When Both Sides are ‘Pro-Israel’
From Where I SitOpinion

When Both Sides are ‘Pro-Israel’

Israel's judicial "reform" crisis may be baffling to some Jewish Americans.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Dave Schechter
Dave Schechter

Israel’s political crisis has muddled further the meaning of the already ambiguous phrase “pro-Israel.”

Are you “pro-Israel” if you back the judicial “reform” laws making their way through the Knesset, engineered by Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and the most right-wing government in its 75-year history?

Or are you “pro-Israel” if you back the Israelis who — by the hundreds of thousands — have protested against those laws every weekend since mid-January, fearing a loss of democratic values in a nation that likes to remind the world that it is the only democracy in its neighborhood?

In simplified terms, the Knesset majority led by Benjamin Netanyahu is flexing its muscles to increase the authority of the parliament and prime minister, while diminishing that of the judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court. Israel, it should be noted, operates without a constitution, relying instead on a set of “basic laws.”

The controversial bills are being advanced by the duly elected government of Israel. Two have cleared the Knesset and become law. Five others are at various stages of the legislative process. Two more remain proposals, for now.

Jewish Americans who reflexively identify as “pro-Israel” may find all of this baffling.

Netanyahu has been prime minister for 16 years — in three stints, beginning in 1996 — long enough that a cult of familiarity may cause some to confuse “Bibi” with the nation itself.

In a sub-text, Netanyahu remains on trial in three corruption cases. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud, breach of trust, and bribery, and called the matter a politically motivated “witch hunt.” The opposition worries that he will use the new laws to shield himself from prosecution.

This storm was foreseen well before it arrived.

When Israelis went to the polls last November, for the fifth time in less than four years, approximately 70 percent of registered voters turned out. Under Israel’s convoluted election system, 10 parties met the threshold for seats in the 120-member Knesset, led by Netanyahu’s Likud with 32, barely half the number needed to form a governing majority.

Netanyahu found 32 more by inviting into a coalition parties representing rigorously observant religious Jews and ardent supporters of Israeli settlement in the territories commonly referred to as the West Bank, also known by the biblical names Judea and Samaria.

These folks did not enter the coalition out of good will but because their demands were met, whether for funding and independence in their communities or control of government ministries, notably those overseeing the police and the West Bank.

Now wielding power, they are exercising long-standing grudges against the judiciary, some dating to Israel’s founding in 1948.

The opposition contends that the laws are being shoved down the nation’s throat, without due consideration.

Military and intelligence officials have warned about potential security consequences. Already, thousands of reservists have pledged not to report for duty.

One-day strikes have forced hospitals to provide only emergency services and the health ministry worries about doctors emigrating. Economists warn that the repercussions “could cripple the country’s economy,” as entrepreneurs move money out of the “start-up nation.”

Though the largest anti-”reform” rallies, estimated at upwards of 200,000 people, have been in Tel Aviv — a weekly sea of blue-and-white flags — protests have extended from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat, from the Kineret region to Ashdod, from Haifa to Jerusalem, and elsewhere on the map.

Organizers claimed that on one weekend, 450,000 Israelis — roughly five percent of Israel’s 9.34 million population — the equivalent of nearly 17 million Americans — took part in nationwide protests.

While the anti-protests are framed around democratic values — and antipathy for Netanyahu — within those ranks is opposition to Israel’s control and settlement in territories captured in the 1967 war, as well as government subsidies and exemptions for ultra-religious communities.

Though less frequent, large rallies in support of the laws have drawn 150,000-plus outside the Knesset in Jerusalem and tens of thousands in Tel Aviv.

Both sides are fervently “pro-Israel” and consider themselves patriotic. They just have different priorities and visions for their nation’s future.

Given the public intensity of the argument, the scene at Jerusalem’s train station in July was remarkable — a descending escalator filled with flag-waving Israelis headed to Tel Aviv after an opposition rally in the capitol and an ascending escalator filled with flag-waving Israelis returning from a Tel Aviv rally in support of the laws.

“Suddenly, as the two sides headed in different directions, something beautiful happened: People began reaching out across the divider and shaking the hands of those passing on the opposite escalator. It was recognition that no matter what political path they follow, there is still a need for respect and recognition of what we all share,” the Jerusalem Post reported.

Americans unwilling — literally and figuratively — to reach across their own nation’s schism, might want to take note.

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