Judicial reform, religious laws and the middle class’ fear: what the far-right government has in store for Israel

From the fear of big tech companies and representatives to the fears of liberal elites, the far-right government of good old Netnayahu is facing major opponents. Netanyahu knows these people well – it is the same Ashkenazi elite which has always stood firmly against him. Now Bibi wants to change the rules of the game and push through a very controversial reform of the judiciary system. At the same time, he’s trying to buy some time in the foreign relations by slowly changing its position on the war in Ukraine, with some possibility of sending arms, including the Iron Dome missiles, on the horizon.

What’s going on in Israel? Cross-Border Talks talks to Ofer Neiman, left-wing activist associated with the movement of Boycott from Within.

Interview by Wojciech Albert Łobodziński.

You have commented that this government makes too many enemies. What do you mean by that?

This government is provoking enmity in a big part of the society – legal scholars, high tech engineers, we could call them a liberal elite. In other words, people who feel that Netanyahu is destroying this facade – I see it as a facade – that is called Israeli democracy. They think that Israel is a democratic state, and they really believe that he puts this democracy, but also their businesses and their private success, in peril.

There are many articles claiming that Israel will face an economic crisis because of what this government is doing. Some investors may stay away from the country and a political crisis might be followed by economical. It’s also about LGBT rights, which are very precious for the image of Israel abroad – and now some of the MPs from the Netanyahu coalition want to curb them.

But is there any threat, real threat for democratic check and balances?

There is the threat to independence and power of the judiciary system. Netanyahu wants to limit the powers of the Highest Court of Israel. And this is not rhetorics. He wants to create a possibility of overruling court decisions by a normal majority of 51% of the votes. This is very problematic, I know Poland had problems with the Law and Justice and its treatment of the judiciary system…

Indeed, but what you say sounds much more serious. Law and Justice has just put their loyal judges into the Constitutional Court and the High Court…

So here we have something more. If the reform is accepted, the power of the court would be limited at least during this government. For the liberal Jews it’s too much. Netanyahu would need 61 votes in the Knesset to override the court. And it’s not the only reform his coalition is proposing, there are various reforms that go in the same direction. They want to remake the whole system, make it really weak.

All these efforts are coordinated by a think tank called The Kohelet Policy Forum, which is funded by the American right. They have a completely American, republican, conservative agenda, opposing abortion rights, LGBT rights and social-economic welfare policies. But the more broader stance of this think tank is impossible to impose in Israel. The majority here rejects this agenda, with the exception of the hawkish occupation and apartheid policy Kohelet supports.

And how are the LGBT+ rights put in danger?

The danger is not coming from Netanyahu, but from his coalition members with their ‘anti-progressive’ agenda. They use the word progressive in a bad way. They say they want to reverse the LGBT rights and undo civil rights achievements of the Israeli state. People such as the Noam party, with MK Avi Maoz are the most vocal representative of the fundamentalist agenda.

The second thing that infuriates the liberal Jews is the discourse about the possibilty of imposing religious Jewish law – the Halacha – as the law in Israel. This is what the aforementioned Noam party and also Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich would love to do. The Halacha would function like the Sharia law functions in some of the Muslim countries. Of course, Smotrich hates hearing this, but this is a fact – and liberal Israelis are mentioning this similarity when protesting the whole idea.

However, we must note that Halacha is already part of Israeli law – in some very specific fields, such as family law. In Israel, if you’re officially Jewish, you can get married only through the traditional Jewish process, with rabbis involved, etc. Liberals strongly reject the attempts to broaden the scope of religious law within the state.

Is this something that might really happen, or just rhetorics? Frankly speaking, it is hard to imagine that the Israeli state could merge with religious rules that far.

Liberals believe that it’s something more than just narrative. When people dreaming about curbing the judiciary system are also saying that the state shall be more based on Halacha, it’s hard to say that it’s just a mere talk. It is perceived as a threat. It’s clear that it’s their agenda. Gradually they want to make society more conservative and religious.

When we see what the new government does with Palestinian flags, when we see how powerful is the position of Itamar Ben Gvir and his ministry, that’s why the people are afraid of this religious coalition threat, isn’t it?

I am not sure that they care about Palestinians. But when they see what they do in other dimensions of the Israeli state, how they change it, they might think that the people in charge are serious about what they are saying.

In any case, these are very powerful enemies for Netanyahu.

Sociologically speaking, Netanyahu has never been fully accepted by large parts of the Israeli establishment. He has been treated with mistrust by some senior army generals, military elite, security, high tech, Mossad. Those sectors are more secular, and tend to favor the opposition to Netanyahu – Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz or the Labour Party in the past. These are not the sectors of the society that vote for Netanyahu and his partners.

They dont trust Netanyahu and Netanyahu doesn’t trust them. These people are much more powerful than any element in his coalition.

Who, then, stood behind the huge demonstrations in Tel Aviv? 100 thousand people marching against a government move, it is a lot for Israel.

That’s exactly what I am talking about. It’s symbolic that we are talking about central Tel Awiw – it is the bourgeois, intellectual elite of the state and society which took part in demonstrations. Lawyers, engineers, doctors, actors, writers, singers and musicians went onto streets against Netanyahu.

These are very large demonstrations, it’s a show of force against Netanyahu. This is something that he cannot ignore, and the protests will go on.

The accusations of corruption drove a large protest movement against him already in the past, and he was removed thanks to them. Now, when Netanyahu is in power, he will have to fight for political survival once more, with much more eyes now focused on what’s going on in the court. It’s an interesting phenomenon that some of the people that took to the streets think now that Israel loses some of its credibility because of Netanyahu. I am not talking about some sort of imaginary credibility, I mean very serious credibility: the one used in economic discourse and credit ranking. Some liberal Israelis think their kids have no future here if he and his partners prevail.

Some people are afraid, especially those working in high tech, the strongest sector of the Israeli state. This is a big deal. Netanyahu has to deal with it. He portraits himself as Mr. Growth, Mr. Economy – now it might be the other way around. Especially when we take into account that the economy is founded on the people’s beliefs, this paranoia might really damage Israelis’ perception of their own economic situation.

Is the Israeli left gaining support thanks to the previously mentioned protests? Some articles published in +972 magazine claim that it might be so.

You know, when people get onto streets because of Netanyahu, there is some more space for people like us. There are some small blocs in the protest where people wave Palestinian, and not Israeli flags and chant about apartheid, with all left-wing agenda. But it’s still a minority, a very small minority.

Of course some people are more open to that. But in the long run this shows – and I believe there will be a long run effect – that it’s hard, or even impossible to separate the internal democratic agenda from the Palestinians and relation of the Israeli state to them. We have to observe that.

Most of the liberal Israelis care about their status and privilege, and they ignore the Palestinian dimension of the inner affairs. With Netanyahu in power, there is more space for talking about the apartheid than six months ago.

However, some of us are getting really strong messages from the organizers of the demonstrations that we are not welcome there. They see us exploiting the cause of the protests, and claim that Palestinian flags are not relevant.

I believe we will see more development here.

Yeah, I think we will observe more dissidents among young people thanks to the government of Netanyahu. There is some potential here, to work with young people. The collapse of Zionist left, Meretz party especially, has created a new space for us. We will see in the future where it goes. But I am hopeful that we will see some more fresh energy.

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