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Benjamin Netanyahu has been a political magician for years. Has Israel’s leader finally run out of tricks?

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To an outsider, Israeli politics might resemble a chaotic cycle. In the past five years alone, there have been five elections punctuated by short-lived regimes and ruptured alliances.

And always, somehow at the centre of it all, is Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. A man known among Israelis for his political cunning, and a knack for escaping even the tightest of binds.

Only two years ago, Mr Netanyahu’s long run in power appeared over. He faced electoral defeat as well as a corruption trial that briefly seemed like it might end his political career entirely.

“We’ll be back,” he bellowed to a raucous chamber in the Israeli parliament after his ouster.

And back he is, corruption trial or not.

His new government, elected late last year, is the most extreme right-wing coalition in Israel’s history, and has promised to expand Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, widely seen as illegal under international law.

But it’s the public response to one proposal in particular that’s plunged Israel into its worst upheaval in decades, culminating this week in enormous protests and a massive strike that threatened to paralyse the economy.

At its heart is a plan to remake the country’s justice system to give the government greater powers to appoint judges that sit on the Supreme Court.

Israel does not have a constitution, but the High Court can overturn legislation and government actions if they contravene what is known as ‘Basic Laws’.

The court has ruled on or blocked the government on some of the most contentious recent issues in Israel, including the division of state and religion, minority civil rights and the corruption investigation into Mr Netanyahu.

Under the proposed law, the parliament will be able to overturn the court’s decisions.

Mr Netanyahu claims it will restore the balance between elected lawmakers and unelected judges: “It is not the end of democracy, it is the strengthening of democracy.”

This has drawn intense fury from many sectors of Israeli society, triggering months of protests and criticism from even the government’s side of the political aisle.

Many Israelis see the plans as a direct attack on their already fragile democracy.

And the man they hold responsible is a name that’s loomed largest in Israeli politics since the 1990s: Benjamin Netanyahu.

The ‘tactics’ and principles behind the PM’s move

When public pressure exploded last Monday to reach a piercing climax, Mr Netanyahu announced he would suspend for now his government’s plans for the judicial overhaul.

The prime minister bought himself a window of time – one he will likely try to draw out in the hope the public backlash recedes, said Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli columnist who wrote a biography of Mr Netanyahu.

“Netanyahu is in a position now where he can’t make any good decisions,” he said.

“From his perspective, it’d be best to try and string it along for as long as possible.”

From here, the government has said a vote on the judicial overhaul will be delayed until the parliament sits following the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Negotiators from the government and opposition are now to try and hash out a way forward.

But the government appears to be uninterested in finding any meaningful compromise.

Some of its extreme right-wing members of cabinet have made it clear they’re unwilling to make any concessions.

“Netanyahu’s not going to give up the principles,” said Menachem Klein, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.

It will be very difficult to find common ground. From Netanyahu’s perspective, it’s purely tactics.”

How Netanyahu may have backed himself into a corner

In his ambitious gambit to try and overhaul the courts, the prime minister — who has always been two steps ahead of his opponents — might have made an uncommon misstep and backed himself into a corner, according to Mr Pfeffer.

“Netanyahu is in a lose-lose situation now,” he said.

“He is looking at a situation where he’s lost control of the country even though his government is still in power.”

Whether or not the judicial overhaul succeeds, the last few months of unrest triggered by the proposal have laid bare a deep ideological divide in Israeli society over the country’s very soul.

On the one extreme, there are those who support the judicial overhaul who want an Israel grounded in religious Jewish law. Critics argue this would further imperil the rights and lives of Palestinians, women and other minorities.

While on the other hand, there are those who oppose it and want to see Israel build its credentials as a liberal democracy with robust institutions trumping religious influence.

“We are in a cold civil war,” said Professor Klein.

“A civil war between two camps, two communities, two social structures.”

People power could play a role going forward

Although they share some similarities, Israel’s democracy differs widely from Australia’s.

For one, Israel has no constitution, making the High Court pivotal in its role as a check on government power and the encroachment of religious law.

Secondly, Israel oversees a brutal, decades-long military occupation over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and effectively blockades the Gaza strip.

Those Palestinians living under Israeli rule in the West Bank share none of the democratic rights enjoyed by citizens of Israel.

“It’s a very distorted democracy to say the least,” said Dr Ghassan Khatib, a lecturer at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank, and a former Palestinian politician.

While many Israelis might view the country’s High Court as an important bastion of democracy, Palestinians view the Israeli courts as a key instrument for their oppression.

“The Israeli judicial system has been a tool employed by Israel to appropriate land illegally, to deprive Palestinians of their rights, to discriminate against Palestinians inside Israel,” Dr Khatib said.

As Israelis and Palestinians await the outcome of the government’s negotiations, public anger in Israel is unlikely to evaporate entirely, even if protests for the time being have thinned.

The mass groundswell of public opposition in the streets of Israeli towns and cities has played an outsized role in deciding the outcome, according to Mr Pfeffer, whatever that may be.

“Quite frankly, the protest movement didn’t see themselves being so successful.”

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Article source: ABC | Middle East correspondent Tom Joyner in Jerusalem | 2.4.23

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000