Analysis

Will Israel's Government Self-destruct Over a Bill That Would Cripple the High Court? It's Up to Netanyahu

Where does Netanyahu stand on the explosive legislation that would weaken the bedrock of Israeli democracy? Stay tuned

Orli Levi-Abekasis, the one-woman Knesset faction, is shaping up as the Pac-Woman of the next election campaign – gobbling up everything in her path.
Illustration: Amos Biderman

The upcoming month – which a former director of Military Intelligence has described as the most dangerous May Israel will have faced since May of 1967 – also bears the potential for political-coalition upheavals. In fact, many are wondering which will come first: an escalation of tensions along the borders or an implosion of the government that will generate a general election. Of course, it’s possible that neither will happen and that we will experience containment on all fronts.

On Monday, the Knesset returns from the spring break for three months of work. During that period the coalition will deal with two political land mines: legislation that would allow the Knesset to bypass or “override” High Court of Justice rulings, and the bill that would ease or end the draft for ultra-Orthodox men. Disputes over the latter almost led to the coalition’s dismantlement in the winter session.

But reports from that arena now indicate calm: Both Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) are signaling that they want a peaceful resolution. At least that is the view of a certain senior minister who heads another coalition party and who met with both sides, separately, this week. His impression, which may be partly wishful thinking, is that an agreement is achievable.

According to the minister, discussion will now revolve around the blueprint that a Defense Ministry committee will present quite soon. “The army isn’t wild about drafting Haredim [ultra-Orthodox men],” says the minister. “It can get along just as well without them. A quota will be set on which Litzman and his admor [teacher and rabbi] can agree.”

The other issue is more fraught. Efforts to come to an agreement regarding the relationship between the High Court, the Knesset and the government touch upon the most sensitive nerves of Israeli society. The left sees this as a struggle for the essence of democracy – with the High Court serving as the last barrier between civil rights and the rule of law, on the one hand, and the crude actions of the ruling authorities.

For the right wing, it’s a question of “governance”: The justices throw monkey wrenches into the government, pour sugar into its gas tank, prevent it from implementing policy, and trample the Knesset and make a mockery of its decisions. The justices need to be reined in. Put in their place. Who and what do they think they are?

Meanwhile, the country’s 39,000 asylum seekers, a drop in the bucket for Israel, have become the poster boys for the campaign of revenge the right wing has launched against the High Court. After the fence near the southern border was erected, completely preventing the entry of asylum seekers and labor migrants into Israel, the whole story of the refugees could have been resolved by means of cooperation between the relevant ministries, without abortive attempts to deport these people. For example, by dispersing the refugees across the country, in kibbutzim and moshavim that are desperate for working hands in agriculture.

But when the prime minister decides to appropriate an issue personally, due to the pressures and threats of his electoral base, an (unfunny) comedy of errors and failures and meaningless moves ensues, mixed with feverishly prepared and illusory notions, a pompous presentation of blueprints and panicky reversals. Before you know it, we’re back to square one. And the interior minister, who in any well-run country would be assigned to deal with the issue, is barely involved.

Precisely because of the critical importance Netanyahu attributes to the matter of the refugees, his lethargy and procrastination following the collapse of the “agreement” with the United Nations (according to which about half would have been resettled in Western countries and half allowed to remain in Israel) – less than five hours after it was announced – are incomprehensible. Someone was sent to Uganda to see whether that country would agree to take in a few thousand refugees, but Netanyahu should have come up with an alternative, an entire package. He should have worked around the clock, convened all the relevant ministers and produced a plan. What possessed him to wait for the state’s response to the High Court in order to make a joint announcement with Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas) about the next steps? After all, the state is him.

Apparently the premier had a few more important things to do during the last few weeks. Such as conniving secretly with his Sancho Panza, Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud), about how to take over the Independence Day-eve torch-lighting ceremony and humiliate Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud).

In the waning weeks of April, the torches were his beacon. Let’s see if May produces more heat than light.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Olivier Fitoussi

They shall overcome

On Sunday morning, Netanyahu and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) will meet with Supreme Court President Esther Hayut in her chambers. The executioners are coming to visit their intended victim. The conversation will be polite and correct: Shaked is chummy, Netanyahu is a gentleman and a charmer. But Hayut will not be thrown off-balance. She knows that the honorable institution she heads has become a plaything in the hands of the politicians. It’s her life’s mission, no less, to block these schemers, whose middle name is cynicism and who espouse only one value: the need to bend the rival into submission.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of Habayit Hayehudi, and Shaked are determined to exploit the issue of the asylum seekers to quash the independence of the Supreme Court, Israel’s most magnificent creation, and something that is tremendously esteemed around the world. Moreover, they discern an opportunity to gloat over the predicament of the prime minister; indeed, his distress is manifest in light of the dead end Israel has reached, due to its failed treatment of the matter of the African asylum seekers.

Bennett and Shaked would never wish for the High Court to be bulldozed into the earth. They’re ultra-polite and cultured. But the legislation they will submit for a vote in another 10 days is a constitutional D9. If they succeed in pulling it off, the High Court (the court of first instance) – which more than any other body symbolizes Israel’s essence as a state based on the rule of law and as a potent democracy – will be suppressed and become a dead letter.

With a wave of the hand, the pushing of a button, 61 MKs in coalitions that typically number around 70 MKs would be able to resuscitate laws that the High Court has struck down, usually because they would infringe on basic human rights. That’s the proposal of Bennett and Shaked.

And what does Netanyahu want? The indefatigable zigzag artist who has occupied the Prime Minister’s Bureau for the past nine years has already advocated every option: from determined defense of the Supreme Court’s independence, to support for the “British model,” which allows Parliament to ignore completely High Court rulings – which he retracted within two days. Now there’s no knowing where he stands. But we’ll soon find out.

If Netanyahu insists on the Bennett-style, sweeping formulation of the legislation, we will infer that he is out to dismantle the coalition and advance the next election to early September, before the attorney general decides whether to indict the premier in the criminal cases now under consideration.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon would not be able to swallow the 61-MK poison pill.

Kahlon holds frequent meetings with former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak. They’ve met 20 times since the leader of the Kulanu party took over at the treasury. Barak, the spearhead of the constitutional revolution, is Kahlon’s rabbi in such matters. Kahlon doesn’t want an election anytime soon, but is less fearful of one than he was several months ago, in light of recent encouraging reports concerning the cost of housing in the country.

Kahlon thinks that Netanyahu is aiming for a compromise. He finds it hard to believe that the prime minister, in his fraught legal situation, wants to make the Supreme Court and the entire judicial system his enemy. The prime minister would not have met with Barak, a week ago, or be going to see Hayut on Sunday, if he wanted to generate a Big Bang. What would be the compromise? It’s too soon to say. Kahlon wants 70 MKs instead of 61, echoing the position of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, and apparently of Barak as well.

Would he agree to compromise on a lower number? Say 68, or 65? At the moment, Kahlon doesn’t show signs of breaking. In any case, definitely not 61. That’s a joke.

Bennett, though, won’t countenance a number greater than 61, and even that is a compromise solution for him – less extreme than the British model, but enough to restore things to their proper course: namely, to allow the Knesset and the coalition to legislate and govern, while the court passes judgment within boundaries that would be demarcated for it. He follows with amusement Netanyahu’s flip-flops, his change of positions, his contradictory messages. “If I were the one who had gone to meet with Barak, the Bibists would kill me,” Bennett said this week, in an internal forum.

Bennett is in a combative mood. The struggle against Netanyahu imbues him with joie de vivre. From his point of view, this is a win-win battle. He will insist on what he wants, just as right-wing voters, including in Likud, expect of him. If the prime minister yields to him, he wins; if the prime minister goes for a compromise with a more diluted law, he wins again. The electorate will know who fought for them and who capitulated, once again, in the face of the High Court. Who was a man and who was a dishrag.

Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett at a conference of their Habayit Hayehudi party, 2017.
David Bachar

Orli’s choice

In 1980, a Japanese video-game designer invented the arcade game Pac-Man, which took the world by storm. A small circle with a gaping mouth that recalls a pizza with a slice taken out of it, moves swiftly through a maze, gobbles up dots and wins bonuses. Orli Levi-Abekasis, the one-woman Knesset faction, is shaping up as the Pac-Woman of the next election campaign – gobbling up everything in her path. There’s hardly a party that evades her reach: from Habayit Hayehudi to Likud, and from the center parties to Zionist Union and Meretz. All are paying the head tax. All are being swept by the tornado of the next election.

As of today, and as long as no new political comet flashes across the skies, Levi-Abekasis is the default vote of Israelis who are fed up with the regular galaxy. She’s attractive to the right and to the left, to the religious and the secular publics alike. The less that’s known about her, other than that she’s totally committed to a “social” agenda, the greater her drawing power seems to be.

A television poll this week gave her a projected eight seats in a future Knesset election. She’s been tracked by the pollsters for two months, and the trend is clear. She started with four seats and where she’ll stop nobody knows.

Three weeks ago, Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay received the results of an in-depth survey he commissioned about possible election results; the number of respondents exceeded 1,000, twice the usual number in such polls. There, too, Levi-Abekasis was predicted to muster eight seats. So the number is solid. We can take it that Netanyahu, too, has seen the same trend in the polls he commissions. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that all the party leaders are following Levi-Abekasis’ rise with interest and concern, not to say fear and trembling.

In Gabbay’s survey, Levi-Abekasis’ as-yet unnamed party would take almost two seats away from Zionist Union, 1.5 seats from Yesh Atid and three-quarters of a seat from Meretz. She reduces Likud by 1.5 seats, Habayit Hayehudi by half a seat, Kulanu by more than one seat, and takes a little away from Shas and a smidgeon from Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of her former patron, Avigdor Lieberman.

In other words, she draws half her strength from the three left-center parties: They are the worst hit. The other half derives from right-wing/right-center parties. Gabbay’s conclusion from this is that the prospect of his camp forming a coalition after the election has gone up in smoke. Four (virtual) seats have been ripped away from the bloc that was supposed to – with great effort and in difficult conditions – thwart the formation of a fifth Netanyahu government.

Gabbay is convinced that Levi-Abekasis will opt for the right wing. He has no doubt of that, because she’s from a right-wing home and because three years ago she was part of a right-wing party. She did speak firmly this week against Bennett’s legislation intended to override the High Court, and has in the past expressed clearly left-wing views, in an interview with Yedioth Aharonot. But Gabbay attributes that to her understanding that she needs to adopt a moderate posture so as not to alienate her most solid base of support. “She’s very smart,” he says.

Gabbay is frustrated to the depths of his being. These leftists never learn. It’s the same thing every time. Something new appears, something nice, innocuous – once it was the pensioners, now it’s Orli – and Labor voters abandon their home and flock in huge numbers to join the new trend. But at the moment of truth, the Labor leader is certain, when the parties recommend to the president the candidate who should be tapped to form the next government, she will say: Netanyahu. In this way, voters from the left will help him land a fifth term.

However, there are some who say that Netanyahu doesn’t see it that way: A high-ranking political source reported this week that the prime minister’s working assumption is that Levi-Abekasis will not recommend him to the president. If her party holds the balance of power – and in the polls she’s in that dream position – her preference will be to crown the candidate of the other camp, goes the thinking. And at the moment that is Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.

Orli is the daughter of David Levy – a veteran politico, a 2018 Israel Prize laureate, who could never abide Netanyahu. Since 1988, they have been bitter foes. Time and again Levy was disappointed by “antibibiotics,” as he referred to him in the good days. Time after time Levy was trampled by him, humiliated, pushed aside.

The last disappointment came three years ago, in the race for president. Levy hoped that Netanyahu would lead Likud to choose him as the its candidate. In that scenario he would have considered running. But Netanyahu looked for others; he went all the way to New York to see Elie Wiesel about the matter, anyone but “our David.”

Netanyahu is a highly suspicious person and even more of a paranoid. He always takes into account the worst possible scenario and prepares for it to the best of his ability. True, he can’t be sure that Levi-Abekasis is in his pocket. He knows that for three decades he’s been cursed around the Sabbath-eve table at the Levy home in Beit She’an. But there’s nothing much he can do about it, other than to hold off calling for an early election and let the new star twinkling in the political skies fade. A year from now, the Orli Levi-Abekasis brand will look different. Look what happened to Moshe Ya’alon.

Yinon Magal.
Ofer Vaknin

Magal redux?

Don’t hold your breath, but it’s possible that in the next election, whenever it’s held, we’ll once again see the former short-lived MK Yinon Magal as a candidate on the Habayit Hayehudi slate.

Actually, in the 2015 election, his place on the slate was guaranteed by Bennett. This time he’ll have to fight for it. A senior party figure predicted this week that Magal would have no trouble winning a spot in the top third of the candidates’ list in a primary. “The right wing adores him,” the source said. “He expresses its voice well, in his tweets and broadcasts. He left political life in an honorable way, once allegations of sexual harassment were raised about him. The case was closed for lack of guilt. No one disputes that he paid his debt, the full price.”

Bennett and Magal met a few days ago. They have remained friends, even though Bennett had condemned Magal’s behavior, which had been exposed by a former female employee of his. He told the former MK that he reserves the right to ask him to return.

Magal says he doesn’t rule out the possibility. The price, however, as he’s discovered first-hand, could be high. In any event, it’s not relevant now.

I asked Bennett what he thinks and he replies quickly: “Yinon and I are good friends. I would be happy, and more than happy, to have him at my side in the next election, and I told him so. But in the end it’s a decision he has to make.”

If that’s not an invitation, what is?