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Netanyahu’s Choices

Israel’s legislative crisis and hegemonic democracy

10 March 2023

Netanyahu has been facing unprecedented pressure since returning to power in December 2022. A legislative has swept his coalition government as it attempts to introduce a series of deeply divisive reforms that prompted thousands of Israelis to take to the streets in demonstration under the banner of ‘saving Israeli democracy.’ Protests have been ongoing since March 4th, with no signs of slowing down. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has used that same slogan to justify his party’s plans, further deepening Israeli’s social conflict and prompting a heated debate over who gets to define what democracy is in practice as well as in theory. 

The question, thus, does not centre on the possibility of Netanyahu’s government surviving; rather, it brings attention to the possible reasons behind Netanyahu’s decision to take on the opposition so early in his term without worrying about losing power. 

Conflict of Democracy

Left and right political camps have clashed not only in Israel but nearly in every democracy. Both sides carry inherently and ideologically unresolvable conflicts. For instance, they both disagree on how they view the role of representative democracy, its legislative and executive institutions, and how they come about through transparent voting systems. Political left and right also disagree on the judicial powers and its members, who often are nominated rather than elected. 

The left tends to advocate for expanding the powers of the judiciary institution and its independence from the executive and legislative institutions, for it represents the pinnacle of democracy and the rule of law. Yet political right, often branded as conservatives, believe that overpowering the judiciary undermines the principles of democracy and voting rights, for these judge members often are not elected by the people and are rather nominated. (This is especially the case of supreme court judges, employees of public prosecution bodies, and legal government advisers.) Instead, the judiciary institution could have powers over elected officials, thus breaching democracy’s key principle of the separation of powers. 

In the case of Netanyahu, he has wasted no time trying to curb the powers of Israel’s judiciary, saying that the protestor’s demands are a ‘glaring breach of democracy itself,’ claiming that those who lost elections mustn’t resort to incitement and instead voice their opinions through ballot boxes. What Netanyahu claims is that judiciary reforms aim at restoring the balance between the legislative and judiciary houses. But the opposition has warned that such reforms would be detrimental to Israel’s democracy.

Some opposition leaders, however, did agree with Netanyahu’s plans – albeit to a degree. Israel’s opposition leader, Yair Lapid, initially had agreed to discuss Netanyahu’s plans before backtracking after strong pressure from his party members. 

What are the reforms being suggested by Netanyahu? And what are the chances of Israel’s political factions reaching a middle ground, seeing the first bill has been presented to Knesset?

Amendments Proposal 

According to Israeli media, Netanyahu’s coalition party is proposing the following: 

1. To limit the Supreme Court’s powers to rule against the legislature and the executive, giving the Knesset the power to override Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority of 61 votes out of the 120-seat house. 

2. Take away the Supreme Court’s authority to review the legality of Israel’s Basic Laws. Also, the reforms aim to hand over police investigations to the Justice Minister instead of independent bodies. 

3. The reforms would also change how Supreme Court justices are selected, giving politicians decisive powers in appointing judges.

4. Banning food items containing yeast, which is forbidden during Passover according to Judaism. Opponents say the proposal would push Israel towards a system like Hungary and Poland in which the leader wields control over all major levers of power. Israeli opposition fears the new coalition with ultra-orthodox parties, including Shas and United Torah, also will pass bills that undermine Israeli secular laws in the future. They might start proposing the teaching of religious subjects in secular schools or cancelling recently approved facilities to issue kosher certification. Others go as far as claiming that religious parties would impose gender segregation in public beaches. Already underway are a set of proposals to exempt religious youth from serving in the Israeli army, despite a Supreme Court ruling against it. 

Possible Scenarios

For now, the battle between both sides could be resolved through political means. Netanyahu says he’s still open to negotiations despite his party passing the bill for first reading through the Knesset. He’s invited the opposition to the negotiating table ahead of the second and third rounds of voting end of March. 

But opposition continues to call for nationwide demonstrations against the coalition and has succeeded in getting support signatures of a wide range of economic, security, and political leaders rejecting the proposed reforms. For instance, many Israeli tech companies have been warned by the opposition that the proposed reforms could threaten investment opportunities as political leaders would be able to undermine a court ruling in any commercial disputes. 

The opposition also gathered signatures of nearly 500 security personnel, most of whom previously worked in intelligence services, on a petition demanding the suspension of the judicial reform plan, warning it would tear apart the social fabric of Israel and trigger a real war between secularists and religious factions. Finally, parties of the Israeli opposition have contacted US officials and members of Jewish lobbies in order to mobilise them in the battle against Netanyahu, arguing there’s a real possibility of deterioration of US-Israeli relations, especially as the Biden administration believes that Netanyahu’s plans do not serve the US strategy of empowering liberalism and democracy around the world in the face rising Chinese and Russian powers. Also, the opposition has remarked that Netanyahu’s plans will promote anti-democratic ideas, which Tel Aviv should not participate in, as well as that the US defending Israel and its practices in the occupied Palestinian territories has been based over many years on the fact that Israel ‘belongs to the democratic camp’ and must be protected in international forums.

The ongoing escalation between Israel and the Palestinians, which risks turning into full-on armed conflict, may impact how Netanyahu deals with the opposition. History has proven many times; however, that external threat to Israel often minimise internal conflict, even if temporarily. 

Netanyahu is expected to agree to sit with the opposition once his party withstood the ongoing street pressure. While remaining flexible on the mechanism and number of judges required to overturn proposed laws, he is highly unlikely, however, to give up reforms over the Supreme Court in its entirety. He may compromise on the number of judges required to overrule Knesset laws, and he’s well expected to agree on matching the number of judicially and politically elected members instead of a government majority. 

The future of these reforms depends on Netanyahu’s flexibility and ability to navigate the opposition’s demands, while meeting the demands of his ultra-orthodox coalition parties. Netanyahu might be able to find middle ground by introducing mechanics that could maintain the right to revert to religious courts in personal matters as well as religious legislations. He may maneuver introducing religious subjects under the banner of empowering Israeli children’s national and cultural rather than religious identity.

In conclusion, the complexity of the ongoing legislative crisis in Israel, alongside the conflict with Palestinians reaching a boiling point, may tip Israel into imploding, tipping the country into a highly unpredictable plane in the short run.