• May 21, 2024

The prime minister has rejected the president’s offer amid growing unrest 2023

President Isaac Herzog addressed the public after weeks of meetings with lawmakers and legal experts to announce his alternative approach to the government’s controversial plan to restrict the High Court of Justice’s (HCJ) authority to strike down legislation. Herzog offered his own “People’s Framework” to both rebalance the branches of government in Israel and to safeguard human and civil rights, stating that civil war was “within reach” due to the vast fissures opened up in Israeli society by the government’s approach. But, Prime Minister Netanyahu quickly rejected the president’s compromise ideas, stating that they just maintained the status quo.

Thursday, in a joint news conference, the leaders of the major opposition parties reaffirmed their support for Herzog’s ideas as a basis for agreement (March 16). Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Islamic party Ra’am, which in 2021 became the first Arab party to enter an Israeli coalition government, stated that judicial independence was essential since civil rights were the top priority of Israel’s Arab minority. In addition, he pushed the administration to negotiate in accordance with the Herzog proposal.

Netanyahu backed the notion of convening opposition parties to reach a compromise on judicial reform while he was in Germany the same day. Given the persistent lack of trust between the coalition and the opposition, the likelihood of such a meeting occurring, let alone an agreement on a compromise package, is remote. Nonetheless, the administration is forging forward with its measures to limit the power of the HCJ. Yariv Levin, minister of justice, has stated that he expects the process to complete by the end of March.

The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, approved on Tuesday (March 14) a measure that would not only make it more difficult for the HCJ to challenge existing laws, but would also allow the government to incorporate a “override” language into any legislation, granting that law protection from HCJ challenge. The second and third readings of this measure, as well as the proposed legislation that would give the government power over the nomination of all judges, might be rushed through in the coming days, making them law as early as the following 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 Israeli protesters staged another “Day of Disruption” against what they perceive to be an assault on the foundation of Israeli democracy by the government. These midweek demonstrations are a novel addition to the now-regular weekend demonstrations. On Saturday, March 12, an estimated 300,000 Israelis demonstrated against the government’s intentions in Tel Aviv and other cities.

Even more worrisome for the administration is the recent trend of army and air force reservists threatening not to report for duty to protect a nation they think is veering toward tyranny. Dozens of air force reservists threatened to skip military service last week.

Then on Thursday (16 March), approximately 600 reserve officers and soldiers in the army’s intelligence and cyber warfare divisions said that they would not report for duty the following week. Their specific complaint pertained to a proposed law that would bar the courts or Knesset from removing an incompetent prime minister from office. Due to Israel’s small standing army, part-time reservists are important to the country’s defense. Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant issued a warning about a threat to national security. But, not just the government is anxious. Although expressing sympathy for the reservists’ motivations, opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz have made it clear that they must report for service regardless of the circumstances.

The coalition does not appear to be deterred by weekly huge demonstrations, threats by military reservists not to report for service, or warnings about the potential impact of government measures on Israel’s political and financial stability.

Is Netanyahu’s regional peace plan falling apart?
In July, while in the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu stated that, if re-elected as prime minister, he would seek to expand the current peace agreements between Israel and four Arab governments — the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan – to include Saudi Arabia. Yet, Saudi Arabia reached a deal to reestablish diplomatic relations with Israel’s archenemy Iran this week, two months into Netanyahu’s new stint as prime minister. Netanyahu’s political opponents were eager to characterize this event as a horrible catastrophe for Israel, for which Netanyahu’s coalition government was responsible.

Political opponents of Benjamin Netanyahu were eager to characterize the Saudi Arabia-Iran development as a disaster for Israel for which Netanyahu’s coalition government was responsible. (AFP photograph)
Political opponents of Benjamin Netanyahu were eager to characterize the Saudi Arabia-Iran development as a disaster for Israel for which Netanyahu’s coalition government was responsible. (AFP photograph)
Former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett described the reestablishment of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran as a “dangerous development” for Israel and a “resounding failure” for the Netanyahu administration. Without identifying Saudi Arabia, he stated that nations in the region have come to view Israel’s government as “non-functional” and “bent on self-destruction,” referring to the coalition’s present fixation with limiting the power of the Israeli court. The deal, according to opposition leader Yair Lapid, represented the breakdown of the “regional defense barriers” that Israel had attempted to construct against Iran. In addition, he criticized the administration for focusing on “judicial insanity” rather than forming partnerships against Iran.

The administration attempted to turn the tables on the opposition by asserting that discussions between Saudi Arabia and Iran began during the time of the Lapid-Bennett unity government from June 2021 to December 2022. Under the previous Netanyahu administration, former Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi had facilitated talks between Saudi and Iranian officials.

Although the Saudi decision to resolve the diplomatic split with Iran came as a surprise to Israel, it does not eliminate the possibility of a future peace accord with Israel. Due to the near-daily violence on the West Bank, which culminated in the ransacking of the Palestinian hamlet of Huwara by Israeli settlers after two Israelis were slain there on February 26, the regional atmosphere is now not favourable to any such accord.

Netanyahu faces an urgent threat to Israel’s ties with its key Arab and international partners due to his government’s apparent incapacity to handle the practically daily bloodshed on the West Bank and its promotion of national instability through the judicial overhaul. The prime minister was planned to visit the UAE in January, but the trip was apparently canceled because to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s contentious visit to the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa Complex in Jerusalem, which was fiercely criticized by the UAE at the time. Regional diplomats are quoted in the Israeli press as saying that Netanyahu’s planned visits to the United Arab Emirates and the United States are currently on hold due to frustration in Washington and Abu Dhabi over the government’s policy towards the Palestinians and the perception that Netanyahu is unable to control his more extreme ideological ministers.

Last week, the White House stated that no American official would meet with visiting Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, illustrative of the gap between the United States and the Netanyahu government. This followed Smotrich’s “repugnant” declaration that he would “eradicate” the town of Huwara. Afterwards, Smotrich stated that his comments were an emotional slip of the tongue. Nevertheless, over seventy US Jewish organizations, including the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), as well as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and US Chambers of Commerce, declined to meet with Smotrich during his US tour. Several hundred American Jews, Israeli ex-patriots, and pro-Palestinian protestors opposed the visit with street demonstrations.

UAE President Mohamed Bin Zayed on Thursday (March 16) ordered $3 million to be used to help rebuild Huwara and assist those whose homes were destroyed in the settler rampage, demonstrating the UAE’s displeasure with Smotrich’s comments and the Israeli government’s handling of the West Bank violence as a whole. On March 13, Israel’s Channel 12 claimed that the UAE has decided to stop the acquisition of Israeli defense systems for the same reasons. The story was disputed by the office of Netanyahu. The Israeli government’s ties with the United States and the United Arab Emirates are now at a low point.

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