Israel: Weekly political review

David Powell
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Netanyahu defends judicial overhaul on “day of paralysis”

The now bi-weekly rallies against the coalition government’s plan to curb the powers of Israel’s High Court of Justice (HCJ) to strike down legislation continued in cities across the country. After nationwide demonstrations last weekend, protesters on Thursday (March 23) held a “day of paralysis” against what they regard as the coalition’s attack on the fundamentals of democracy. Police used water cannon and arrested dozens for blocking highways, principally in Tel Aviv, in what the opposition dubbed “political arrests.”

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Earlier in the week, the coalition had surprised everyone by reversing its previous commitment to force through its whole judicial legislative package before April 2 - the end of the current session of the Israeli parliament (Knesset). Their new proposal is to force through proposed changes to the system of appointing judges, but to leave other contentious measures - like making future legislation immune from judicial challenge - to the next parliamentary session. Under the new compromise proposal, the coalition would have the power to appoint the next two judges to the HCJ, while subsequent appointments would need the support of a judge and an opposition member of parliament. Previously, the coalition had insisted on complete control of the committee appointing judges.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz accused the government of “hypocrisy” for calling for dialogue while “carrying out the destruction of the justice system.” (File photo: Reuters)
National Unity party leader Benny Gantz accused the government of “hypocrisy” for calling for dialogue while “carrying out the destruction of the justice system.” (File photo: Reuters)

All the main opposition parties swiftly rejected the government’s compromise. National Unity party leader Benny Gantz accused the government of “hypocrisy” for calling for dialogue while “carrying out the destruction of the justice system.”

But in a speech on Thursday (March 23) night, Prime Minister Netanyahu defended his government’s judicial overhaul, saying he would push for the revised changes to the judicial selection process to be passed by the Knesset next week, arguing that “we don’t want a controlled court, we want a balanced court.” At the same time, he suggested that the government’s proposed “override” bill – allowing it to make future legislation immune from challenge by the HCJ - would be amended, requiring it to have more than a simple Knesset majority to be passed. He also promised an unspecified mechanism to protect individual rights.

The previous day, the Knesset had ratified a law that would allow a sitting prime minister to be removed from office only if three quarters of the cabinet declared him or her physically of psychologically unfit. Opponents of Netanyahu portrayed this as a ploy to shield him from being dismissed and having to face trial on corruption charges. Buoyed by this new legal protection, Netanyahu clearly felt able to address the judicial overhaul issue for the first time and to ignore warnings from the country’s attorney general, Gali Baharav Miara, that doing so would be deemed a conflict of interest.

But the immediate trigger for Netanyahu to come out in defence of the judicial overhaul programme appears to be an incipient revolt within his Likud party. Before the prime minister’s speech, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant had been widely expected to call publicly for a halt to the legislative process. This was likely in response to demands for such a halt by organisers of the “Brothers in Arms” movement – the protest group made up of increasing numbers of army and air force reservists threatening to refuse to turn up for military duty.

Though Netanyahu appears to have nipped in the bud a potential mutiny over the judicial overhaul, there are clearly concerns within his own party ranks that the country’s international reputation, and even the stability of its armed forces, could be put at risk by the headlong rush to curb the power of the HCJ.

Provocative govt rhetoric and legislation angers Israel’s allies

Last Sunday (March 19) a delegation of Israelis and Palestinians met, along with US, Jordanian and Egyptian officials, in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and agreed to implement steps to reduce tension, ahead of the start of Ramadan. Specifically, Israel agreed to halt any settlement expansion, or to legalise settlement outposts, for four months. It also agreed to stop arrest raids in northern West Bank cities like Jenin and Nablus, which have repeatedly sparked violence, if the Palestinian Authority assumed its responsibility for enforcing security there. This was a follow up meeting to one in Aqaba last month, which also aimed at calming tension, but which was overshadowed by the killing of two Israelis in Huwara and a subsequent settler rampage through the West Bank town.

Israeli troops stand guard at the scene of a shooting, in Huwara, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, March 19, 2023. (Stock photo: Reuters)
Israeli troops stand guard at the scene of a shooting, in Huwara, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, March 19, 2023. (Stock photo: Reuters)

On the same day as the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting, Bezalel Smotrich - the Israeli finance minister and leader of the religious nationalist party Religious Zionism – declared, during a visit to Paris, that there was no such thing as a Palestinian people or nation. His remarks brought swift condemnation from a range of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. The US State Department called them “offensive” and “dangerous,” and the French foreign ministry spokesperson warned that such “irresponsible” claims risked escalating rather than easing regional tensions. Smotrich had earlier caused outrage at home and abroad by calling for Huwara to be “wiped out,” after the violence there in late February.

Moreover, the fact that Smotrich made his remarks in Paris while standing in front of a map of Israel that included modern-day Jordan, angered Amman, which accused him of violating the 1994 peace treaty between the two countries. Israeli officials were forced to quickly reassure Amman of Israel’s commitment to the treaty.

While Smotrich appeared to again be going out of his way to insult Palestinians, the Knesset passed a law that threatens to undo commitments on settlement building made at the Sharm el-Sheikh and Aqaba meetings. On Tuesday (March 21) the Knesset repealed a 2005 law that ordered the evacuation of four West Bank settlements, coinciding with the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Repealing this law would lift the ban on Israelis returning to these former West Bank settlements. And supporters of such a move, backed by pro-settlement parties in the coalition government, have already tried to re-establish outposts in one of these areas, Homesh. This former settlement was built on private Palestinian land and the HCJ has therefore ruled against allowing any building there. But with the coalition government poised to curb the powers of the HCJ, there are fears that construction could resume at Homesh.

The US reacted to the repeal of the 2005 Evacuation Law by summoning the Israeli ambassador in Washington for the first time in a decade. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told Ambassador Mike Herzog of US concerns that this legislation, combined with Smotrich’s rhetoric, could inflame tension in the run up to Ramadan, Passover, and Easter. Prime Minister Netanyahu responded to the US warning with a statement saying the government had no intention of building “new communities” in these areas. But few will see this as any kind of guarantee, given the strong support for settlement expansion among hard-line ministers like Smotrich.

A senior UAE government official, Khaldun Al Mubarak, reportedly met both Netanyahu and Israeli President Herzog this week to warn that Israeli government actions and statements were straining bilateral relations and ran counter to the Abraham Accords – the 2020 normalisation agreements between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. Some reports quoted Al Mubarak as warning that the UAE was considering downgrading its diplomatic relations with Israel. With Netanyahu publicly pledged to extend the Abraham Accords to include Saudi Arabia, such a threat from the UAE to put the normalisation process into reverse would be a severe blow.

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