Shirit Avitan Cohen
The Israeli Parliament on Wednesday witnessed a show that beggars belief: The Prime Minister and his closest minister allies, reduced to begging all morning to a member of Knesset, not long ago an anonymous Likud backbencher, to pull her candidacy to be appointed a member of the Judges’ Nomination Committee.
In contrast to the Likud faction, positioned politically to Netanyahu’s right, that demanded to appoint two coalition members to the committee (this is based on precedents – including the short-lived Netanyahu-Gantz government), the prime minister wanted to see the opposition candidate appointed, his preemptive attempt to prevent a resurgence of demonstrations across city squares, in reinvigorated and reinforced form. Over the past few days Netanyahu even managed to convince his Justice Minister, Yariv Levin, that this is would be the right thing to do – but then Tali Gottlieb enters the scene, stage right.
It isn’t clear to which degree Gottlieb’s actions demonstrate how weak Netanyahu has become on his home turf or just what an unusual player she is in this game. Be that as it may, the final result, in which the opposition’s candidate was elected while the ruling coalition, with all the might of its 64 voting hands, did not manage to elect any candidate, makes mincemeat of any preceding theses about this coalition.
Those who claimed, for many months now, that this aggressive government could implement any agenda it wanted were proven wrong twice – once when members of the coalition talked against the judicial reform in its first iteration, people like Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, MKs Yuli Edelstein, Dany Dannon and David Bitan, who made it clear to the prime minister that he doesn’t have a majority to make this plan come true; and again yesterday, when Netanyahu realized he has challengers from the other right, from the part of Likud that demands a reform, regardless of the cost.
All this is the backdrop to Netanyahu’s efforts to shepherd his coalition toward concessions in talks at the President’s House, since he understands he must have peace in Israel to face many great security and diplomatic challenges. So far, the prime minister succeeded in stopping rightwing pressure to elect two coalition candidates to the committee, to torpedo negotiations on the reform and then to unilaterally push it with all of the government’s might.
On the other side, the opposition yesterday showed that it is captive to the most radical leaders of the protests. Those who threatened with harsh consequences if MK Karine Elharrar won’t be elected to the committee as a representative of the opposition, didn’t stop to reconsider their course of action even after she was indeed nominated. They rushed to announce they are freezing the negotiations in the President’s House. Why? Only because the committee will not convene before until the coalition elects its representative.
At the end of the day, and despite the loss on his home court, Netanyahu could finally breathe a sigh of some relief yesterday, when the renewal of protests did not reach the magnitude their leaders threatened it would. The opposition’s refusal to continue negotiations toward a compromise exposed its problem with the protests’ leaders. In fact, neither Benny Gantz nor Yair Lapid have a mandate from the hard core of protesters to negotiate under the auspices of the president, not to mention to conceding anything to the coalition. The wider public, meanwhile, weary and wishing for some peace and quiet, would approve of concessions without batting an eyelid.
The problem is that these people sit at home in front of their TVs with zero influence, while others, twitting away or talking in television studios, are maneuvering the heads of the opposition as if it was they who were elected to represent the citizens who voted in the election.
The opposition’s refusal plays into the hands of the reform’s most steadfast supporters in the government and the Knesset. As far as they are concerned, once it is clear there is no serious intention to reach agreements in the President’s house, there is also no reason to keep up the charade. They can then plow ahead and push legislation of several parts of the reform in the Knesset. They are the elected government, they have the majority, and they have no reason to restrain themselves if there is no partner for discussions on the other side.
One must admit that even if the coalition forces Netanyahu to proceed along this course of action, the bills after being discussed in the Knesset’s committees are not similar to Levin’s original reform. They were softened, in parts cancelled, and it seems the fiercest disagreement remaining centers on the Judges’ Nominations Committee.
Again, the coalition is interested in producing a softer draft of this bill, one that will prevent a clear control by the government over the nomination of the next judges. At the same time, it will increase the power of the politicians from both sides of the political map in the committee.
From the coalition’s point of view, this will be another test in the series “expose the opposition’s lies”, if its heads object even to a watered down version of the bill. It will also be a hint of what might happen with the legislation if there are no concessions.
Shirit Avitan Cohen is a political commentator and the diplomatic correspondent for Israel Hayom