Ever since Justice Minister Yariv Levin introduced his controversial constitutional and judicial reforms in Israel at the beginning of January this year, hundreds of articles have been published that have formed a narrative that ignores the deeper roots of the reform process.
The existing dominant narrative is that Israel is in danger of losing its democratic character turning it into a “dictatorship,” and that Levin and his associates are committing a coupe d’etat.
Before delving into the roots of Levin’s reform plan, it seems sensible to take a closer look at the slogans used by opponents.
The reforms would threaten democracy in Israel and turn the Jewish state into a “dictatorship” or even a “fascist state,” they say.
When we now look at reality, we see that these slogans are false and try to obscure the real motive behind the protest movement.
Levin’s reforms do not threaten democracy, but will strengthen it. This was explained by, among others, Professor Eugene Kontorovich, a renowned expert in the field of Israeli and international law, and by Professor of Law Avi Bell, who wrote that “Israel’s Supreme Court has become uniquely juristocratic and unbound by any clear rules.” Bell also wrote that Israel’s Supreme Court has possessed power “unprecedented in any other modern democracy.”
Since the mid-1990s, the power of Israel’s legislative apparatus has been eroded by the judiciary, in particular by the Supreme Court.
Decisions made by the democratic government in Israel have been overturned time and time again by the court, and not only on legal grounds.
Lapid’s obscured agenda
Yair Lapid, the current opposition leader and now one of the staunchest opponents of the reform plan, said in 2016 that these reforms were necessary…
Here’s what Lapid said at the time:
“It’s not right in my opinion that everything is judicial…. That the Supreme Court changes the order of the world by using the ‘reasonableness’ test (referring to appointments made by the Government). It’s not right in my opinion that one authority should put itself above the others (a reference to the Supreme Court).”
This clearly, among other things, shows that Lapid and those with him have a different agenda, which is dominated by blind hatred for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the dream that by organizing mass demonstrations and other forms of ‘resistance,’ the results of the last election on November 1, 2022, can still be undone.
The slogans that Israel is on its way to becoming a dictatorship and that the government is committing a coup d’etat are equally absurd and false.
How can a bill supported by the democratically elected majority of a parliament turn a country into a dictatorship, and how can a democratically elected government commit a coup d’etat?
These arguments have nothing to do with Levin’s reform plan, but everything to do with the fear on the left that now there is a right-wing government that includes only religious parties, besides the secular Likud party, and that Israel will turn into a theocratic dictatorship akin to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This was also reflected in a demonstration on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan street last week where one could see a parade of highly organized demonstrators dressed in identical costumes from the TV series The Handmaids Tale.
The intent was clearly to show that this government will turn Israel into a theocratic dictatorship that will oppress women and other minorities.
It is obvious that the organizers of the demonstrations and other forms of resistance are driven by motives other than mere opposition to the proposed reform of Israel’s judicial system.
The overwhelmingly secular left-leaning protesters share fears that the reform is the start of a process that will ultimately sideline the left-wing elite that has always dominated Israeli politics.
That fear was expressed by Guy Rolnik, founder of media outlet The Marker, during the latest demonstration in Tel Aviv.
“I have never been afraid as I was in the days after the government took over the messianic plan of the Kohelet Forum to eliminate democracy,” Rolnik told the Tel Aviv crowds.
Golnik was referring to Moshe Koppel and other experts of the Kohelet Forum who were the architects of Levin’s judicial reform and were certainly not driven by a “messianic vision.”
Koppel, the founding chairman of Israel’s most influential think tank Kohelet, said during an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week that he also suffered from anxiety.
The professor wasn’t referring to fear of the end of democracy in Israel, but to the character assassination of himself and others committed by a large part of the Israeli media and the organizers of the protests.
Koppel was also anxious about what could happen if the protests derail the reform process.
“Then the people who feel that they’re not represented by the court would be even further alienated and would feel like the whole political system is rigged,” Koppel said after he delved into the emotional roots of the current judicial reform process.
Emotional roots of the reform plan
Those roots were planted in the summer of 2005, when the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon implemented the so-called “disengagement plan.”
This was done with the support of the leftist camp in the Knesset, part of the Likud party, and with the approval of the Israeli Supreme Court.
The disengagement consisted of two components.
First was the full and unilateral withdrawal of the Israeli army (IDF) from Gaza.
Secondly was the forced eviction of all Jewish residents in Gaza and Homesh, a Jewish village in northern Samaria. This process left more than 10,000 Israelis homeless.
Homesh repeatedly made the news after the eviction as religious Jews tried to rebuild the village.
The IDF repeatedly undid that, but activists eventually succeeded in establishing a yeshiva on the remains of the destroyed community.
Supreme Court and disengagement
In the months leading up to the implementation of the disengagement plan, weekly demonstrations were also held and sporadically turned violent.
Activists were arrested and subjected to harsh and lengthy interrogations while being held in prolonged detention by Israel’s internal intelligence service, Shin Bet.
Some of the activists, among them minors, were detained for a long time without trial.
The Israeli Supreme Court subsequently rejected petitions against these Shin Bet practices and against the administrative detention of Jewish activists.
However, the court saw no reason to reject the disengagement plan itself on legal grounds, and thus cleared the way for the evacuation of the Jewish villages in Gaza (Gush Katif) and Homesh.
The anger and frustration among the hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Gaza, Judea and Samaria were enormous, and this also applied to a large part of the right-wing camp in Israel.
This was not just about the government of Ariel Sharon, who broke with the Likud party as a result of the disengagement, and subsequently founded the Kadima party with politicians from the right and left.
The anger also turned against the Supreme Court, which upheld every method used by the law enforcement system against disengagement opponents.
This was in stark contrast to the way the court often protected the rights of Palestinian Arabs.
The court was expected to apply the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty, adopted in 1992 and surreptitiously steered through the Knesset during a nightly vote.
This basic law (Israel has no constitution) was used numerous times by the court in favor of the Palestinian Arabs and against government decisions related to the presence of Jews in the three aforementioned areas.
The court and the system
Israeli journalist Shlomo Pyuterkovsky explained in an article for the Hebrew-language newspaper Makor Rishon on Jan. 17 that the entire system used to break the resistance (against the disengagement) was approved by the court.
“The same court that declared a decade earlier that the State of Israel had entered a new era of the constitutional revolution. An era of protection of human and civil rights,” Pyuterkovsky wrote.
“We didn’t expect the Supreme Court to stop the disengagement. We didn’t even expect it when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon trampled on every basic standard of fairness and democracy. That is the role of the Knesset. We expected honesty, morality, coherence, and the protection of the individual rights of the disengagement opponents.
“We expected the Supreme Court to stand with the weak whose rights were trampled on by a system that was entirely against them. We expected the court to be a beacon for the rule of law and justice, but we were fooled,” wrote the Makor Rishon journalist.
The eviction of Gush Katiff and Homesh became a national trauma not only because of the way it was carried out, but also because of the aftermath when the evacuated inhabitants of these villages were housed in hotel rooms and then in prefabricated houses.
Many of them were still living in these temporary homes five years after the disengagement. A large proportion of these Israelis were initially unable to find work and the compensation offered by the government was disproportionate compared to the damage done.
A number of ministers of the new Israeli government took part in the protests against the evictions.
Among them was Betzalel Smotrich who is now Minister of Finance, as well as Minister of Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria within the Defense Ministry.
The last ministry is new and has to do with the fact that Smotrich want to finally do something about the rights of the Jews living in Samaria and Judea, and about the status of these areas.
This also explains why a new bill was introduced to nullify part of the disengagement law. This concerns Homesh, which will most likely be legalized and by the time the new bill is passed, reforms to the judicial system in Israel will most likely already be in place.
The Supreme Court will then no longer be able to ‘intervene.’
Intellectual and emotional roots
The intellectual roots of judicial reform in Israel were planted in 1995 when then-Chief Justice Aharon Barak launched a judicial revolution with the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom in hand.
From that time on, the Supreme Court assumed more and more powers, and this was made possible by the make-up of the court, which in large part consisted of judges with a left-wing ideology, and by the composition of the Knesset committee that appointed the judges of the court.
The reform now provides for a change in the composition of this committee and for limiting the power of the Supreme Court.
However, the emotional roots of the reform introduced by Levin lie in the disengagement trauma.
There is a very strong feeling within the right-wing camp in Israel that the government will now finally correct the wrongs committed in the summer of 2005.
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