March 30, 2023
This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressed pause on a series of contentious judicial reforms that have triggered mass protests, condemnation from wide swaths of Israeli society, and expressions of concern from American leaders and Jewish organizations. Guest host Belle Yoeli, AJC's Chief Advocacy Officer, sits down with AJC’s Chief Policy and Political Affairs Officer Jason Isaacson to discuss what this means for the future of the Middle East’s only democracy.
*The views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the views or position of AJC.
- (0:40) Jason Isaacson
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- What to Know About Israel’s Judicial Reforms
- American Jewish Committee, Other Jewish Organizations Welcome Suspension of Israeli Judicial Overhaul Legislation
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Transcript of Interview with Jason Isaacson:
Manya Brachear Pashman:
This week, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressed pause on a series of contentious judicial reforms that have brought scores of Israelis to the streets in protest. My guest host, Belle Yoeli, AJC's Chief Advocacy Officer, sat down with Jason Isaacson, AJC’s Chief Policy and Political Affairs Officer to discuss what this means for the only democracy in the Middle East. Belle, the mic is yours.
Thank you Manya, and hello, People of the Pod listeners. It's great to be with you.
Jason, thanks for joining us.
Of course. Good to be with you, Belle.
I think it's fair to say that it's been anything but a dull time when it comes to Israel. And I think that applies to the past year, the past few months, and especially the past few days. I'm sure our listeners have a lot of questions and very privileged that we're going to be joined by Jason to help us to understand and analyze recent events. And I'm going to jump right in.
Jason, I want to begin by reviewing the sequence of events that led to the developments this week. The Israeli government has been pursuing legislation that would fundamentally change the way the judiciary operates, which has garnered a lot of attention. What has played out since Sunday that has led to the latest state of affairs?
Well, you'd have to go back a few days before Sunday, to the meeting that took place last Thursday, I believe it was, between the defense minister Yoav Gallant, and the Prime Minister, before the Prime Minister left on his most recent European trip. And in the course of that meeting, it was widely understood that Gallant was going to present to the Prime Minister what he has found in talking to senior officers of the military, hearing about the concerns that reservists were planning not to show up or were not showing up for duty. And that there was just a severe security threat that was being posed by the protests that have been sweeping the country for the last 12 and a half, 13 weeks. And that something had to be done. And what that something was, was that we really had to slow the train and pause this process of judicial reform.
He presented that argument to the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister discussed this with him. Apparently, won some kind of understanding that would not lead to Gallant leaving or making a speech that night. And then the Prime Minister took off for London. After that, two days go by and on Saturday night, the defense minister makes a speech, basically the speech that we all expected him to make last Thursday, saying just what I said about the effect that the judicial reform process, the rush to judicial reform, is having within the ranks of the military and the reserve of the military. And because of that, he is calling on the Prime Minister to halt the process, to pause the process of judicial reform.
Within 24 hours, the Prime Minister fires the defense minister, much to the shock of the entire Israeli military establishment and much of the political establishment. And there were then massive protests. So of course, we've seen in Israel for the last 13 weeks, hundreds of 1000s of Israelis out in the streets, people across the political spectrum, rising up and saying this judicial reform package does not serve the interests of Israeli democracy, it actually undermines Israeli democracy. It changes the whole process of checks and balances in Israel. But it was the firing of Gallant, who is widely popular, even though a figure with a deep, honorable military background, on the right in Israeli politics, but respected across the board, which I think one could say generally has been the tradition in Israel, for those who have served in high office in the military, regardless of their politics.
The fact that he was dismissed by the Prime Minister in what looked like a political act, a personal act rather than an act that would serve the interests of security and of the best interest of the country. That's the way it appeared to so many in Israel.
That's why 10s of 1000s of people immediately were out in the streets. And that's what led to the following morning, a whole series of events–calling of a general strike by the Histadrut, the Labor Federation. Israeli embassies and consulates around the world honoring that strike because they worked for the federal government and they're also part of the Union, Ben Gurion airport, stopping outgoing flights. Hospitals apparently no longer scheduling non-emergency treatment. So a range of effects rippling across the Israeli economy and society. At that point, it was clear that chaos is raining. This is not possible to continue on this track. And the Prime Minister, then after a series of discussions in the course of a very long day on Monday, made an announcement that he was putting a halt temporarily, to the judicial reform process that was racing through the legislature, through the Knesset until after Passover, after the Memorial Day, and Independence Day celebrations of Israel.
So we got about five weeks or so to see what can come next. There apparently is going to be a–not apparently, there is already a negotiating process that has just begun, under the auspices of President Herzog with a different political factions sitting around the table, at least trying to establish a framework in which to pursue negotiations to come up with a compromise formula on judicial reform.
Obviously, we don't have time right now to go into every different piece of reform that's being proposed there are resources on AJC's website explainers on just that if anyone's interested in more details, Obviously, they've been widely reported on. But I want to get to the heart of: what are the concerns when it comes to this legislation? Why are these so controversial? Because we've heard a lot in the reporting about these proposals that Israel's democracy is at risk, but at the same time that's being said, Israel's democracy is on full display. So break down for us with the key big picture issues here with what's being performed with changes to the judiciary.
Look, I think what what's at the heart of the issue is concern that minority rights could be trampled, that the the majority, which has now, the governing coalition has 64 seats in the Knesset, but we all remember that when the election took place in early November, it was a fairly small margin of actual votes that put this majority, put this coalition into power. That a narrow majority could trample on the rights of the minority in court cases in which a newly reconfigured Supreme Court with more justices chosen by this narrow majority in the Knesset, or the current Supreme Court, overwritten by a narrow majority in the Knesset, which is also part of the proposal, part of the proposed package put forward by the government. All of that could reduce minority rights. And I think that that's really at the core of this.
In addition to of course, maybe in the context of, larger divisions within Israeli society. We all know that Israel is a very complicated society with a significant secular majority and a growing religious minority that now has greater representation than ever before in the governing coalition. And I think that there are many in the majority, who are uncomfortable with that.
There are also differences of opinion, as you know, within Israeli society on what to do with the West Bank, with Palestinian rights, with the future of a possible Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which has been pushed farther and farther into the background, farther and farther into the future, if it ever happens that there was the creation of a Palestinian state.
But these fundamental questions that had been kicked down the road for so long, the secular religious divide the questions of what to do with millions of Palestinians who are living in the West Bank, and a growing community of Israelis who are living in the West Bank, as well, these are these are issues that often find themselves in court. And where that court comes down, and how the legislature responds to where that court comes down, are major issues that don't have to get addressed every day. But when they are addressed, people want an assurance that minority rights are respected, that the independent judiciary will be preserved, which by the way, is of huge importance to protecting Israel from international legal action and protecting Israelis from international legal repercussions, being able to point to the independence of the Israeli judiciary. So for all of these reasons, people take very seriously what's going on and the judicial reform proposals put forward by the governing coalition.
That's why hundreds of 1000s of Israelis have been out in the streets over these last weeks. And it's why it's so important that when you make such a huge change that has such impact on the future of Israel, and on the future of the Israeli people, that the process be slowed down, that a negotiation proceed to try to reach a compromise proposal. So that we can we can take this crisis, you know, off the front page, and move, frankly, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Israel, in an Israel that is united. And that has a common commitment, shared across the society, that it will protect minority rights, and that will protect the fundamental principles of democracy that we share with Israel in our country.
Thank you, Jason. I want to ask you now about how this process and everything that's playing out is impacting Israel's relations with the United States, the US-Israel relationship, and also Israel's relations in the region, beginning with the United States. And, of course, the latest exchange between Prime Minister Netanyahu and statement by President Biden I've just seen now also vice president Harris joining concerns about the situation in Israel. What are we seeing in terms of the Israel-US relationship? Should we be concerned? What's your analysis on what's happening there?
What we have seen, what we have heard from President Biden now from Vice President Harris, from Secretary of State Blinken, from others, of course, is concerning. But these statements expressing criticism of any efforts in Israel, to weaken the independence of the Israeli judiciary, to change the balance of power in a way that is rushed through the legislature and not arrived at through a deliberative, inclusive, careful process. These are the expressions of concern of a friend.
President Biden is a longtime friend of Israel for 40 plus years in politics, he has always stood by Israel, his relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu goes back that long, and with previous prime ministers as well, and other officials, he's visited many times. He is pointing out the importance of maintaining the spirit that unites the United States and Israel in so many ways. It is not just, this is an unusual relationship, it's a special relationship. It's a relationship. It's not just built on strategic interests. It's built on a very deep emotional bond, frankly, between the people of the United States and the people of Israel. It has a religious connection, it has a historic connection. It has a love of freedom and democracy that has been the animating principles of both of our countries for decades, or in the case, United States centuries. There is something unique in that relationship.
And from the point of view of this president who has a love affair with Israel going back for decades, that shared spirit of democracy is being threatened by this rush to change the system. That balances the rights of the judiciary and the rights of the elected legislature. And he has spoken about that with concern–with love of Israel, but with concern.
Now, of course, no sovereign state likes a lecture from another country, from a great power. And it's not surprising that you had a sharp reaction to the President's words from Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters. But I would, I would point you to the long record of support that the President has expressed, which is, by the way, the tradition of US presidents in this relationship that exists between the United States and Israel, and must always exist, and that AJC has played a role in maintaining.
But his words should be taken seriously. I do expect that once we get through this current crisis that there will be a visit of course by the Prime Minister. These are normal events in the life of our two countries. But right now, clearly, President Biden wanted to send a message, wanted to send a sharp message and make sure that it was heard clearly in Jerusalem.
And Jason, of course, we've spoken a lot. And we've been celebrating the Abraham Accords and thinking a lot here at AJC about what comes next and how we can expand upon that success. I would imagine that what's playing on Israel right now is potentially threatening to some of the relationships that have been built, and putting countries in the region and in sort of a precarious position in terms of their relationships with Israel. What are you hearing on that regard?
Well, you know, I think it's less of an issue, how Israel balances or re-balances the relationship between the judiciary and the legislative branch. These are issues that are really not very much on the radar screen of Israel's neighbors. What is on their radar screen, is the degree to which the Prime Minister– a figure, whom they have come to know over the years and developed relationships with and trust in. The degree to which he is in control, in control of his government and control of his society. The degree to which frankly, the high tech powerhouse of Israel remains on the course that it has been on, that has been such a beacon for the region and and a selling point of Israel in terms of the relationship that Israel's neighbors want to have with Israel, want to develop, want to nurture with Israel.
And apart from that, apart from this appearance of control, or lack of control and appearance of what's going on in the Israeli economy and the high tech sector. And we all know that's all been rattled by what's been going on, is the actions and the statements of members of the governing coalition who are on the radical edge of Israeli politics and who have said some, some very sharp things about about Israel's Arab neighbors, Israel’s Palestinian neighbors, the role of Israel going forward in the territories in settlement construction, in walking back the disengagement agreement through which Israel left Gaza and some settlements in the northern part of the West Bank.
Some very offensive statements that have been made, including by the finance minister, who said, there was no such thing as the Palestinian people. And he did make some other statements or appeared behind a map that seemed to express the belief that Israel and Jordan were all part of one contiguous territory. These are things that have rattled some of Israel's neighbors and have led to some denunciations of Israeli behavior.
Now, I don't believe that the Abraham Accords are in jeopardy, I don't believe that anyone's going to walk back from the strategic decisions that were made in 2020. To establish or in the case of Morocco reestablished diplomatic relations with Israel. What I do worry about is a cooling of these relationships at a lower trajectory of these relationships, which were soaring until just weeks ago. And AJC as you know, Belle, has been playing a role for many years in trying to open up these relations and open up civil society dialogue, we continue to do, we have a presence in Abu Dhabi, we are active across the region, we'll get back on that track.
And I believe that there are so many friends and potential friends that still exist in the Arab world for a closer relationship with Israel, a mutually beneficial relationship with Israel. But the news that's been coming from the street in Israel, and from all sorts of elements of Israeli society have upset Israel's neighbors. And we need to get past this, we need to come up with a compromise that will allow this to be driven off the front page. And frankly, the more extreme elements of the Israeli governing coalition need to be reined in. Whether it means walking around the Temple Mount, a very sensitive place for many of Israel's neighbors, or it means various statements that are made.
The prime minister said that he had his hands on the steering wheel, he was in control. As that is further demonstrated to Israel's neighbors, I expect that the situation will calm down, and we'll get back on the very significant upward trajectory that we've seen over the last two and a half years in the Abraham Accords process.
Jason, I'm encouraged by your optimism. And I just want to ask you one more question along the same lines. Obviously, this is a moment, this is a moment for the Israeli people. This is a moment for the Israeli government, and it's playing out and getting a lot of attention around the world. And of course, a lot of what I'll describe as Israel's enemies, or Israel's harshest critics, are in many cases monopolizing on this moment to say, everything that we've said about Israel is right, or this is the end of Israel's democracy. But as we've said, that's really not the case.
What are your words of wisdom to really explain what's happening in this moment, when there is so much political polarization in Israel, there are competing visions for the state, but at the same time, we're celebrating 75 years of the wonder that is Israel and all the good that it brings to the world.
How do we balance the hysteria and the concern of this moment, with optimism and what you were just talking about, that things will get back to normal, things will calm down, we will reach a compromise, we'll get there. What is the message that you really want to send about where things are going? And how we should be thinking about this going forward?
Can you imagine any other country in the region, maybe not just in the region, in which a significant portion of the population would be out on the streets to defend a governmental system, a balance of power between branches of government, in opposition to what the current elected government has put forward? Hundreds of 1000s of citizens parading through the streets, carrying the Israeli flag, no violence, no destruction of property. When they have shut down major highways, when they have surrounded the Prime Minister's house. They're dispersed. No one gets shot, people aren't being put to jail. The spirit of engagement in the political process, of making your voice heard, of getting out on the street because you're a patriot, because you believe in the country you believe in the ethics of the country, the ethic of the country.
And then, after weeks and weeks of this kind of citizen engagement, having a government that says, Okay, we hear you, we're going to take a pause, we're going to come up, we're going to see if we can find an acceptable compromise, even in that crazily diverse Israeli political system that we have. I think it's a remarkable piece of evidence, remarkable testament to the democratic spirit in Israel, the respect, the mutual respect that even people on different sides of the political spectrum have for each other and for the country, and for the processes that had built this country and kept it strong. Against all odds, against multiple challenges for 75 years.
I have great confidence that this democratic spirit will prevail. I believe that a compromise is within reach, could be found. It is not unreasonable that there be a reexamination of the judicial-legislative balance, I think that they'll be able to find that. And by the way, if they cannot find it, Israel is a democracy. It has elections. It has had five elections in four years, it could have a sixth election.
I have no doubt that the Israeli political spirit, which is a spirit of democracy, and a protection of human rights and protection of minority rights, will prevail, will get through this, and will go on for another 75, many more than another 75 years of this great miracle that is the state of Israel.
Jason, thank you so much for that. And thank you for sharing all of your thoughts and analysis with us.
I just want to make a plug to our listeners, that I think this conversation has shown you why more than ever before, it's important to show up and to engage on these issues. And I want to encourage all of you who have not yet registered to join us in Israel in June for AJC's Global Forum 2023 in Tel Aviv, June 11 through 14th, you can sign up by going to AJC.org/GlobalForum.
We hope to see you there, and to be with us as we engage in this very interesting time in Israel. Jason, thank you.
Thank you, Belle.