in fairness, this may be a style preference; perhaps what he considers to be effective communication. In recent days, Rotman has taken to publicly insulting the American Ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides. By all accounts a thoughtful and friendly diplomat, Nides also represents Israel’s most important ally. Using him as a dartboard is neither savvy nor likely to be persuasive.
Ambassador Nides seemed to have gotten under Rotman’s skin when he suggested in a recent interview that the government should “pump the brakes” on the harried judicial reform to allow time for proper, measured, all-party consultation. This quite reasonable suggestion has been endorsed by President Isaac Herzog, business leaders, present and former Governors of the Bank of Israel, leading economists, and then some. There exists a very solid, cross-partisan bloc of heightened concern for the continued vitality of liberal democracy in Israel and, by extension, its flourishing economy.
Rotman responded to the “pump the brakes” comment by publicly denigrating Nides. Call me overly polite, but in my view it is unseemly, in the extreme, for a man of Rotman’s stature and position to take low-level, public pot-shots at the American Ambassador to Israel. Rotman, of course, would likely take the view that it is undiplomatic, in the extreme, for an Ambassador to openly criticize the host nation on matters of domestic interest.
Except that this is Israel. And we’re talking about America.
Speaking on Israeli Army Radio shortly after Nides’ quip, Rotman asserted: “If you bring on [to this radio show] the American Ambassador and tell him: ‘Please explain to us reasonably why it’s so frightening for Israel’s elected officials to choose their judges like every other democracy in the world. He’d stammer.”
Put bluntly, Rotman is saying that Nides has no substantive reason to urge caution upon Israeli legislators.
And Rotman swaggers like this because, in his mind there can be no legitimate concern with the reform package to which he is so doggedly committed to stuffing down the gullet of the nation.
Law, particularly new legislation, and especially that which proposes to dramatically re-constitute the relationships of key democratic institutions and citizens, is a complex undertaking. It invariably requires compromise in order that it be regarded as having legitimacy in the eyes of all citizens.
Everything about the legal reform being championed by Rotman - the scope, the disregard for baseline democratic principles, the contempt for those who dare to express dissent – shows it to be more an exercise in rage and vindictiveness than any considered legal reform. This is about revenge – for so many historical issues that have nothing to do with law and everything to do with wounded pride.
What has taken 75 years to build may well be destroyed in a matter of months.
It is interesting that more than a few North Americans have written to me in recent months suggesting that perhaps it would be best to just batten down the hatches and refrain from expressing criticism of the justice reform publicly. What they seem to not understand is that these “reforms” have such extreme implications for Israel and Jewish life broadly that silence simply is not an option.
Alan Feld, a fellow former Torontonian who has lived in Israel for more than 30 years (and is among a small number of new immigrants who pioneered the massive industry of foreign investment in Israeli tech) has always kept his own counsel when it came to matters unrelated to business. He is possibly the least likely civil activist. Ever. But this brilliant, measured man takes umbrage at any suggestion that we keep our heads down and refrain from criticizing the government so as not to encourage the already robust anti-Israeli industry.
“You can’t be silent when the government is going to make a mess,” Feld stated, matter-of-factly, in conversation with STLV on Monday evening. “This is going to cause all of us huge damage. You’ve got to stand up and say this stuff.”
And, so, he did.
A lawyer-turned-investment fund manager, Feld has thought about these issues. A lot. He worries about the chasm between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, about a democracy with no checks and balances, about the degradation of the Israeli justice system internationally – which could have severe consequences for the military as well as civilian endeavors. He worries about living in a society in which any group of 61 legislators can alter fundamental rights and freedoms.
He also vigorously rejects the notion that opposition to this justice reform legislation is at all partisan in nature. “I don’t see this as an issue of whether you are on the right or the left. You don’t want any government to be free of checks and balances. I wouldn’t want a left-wing government to have absolute control. It’s not like any other democracy.”
As STLV has covered extensively Israel lacks a written constitution, bill of rights or any legal foundation articulating the basic, organizing principles with which all law must conform. Reform addressing these significant shortcomings should be the focus of any legislative change, not the consolidation of all power in the majority of the Knesset, unfettered by any Senate or High Court review.
And so, Feld authored a letter dated February 13 which was signed by approximately 150 highly distinguished Israelis from all walks of life, with diverse partisan and religious affiliations but with one unified request of PM Benjamin Netanyahu.
The signatories urged the Prime Minister to adopt a more moderate approach to such significant, far-reaching reform and offered concrete suggestions for compromise. Very much in line with the recent proposal of President Herzog, the Feld letter endorses change and reform but in a manner that allows for popular engagement, which will, he is certain, result in a stronger system and nation. Fundamentally, he maintains, Israel needs a Bill of Rights and an elevation of the Declaration of Independence to the status of law.
“You negotiate goals. You come to some conclusion. It would actually be good for the system, not bad.”
On Tuesday night, Jewish Federations of North America dropped an extraordinary letter on PM Netanyahu and Opposition Leader, Yair Lapid, reinforcing the tone and substance of the comments already submitted by President Herzog, Alan Feld and other business and professional leaders. There has been a tsunami of written representations which, to date, have fallen on deaf ears. But things may be turning. Late Wednesday, Amir Yaron, Governor of the Bank of Israel, reportedly convened an exceptional, impromptu meeting to discuss the impact of so many factors suddenly pressuring the economy. Escalating unrest in the West Bank, civil unrest in Israel and the reform of the justice system seems to have the market a little spooked, causing the shekel to drop to its lowest level against the US dollar since 2008.
Markets like transparency and stability. Perhaps these developments will give the government pause. One can only hope.
During his recent CNN interview with Jake Tapper, Netanyahu stated that he would be pleased to receive a “counter offer” to the legislation his government is rushing through the Knesset, but that he had, to that point, received nothing. He now has several serious proposals.
Regardless, his government, so far, has not signaled any intention of considering modifications to their plan, which appears to have been etched in stone. They say they’ll “consult” but will not slow down the process by a minute. They dismiss any concerns regarding the undermining of democracy or consequential harm to the economy as being fatuous, leftist, elitist griping.
In response to Feld’s very serious proposal a form letter was sent by the Prime Minister’s Office:
“Thank you very much. We appreciate your letter.”
Ambassador Nides is no simpleton. But more importantly, he and the government in Washington D.C. are all that stands between the UN Security Council bashing Israel to a pulp.
Even if Amb. Nides was offside in his remarks – which I do not concede - Rotman must take the high road and critique and respond to our key ally with professionalism, thoughtful argument and the dignity befitting his office. Because he now represents all of Israel, not just a narrow constituency of Religious Zionist partisans.
Following Rotman’s tough-guy talk, Ministers Chikli and Smotrich piled on with equally sharp attacks on Nides, essentially directing him to butt out of internal Israeli matters.
Where, you ask, is the Prime Minister?
PM Netanyahu has done nothing to manage the intensifying acrimony other than to announce at the outset of the weekly Sunday morning cabinet meeting that all was well and that Israel’s “dear friends” should rest assured that democracy is robust and shall remain so.
Again, on Monday, in an address to the plenary of the Jerusalem meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, the Prime Minister dismissed any concerns regarding Israeli democracy and reiterated his commitment to support the passage of the reform package into law as speedily as possible.
Rotman’s slapdown of Nides was also sloppy, focusing – as all members of this government prefer to – on the judicial selection process. Whereas that is important it is just one aspect of a massive reform that threatens all aspects of Israeli democracy. (The fact that the proposed judicial selection process mirrors somewhat the prevalent process in America does not commend it, automatically, as something to be copied.) Furthermore, many Israelis – myself included – are hyper-focused on the “override clause”, which will allow a bare minimum of MKs to bring in any darn law they please.
There is no constitution. No Bill of Rights. No upper legislative chamber. And there will be an eviscerated Supreme Court. Meaning, in short, that the Knesset will be the sole institution in the democracy with the power to make or strike down laws. A single chamber controlled by the slimmest majority is not a democracy and, even if it is, for now, it won’t be for long.
As the representative of Israel’s most important ally, Ambassador Nides has a duty to comment as he did. As a citizen, so do I. As does Alan Feld and all the signatories to his letter. And anyone else who damn well pleases.
So many Israelis are disbelieving. Kind of in shock.
Bibi, after all, is brilliant. He is sophisticated. He understands the importance of an independent judiciary and checks and balances on an elected legislature. He knows well that the current justice reform proposals eradicate any and all checks and balances, leaving all legislative and appeal power in the hands of 61 MKs at any given time. To a person, everyone I ask holds onto a shred of hope that somehow, the longest serving Israeli prime minister nicknamed “The Magician” - will pull yet another rabbit out of his hat.
When I put the question to Alan Feld – what do you think Bibi will do? He paused.
“I have no idea. I just hope he realizes that he’s gone way too far. He’s got to pull back. And he’s got to say – you know what? Let’s try to reach a compromise.”
In this alternate reality, Netanyahu would lead. He would tell the nation that we must find a way to come to an understanding and compromise that provides for the constitutional protection of fundamental freedoms. That we must address Supreme Court reform in a spirit of collaboration, recognizing that the independence and integrity of our justice system is critical for our continued success as a nation. And that we must find a way to manage our rancor, whether it be partisan or racial.
But that is not what Netanyahu is doing or saying. Regrettably, he is supporting this mad power grab, pretending that it’s all no big deal.
I hear over and over that Bibi is likely panicked, not having anticipated the vigor and stamina of popular resistance to this mauling of the judiciary and, by extension, democracy in Israel.
It is increasingly apparent that Netanyahu may not be controlling things as he has done in the past. We all tend to attribute almost supernatural powers to Bibi – because he has proven himself to be such a masterful a politician over such an extended period of time.
To a person, Netanyahu is lauded by friends and foes for his brilliance, service to country and sophistication. It is inconceivable that he does not understand what a dangerous conundrum Israel will be in should this justice reform become law.
And yet, he is silent. Informed speculation is that the Minister of Justice, Yariv Levin, has Bibi over a barrel. In the recent Likud primaries, Levin took the second spot after Netanyahu. He is a super-hawk on justice reform and will make no accommodations on what he regards as being long-overdue legislation. Multiple reports state that he has threatened to quit the coalition should the Prime Minister get in the way of his steamroller. That would almost certainly bring down the government and leave Bibi to face his corruption trial without the buffer of the highest office in the land orchestrating a judicial revolution.
On Monday evening, after the initial tranche of new laws passed first reading in the Knesset, Levin was photographed in his seat, leaning back, gloating, alone. All that was missing was the scotch and cigar.
The morning after, on Tuesday, Rotman – in his way – tried to calm the mounting concern in Israel and abroad by appealing to critics to read the law.
Rotman may safely assume that many – if not all – of those who have criticized the law have also read it. And we would not stutter if invited to speak to it on Israel Army Radio.
Further edifying the discussion on Monday, long-time Likud attack dog, MK David (“Dudi”) Amsalem referred to the judicial imbroglio as a long-festering inter-ethnic war.
Warming things up on the Knesset floor just before the first slate of Bills was introduced for votes, Amsalem said that the debate was not about law but really about settling old scores. “Mizrachi Jews have had less power than Ashkenazi Jews. That’s the debate.”
I tend to agree. There is nothing high-minded about this “reform.” It’s a bar brawl.
And where, you ask, are the moderate Likud voices? Yuli Edelstein? Nir Barkat? Netanyahu?
Either they have little influence or lack the fortitude to take on their colleagues. Because in this governing coalition, there is much less interest in democracy than there appears to be in righting perceived historical wrongs. Vindictiveness. And Bibi seems unable to manage his coalition. He has stoked, primed and played them for decades. And now he desperately needs them to stay in power. And out of jail.
Seems “The Magician” is out of tricks.
Guilty. Wasn’t writing this stuff when Sharon was around. As for Lapid and the maritime boundaries….best I can say is that I can’t cover everything. If ur running a tally you’ll be disapppointed cuz I’m not playing to any partisan leanings. This issue is about the future of democracy in Israel. On another level from Lapid negotiating maritime rights. Agree to disagree.
Did you write a similar newsletter in response to Lapid's giving away water rights without negotiation 3 days before an election to the enemy in Lebanon? and what about "hitnatkut" when Israel left Gaza and turned the south into a war zone so Sharon could stay our of trouble? Just curious.