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To Save Democracy, the Israeli Left Must Cut the Hyperbole

עקיבא נוביק
Akiva Novick
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The swearing-in of the 25th Knesset, with Benjamin Netanyahu flanked by Arye Dery, left, and Bezalel Smotrich.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
עקיבא נוביק
Akiva Novick

“What’s your alternative?” Shimon Peres used to press colleagues on the right after Oslo. What’s your plan - to conquer Gaza? What do you propose? Your talk about stopping the left is all retroactive, there’s nothing proactive about it, he would challenge them.

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When it comes to the override clause and the attitude toward the justice system, the picture is reversed: The right is presenting detailed plans, while the left offers no proposals of its own. It only issues grim warnings about the end of democracy should the right get its wish.

Ask nearly any politician, and they’ll admit that the justice system has its flaws. That there are things that need fixing. That something is askew in the relations between the authorities in Israel. In fact, if you promise not to publish their answers, you’ll find that a large majority of MKs support the regularization – or even a shake-up – of the relationship between the Knesset and the High Court of Justice.

Aside from alarmism, what alternative is being proposed to combat the rot that repeatedly crops up in the justice system - from ridiculously light sentences for violent offenders, to the blackmail exerted upon subjects of investigation, to the twisted methods of the judicial selection committee? Whoever objects to the five-kilo sledgehammer being wielded by Yariv Levin needs to propose another instrument instead. A scalpel at the very least.

The dire warnings about the end of the country and the end of democracy just don’t sound credible enough. Especially when the camp issuing such warnings includes more than a few MKs who previously supported these moves and never really abandoned those positions. Some of them would have easily voted in favor of Netanyahu’s initiatives had they not quit Likud due to personal disillusionment with him. Matan Kahana once submitted a bill for a 61-MK override clause. Now that he’s a member of the opposing bloc, he considers the idea a recipe for catastrophe?

This is an important issue that calls for serious discussion. The system of balances in Israel’s democracy ought to be determined through dialogue among as many political parties as possible. Such a thing may not be possible, but perhaps it is. n August 2020, in was Benjamin Netanyahu who shot down the override clause proposed by Kahana and Ayelet Shaked. He and his then-partner Benny Gantz (those were the days), marshaled a majority of 71 opponents to the bill versus just five supporters. Today, Netanyahu is facing off against an empty net.

Not only does the left fail to offer any alternatives to the right’s proposals for reforming the justice system, but its approach also suffers from exaggeration, which ends up inducing an almost indifferent reaction. And, yes, I mean among the public that vacillates between the two camps – call it the soft right, or the soft center, or the soft whatever. Judicial reform doesn’t necessarily have to mean doing away with the High Court or completely eviscerating the system. By the same token, not every right-wing leader is a fascist bent on incitement and division. But this is how Netanyahu has been described in the past. As has Naftali Bennett. Ze’ev Elkin and Tzipi Hotovely were also given starring roles in very negative campaigns. And when Shaked made that (embarrassing) tongue-in-cheek video in 2019 touting a perfume called “Fascism,” she did so in response to being repeatedly tainted with that label.

Those who were so quick to use up the whole arsenal of warnings and labels against Netanyahu and Bennett now have nothing left to pull out of the hat when faced with the most nationalist MK since Meir Kahane. Itamar Ben-Gvir is not the same thing as Bennett or Elkin. He flirts with Jewish terror supporters and toys with the lines of public legitimacy. But in large parts of the right, Ben-Gvir elicits hardly more than a shrug. Even among many who were once completely appalled by him and what he represents. Does the barrage of doomsday warnings previously aimed at more moderate right-wing leaders have something to do with this?

This kind of hyperbole is a double-edged sword. Just ask Netanyahu, who used to refer to all the Arab MKs as terror supporters, and then, when he tried to create a hierarchy among them to suit his purposes, failed to assemble a government with them but paved the way for the public to accept the “government of change.” Just ask the chorus of Likud ministers who gleefully went on and on about Gantz the half-baked leftist who imperils the troops, only to go on and form a government with him and be forced to take back all that nonsense.

Apocalyptic, scorched-earth campaigns can work wonders for either side – until afterwards, when one finds that there is still a country to be run.

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