EVEN weeks after Israel’s election, the country has been plunged back into uncertainty, and politicians are once again locked in bitter conflict.
Coalition negotiations were collapsing when The AJN went to press, and Israelis were bracing themselves to find out whether they will be facing new elections. The Knesset had just passed the first reading of a bill to dissolve the Knesset and hold a new election on September 17 – at a cost to the Israeli public of nearly $200 million. There was also a small possibility that President Reuven Rivlin could give another party a chance to form a government before moving to elections.
The unexpected turn came after the Yisrael Beitenu party refused to join the coalition unless it promised to draft ultra-Orthodox men to the army – as two religious parties refused to join if there is a draft.
Yisrael Beitenu’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman, is positioning himself as the bulwark against “ultra-Orthodox extremism”, and is saying he is running the only party that is taking a strong stance against Charedi factions imposing religious standards on society. The issue of the draft is just one of several “symptoms” of Charedi extremism, he claimed.
Even if a compromise is found and a new government assembled, it will enter office amid unprecedented public anger.
Some 80,000 Israelis protested in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, in a demonstration assembled to “safeguard” Israeli democracy from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It reflected growing fury over Netanyahu’s purported plans to change Israeli law to secure immunity and save himself from a corruption trial. This, his critics say, has become his guiding principle in coalition-building attempts.
“We won’t let you be a dictator,” thundered Yair Lapid, joint head of the Blue and White party. “We will not allow it.”
Some protesters wore Turkish-style fez hats, claiming that Netanyahu is becoming like Turkey’s autocratic leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
David Nordell, a resident of Kadima, near Tel Aviv, said he doesn’t usually go to demonstrations but joined this one because the planned bill “goes against all the principles of equality before the law.” He told The AJN, “I am afraid that this would set a terrible example to other corrupt politicians, of which we already have plenty, and just lead us into a banana republic.”
Michal Cababia, a Blue and White party activist who helped to recruit protesters, said in an interview with The AJN, “It’s normally difficult to get people out to demonstrate so soon after an election as they are tired of politics but people were keen to come out for this because they are scared of what might happen here.”
Many Likud supporters say that the result of the April election was an embrace for Netanyahu. They say that the public clearly wants Netanyahu in office, and therefore it is legitimate for him to change the law to give himself immunity and carry on leading the country.
Netanyahu claims that he believes in a strong Supreme Court, but that Israel needs a change to restore balance between the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of the state – and such a change is legitimate.
But the protesters disagreed. “They always say that the people have spoken,” said Lapid. “We’re the people too. We’re also having our say. We won’t let him destroy the country. It’s our country too … You’re not above the law.”
Public opinion is against Netanyahu on the immunity issue, with the latest poll, conducted for Channel 13, indicating that 66 per cent of the public is against legislation that will keep him out of court. Another poll, by Walla, found 56 per cent of the public is opposed.
Some prominent allies and former allies of Netanyahu are joining the chorus against his plans. Dan Meridor, who served as a Likud politician and as justice minister under Netanyahu, said that immunity plans will change Israel for the worse. The current Likud legislator Gideon Saar, normally a Netanyahu ally, said that the legislation “offers zero benefit and causes maximum damage”.
The line-up of speakers underscored the broad alliance that opposes Netanyahu’s plan. There were voices from the centrist Blue and White party, and from the left-wing Labour and Meretz parties.
Arab parties also participated. Ayman Odeh, leader of Hadash, said, “We [the Arab citizens] alone can’t make the change, but without us you cannot. We need an alliance of brave people.” He stood by the Israeli flags on the stage, even though his party is non-Zionist, and admitted afterwards that the decision to participate “wasn’t simple” but seemed important.