PM rejects president’s compromise amid escalating protests
After weeks of consultations with politicians and legal experts, President Isaac Herzog addressed the nation on Wednesday (March 15) to unveil his alternative plan to the government’s contentious programme to curb the ability of the High Court of Justice (HCJ) to strike down legislation. Warning that civil war was “within touching distance”, given the deep divisions opened up in Israeli society by the government’s approach, Herzog presented his own “People’s Framework” to both rebalance the branches of government in Israel and to guarantee human and civil rights. Prime Minister Netanyahu lost little time in rejecting the president’s compromise proposals, however, arguing that they simply perpetuated the status quo.
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The heads of the main opposition parties declared support for Herzog’s proposals as basis for compromise at a joint press conference on Thursday (March 16). Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist party Ra’am – which in 2021 became the first Arab party to join an Israeli coalition government – said that, since civil liberties were the primary concern of Israel’s Arab minority, judicial independence was vital. And he urged the government to negotiate based on the Herzog plan.
On a visit to Germany the same day, Netanyahu supported the idea of meeting opposition parties to agree a consensus on judicial reform. But given the chronic lack of trust between the coalition and the opposition, the prospect of any such meeting taking place, let alone an agreement being reached on a compromise package, seems far-fetched. The government is, in any case, pressing full steam ahead with its legislation to curb the power of the HCJ. Justice Minister Yariv Levin has said he wants to process conclude by the end of March.
The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, voted on Tuesday (March 14) in favour of a bill that would not only make it harder for the HCJ to challenge existing laws, but would enable to the government to insert in any legislation a so-called “override” clause, giving that law immunity from challenge by the HCJ. The second and third readings of this bill - and of the draft law to give the government control of the appointment of all judges - could be pushed through in the days, making them law as early as next week.
As Netanyahu was assuring German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that Israel would remain a liberal democracy and that his government respected the independence of the judiciary, thousands of protesters in Israel staged another “Day of Disruption” against what they see as an attack by the government on the foundation of Israeli democracy. These midweek protests are a new addition to now regular mass weekend rallies. On Saturday (March 12) an estimated 300,000 Israelis held street protests and strikes in Tel Aviv and other cities against the government’s plans.
Even more worrying for the government is the new phenomenon of army and air force reservists threatening not to report for duty to defend a country they fear is lurching towards authoritarianism. Last week dozens of air force reservists threatened to stay away from military duty.
And on Thursday (March 16) over six hundred reservist officers and soldiers in the army’s intelligence and cyber warfare units said they would not show up for duty next week. Their specific grievance was draft legislation that would prevent the courts or the Knesset from removing an unfit prime minister from office. Israel has only a small standing army, so the role of part-time reservists is crucial to the country’s defence. Defence Minister Yoav Gallant warned of a threat to national security. But not only the government is worried. Opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, while expressing sympathy for the motives of the reservists, have made clear that reservists must show up for duty, come what may.
Neither the weekly mass protests, not threats by military reservists not to show up for duty, nor warnings of the likely effect of the government’s actions on Israel’s political and financial stability appear to be persuading the coalition to slow down, yet alone halt, its legislative programme.
Is Netanyahu’s regional peace strategy unravelling?
Benjamin Netanyahu declared last July, while in opposition, that, if he were to become prime minister again, he would try to extend the existing peace agreements between Israel and four Arab states – the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan - to include Saudi Arabia. But last week, two months into Netanyahu’s new tenure as prime minister, Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to restore diplomatic relations with Israel’s archenemy, Iran. Netanyahu’s political opponents were quick to portray this development as a disastrous debacle for Israel, for which Netanyahu’s coalition government was to blame.
The former prime minister, Naftali Bennett, called the restoration of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran a “dangerous development” for Israel and a “resounding failure” for the Netanyahu government. Without naming Saudi Arabia, he said that countries in the region had come to see Israel as having a “non-functional” government that was “focused on self-destruction,” a reference to the coalition’s current preoccupation with curbing the power of the Israeli judiciary. Opposition leader Yair Lapid said the agreement marked the collapse of the “regional defensive walls” Israel had tried to build against Iran. He also blamed the government for focusing on “judicial madness,” instead of building alliances against Iran.
The government tried to turn the tables on the opposition by claiming that talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran had begun during the tenure of the Lapid-Bennett unity government of June 2021-December 2022. In fact, meetings between Saudi and Iranian officials, brokered by former Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, had been taking place during the previous Netanyahu premiership.
The Saudi decision to end the diplomatic rift with Iran, while a shock for Israel, does not necessarily preclude an eventual peace agreement with Israel. But, with the almost daily violence on the West Bank, culminating in the ransacking by Israeli settlers of the Palestinian town of Huwara, after two Israelis were killed there on February 26, the regional climate is far from conducive for any such agreement now.
A more immediate problem for Netanyahu is that his government’s perceived inability to control the almost daily violence on the West Bank, and its provoking of national instability through the judicial overhaul, are jeopardising Israel’s relations with its major Arab and international allies. The prime minister had been scheduled to visit the UAE in January, but the trip was cancelled, reportedly over the controversial visit to the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa Compound in Jerusalem by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, which was strongly criticised by the UAE at the time. The Israeli press quotes regional diplomats saying Netanyahu’s planned visits to both the UAE and the US are currently on the back burner because of frustration in both Washington and Abu Dhabi over the government’s policy towards the Palestinians and a perception that Netanyahu is failing to control his more hard-line ideological ministers.
The rift between the US and the Netanyahu government was graphically illustrated this week when the White House announced that no US official would meet visiting Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. This followed Smotrich’s threat to “wipe out” the town of Huwara, a comment described as “repugnant.” Smotrich later claimed his remarks were an emotional slip of the tongue. But over seventy US Jewish organisations, including the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), refused to meet Smotrich during his US visit, as did both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the US Chambers of Commerce. Several hundred American Jews and Israeli ex-patriots as well as pro-Palestinian demonstrators held street protests against the visit.
In a demonstration of the UAE’s displeasure at Smotrich’s comments and to the Israeli government’s whole handling of the West Bank violence, UAE President Mohamed Bin Zayed on Thursday (March 16) ordered $3 million dollars to be used to help rebuild Huwara and assist those whose homes were destroyed in the settler rampage. On March 13, those same issues were quoted by Israel’s Channel 12 as the reason the UAE had reportedly decided to suspend the purchase of Israeli defence systems. The story was denied by Netanyahu’s office. But it is clear that the Israeli government’s relations with both the US and the UAE are currently at a low ebb.
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