Israel’s Constitutional Standoff

Israeli politics is rarely quiet, but recent events have taken the drama and volubility to another level. The country has faced 11 weeks of protests against the make-up of Israel’s governing coalition and reforms to the country’s judicial system. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets. Roads have been blocked. The Knesset and politicians’ homes in Jerusalem have been targeted. Israeli police have used mounted officers, stun grenades and water cannon to disperse demonstrators. 

With the protests showing no signs of abating, last night – ahead of his visit to London – the country’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a tone deaf television address. ‘We can’t let any disagreement, however fierce, endanger our joint future,’ Netanyahu told Israelis – before insisting he would press ahead with his legal shake-up through Israel’s unicameral Knesset next week. 

The judicial reforms Netanyahu wishes to implement would, according to those who oppose them, dramatically undermine the ability of the Supreme Court and other bodies to exercise legal oversight over the country’s government. Unsurprisingly, Netanyahu’s refusal to acknowledge these fears has done little to lower the temperature. Even on his trip to London, Netanyahu faced demonstrators in Whitehall. 

‘I say this evening that I believe that it is possible to bring reform that provides an answer to both sides: reform that will return the appropriate balance between the authorities’, the prime minister told viewers. ‘Because we have not come to run over and to trample. We come to balance and to fix.’  

Put simply, the critics of the new law, whose final shape is still in some doubt, do not believe him. Opposition leaders in parliament, including the former prime minister and leader of the opposition Yair Lapid, called Netanyahu’s olive branches ‘lies’. Lapid demanded that those within the prime minister’s party who favoured judicial independence join with the opposition and throw him out of office. That is unlikely to happen. But an almighty constitutional row is certain.   

Protest leaders condemned the address as a ‘bizarre show by a dictator in the making’. Civic peace, they insisted, would not return until the central demands of the bill were altered. ‘All calls for negotiations when the legislation continues are illegitimate’, protestors told the Haaretz newspaper. 

Just before Netanyahu’s address, the Israeli parliament passed a resolution disallowing the country’s attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, from deeming the prime minister unfit because of his legal travails.   

Israel is facing a number of different paths, all of which appear to end in a judicial or political crunch. The attorney general may seek, once again, to enforce Netanyahu’s recusal from judicial matters – something that would itself end up in court.  

If Netanyahu can force the bill through parliament, the president, Isaac Herzog, may not sign it. Herzog had issued his own plan of compromise earlier this month, which was resoundingly rejected by the government. If Herzog demurred, it would also likely end up in court.  

If the bill were to be passed in its current form, and the president were to sign it into law, legal challenges would fly in like darts aimed at a board. That, too, would also end up in court.  

It’s likely, that if the Supreme Court is invited to give its verdict on the legislation, judges would have some difficulties with legislation designed to decrease the power and independence of the constitutional court. If they do take issue with Netanyahu’s law, it would cause a stand-off of the sort we have not seen in Israel this century.  

If the court rejected the law, Netanyahu would likely attempt to stand on his authority and mandate as prime minister, or the sovereignty of the Knesset and his narrow majority, and stare down an institution he already wishes to challenge.  

This could soon become a situation where the prime minister demands, ‘how many votes has the court?’, or how many divisions. That would result in a profound crisis, which could make the current troubles on the streets of Israel look minor by comparison. 

Netanyahu is in Britain today on official business. He has faced heckles and protests every step of the way. Former Israeli prime ministers, including Ehud Olmert, had already advised that Britain not allow him to enter, because of his dicey legal status. The Foreign Office is generally above such things. But further confrontation within Israel itself seems inevitable. Its consequences are unknown, but they cannot be good. 

This piece was originally published in The Spectator.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s