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How Netanyahu is deepening Israel’s fault lines

12 min read
How Netanyahu is deepening Israel’s fault lines

‘JUDICIAL COUP’ DELAYED — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced earlier today that he is delaying the government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary, a move that followed fierce protests and international pressure.

“Out of national responsibility, from a desire to prevent the nation from being torn apart, I am calling to suspend the legislation,” Netanyahu said. “When there is a possibility to prevent a civil war … I will give a time-out for negotiations.”

The concession came after the far-right Itamar Ben-Gvir, a member of Netanyahu’s coalition government, said he was open to delaying the vote. He reaffirmed his support for the legislation to pass after the Jewish Passover holiday in April, and said “no one will scare us.”

Workers at airlines, universities, hospitals and other sectors paralyzed much of the economy earlier today in a strike organized by Israel’s largest trade union. The protests kicked off after Netanyahu fired his Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday for calling on the government to halt the plan.

The Biden administration’s John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said “we remain deeply concerned by recent developments, which further underscore need in our view for compromise.”

The plan to reshape the judiciary would grant unprecedented power to Netanyahu, such as expanding his ability to hand-pick judges, including those presiding over a years-long corruption scandal the Israeli president is embroiled in.

To understand the implications of Netanyahu’s legal plan on Israel and its relationship with the United States, Nightly spoke with Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who served for more than two decades in the State Department focusing on Middle East negotiations. This interview has been edited.

What’s the impetus for Netanyahu’s planned judicial overhaul? What does it mean for the state of democracy in the country?

You know, we can look at this from the narrow focus of Netanyahu’s ongoing trial, going on now for three years for bribery, fraud, breach of trust … as the sole impetus for judicial reforms. That is to say, he needed a majority in the Knesset, in order to either delay or undermine the judiciary, immunize himself [or] pass some piece of legislation that would somehow free him from the legal process that he now has to abide by … It’s certainly possible, having been indicted three years ago … that when his trial concludes, he could be convicted. There’s precedent for this, [former Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert, went to jail for 16 months on one or two similar charges. So there’s no doubt that Netanyahu needs judicial reform for that specific purpose.

But the judicial reform issue is more complicated than that because it suits a number of other parties and individuals in this coalition … to say “judicial reform” is a euphemism is the understatement of the century. It is a judicial coup. Unlike the United States, which has three branches of government with shared and separated power, Israel only has two. They have an executive and legislature which is essentially merged, because you have a prime minister who formed a coalition [and] gets a majority.

The only way to contrast parliamentary power is through the judiciary. Netanyahu, ironically, has been a champion of [the] independent judiciary for most of his career [but] people who have dealt with him in the last several months say he is much more risk ready, much more desperate, [and] more determined to cling to power. And the judicial reform piece not only serves his own narrow political interests, it binds his coalition partners [so] it’s no coincidence that he came out of the gate fast in an effort to do it.

What explains the astonishing opposition to this measure? In other words, what made this such a lightning rod?

These protests are unprecedented in the history of the state of Israel. The fact that the General Trade Federation was prepared — and did go on strike — I don’t think has occurred, except in the British mandate period. This judicial reform touched nerves and escalated fears … [in] many different sectors and quarters of … a very divided Israeli polity. It brought together military reservists who are critically important for the functioning of military readiness, [and] it brought out Israel’s high tech entrepreneurs who feared that the startup nation was going to get shut down. This was a secular revolution. In as organized, coherent, sustained, and determined as I think the state has ever experienced. Not that there weren’t religious Israelis as part of the protests … All of this I think threatens Israel’s own image of itself, in a way that was universally perceived by millions of Israelis. [They might be asking] what’s the takeaway for us [to stop] democratic backsliding?

The Israeli government announced today that the overhaul will be delayed — not scrapped. What comes next?

I think what comes next is going to be a lot of internal fence-mending and handling by Netanyahu and his coalition, because he’s got to hold the government together. There were only three or four members of his own party, several of which publicly stated that he should essentially suspend the judicial reform package. And I think Netanyahu is going to go into a period of internal polity to make sure his coalition is sound … The prime minister delayed his speech some six or seven hours today, and Israeli journalists were reporting that Twitter and Telegram were filled with calls to right-wing organizations … to rally around the prime minister’s cause and come to Jerusalem, and there was great fear. And I think that just needs to be watched very carefully as to whether or not, in this two-month period, there aren’t going to be counter demonstrations.

If Netanyahu’s reforms pass, will this be a new source of strain between Israel and the U.S.? What effect does this have on Israel’s relationship with the Biden administration?

The U.S.-Israel relationship is special because it’s been driven for decades, by high coincidence of interests [and] a high coincidence of values. It is the interest value proposition that has accounted for the uniqueness and the resiliency of the relationship and the value proposition obviously plays into domestic politics. lliberalism and annexation, which I would argue are the two priorities for this government, directly assaults the interests and values that have bound these countries together.

And my own view [is] that when the image of Israel changes in the mind of America, not just in the minds of political elites, then the nature of the US-Israeli relationship will change … And for the first time, there is an open sort of breach on the values proposition. I mean, is Israel headed for Hungary? Because if it is, I think that’s going to be a serious blow to the special nature of this relationship.

Welcome to POLITICO Nightly. Reach out with news, tips and ideas at [email protected]. Or contact tonight’s author at [email protected] or on Twitter at @_AriHawkins.

— Three children, three adults killed in shooting: A female shooter wielding two “assault-style” rifles and a pistol killed three students and three adults at a private Christian school in Nashville today. The suspect also died after being shot by police following the violence at The Covenant School, a Presbyterian school for about 200 students from preschool through sixth grade. Police said the shooter was a 28-year-old woman from Nashville, after initially saying she appeared to be in her teens.

Elizabeth Warren kicks off her Senate reelection bid: Massachusetts’ senior senator made her third-term bid official in a two-plus-minute video posted to social media this morning. In it, Warren, a Democrat, touts her accomplishments — a corporate minimum tax, over-the-counter hearing aids and canceling student loan debt (which remains stalled in court) among them.

Justices poised to uphold federal ban on encouraging illegal immigration: A majority of the Supreme Court seemed unwilling today to strike down a federal ban on encouraging immigrants to remain in the U.S. illegally, despite arguments that the law violates the First Amendment. Most of the justices seemed to accept that the statute — which imposes up to five years in prison for encouraging or inducing an unlawful immigrant to remain in the U.S. — could be read to intrude on free-speech rights.

ETHICS SCRAPE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ groundwork for a potential presidential campaign has drawn a second ethics complaint, this time coming from the head of the Florida Democratic Party. The complaint centers on whether money DeSantis’ political committee spent on a three-day retreat at a Palm Beach resort hotel was an improper gift to the Republican governor. DeSantis in late February huddled with donors and Republican elected officials such as Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) at the Four Seasons at an event that was billed as a celebration of the “Florida blueprint.”

PALMETTO DREAMING — DeSantis and his allies are already laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign in South Carolina, moving to build a political operation and court local leaders in a state likely to be fiercely competitive in the 2024 GOP presidential primary, reports the State.

TRUMP’S THINK TANK — Vice reports on the budding partnership between Gov. Ron DeSantis and members of the Claremont Institute, the right-wing think tank that played a crucial role in normalizing former President Donald Trump’s ideas, shaping his administration and aiding his attempts to overturn his 2020 election loss.

STAREDOWN — Montenegro’s incumbent president faces an April 2 runoff in an election marked by a bitter divide between pro-Russian and pro-European blocs.

The tiny Balkan nation has long faced divisions between those who identify ethnically as Montenegrins, who are typically pro-Western, and Moscow-leaning Serbs who opposed the country’s independence from Serbia in 2006. The tension has complicated the country’s path toward EU accession since its bid in 2008.

About one-third of the country’s residents self-identify as Serbian, and twice as many worship under the politically powerful Serbian Orthodox Church. The church is closely affiliated with Serbia and Russia, which were accused of interfering in past elections, and disrupting the country’s progress on EU reforms, despite widespread support for accession in Montenegro.

Divisions in the country came to a head last Sunday, when President Milo Đukanović scored a plurality of the vote when polls closed, according to projections released from the non-governmental polling group, the Center for Monitoring and Research.

Đukanović’s Democratic Party of Socialists ruled for more than three decades, and supporters credit him with bringing the country closer to Europe by joining NATO in 2017, in defiance of Russia. But Montenegro has stalled on the reforms that once made it a frontrunner for accession, as the pro-Russian and pro-Serbian coalition, which ousted DPS from power in 2020 plunged into disarray and political deadlock.

The coalition included then-deputy Dritan Abazovic, who became prime minister in 2022 and quickly lost a vote of no confidence after signing an agreement that strengthened the influence of the Serbian Church. The deal was criticized by pro-Western politicians who accused parliament of remaining under the thumb of Russia-aligned Serbia, and stalling on progress toward EU accession.

Next week’s runoff has inflamed the country’s identity crisis. Đukanović is set to face Jakov Milatovic, a former economy minister, who is projected to finish in second. Milatovic leads the opposition party Europe Now! with a wide coalition, including pro-Serbian and pro-Russian backers. The party gained popularity by railing against corruption in the DPS and its links to organized crime.

While candidates from both leading parties expressed support for joining the EU, Europe Now!, remains highly fragmented when it comes to issues of Serbian and Montenegrin identity, and regional analysts question the sincerity of the party’s EU aspirations.

To peel back the curtain on the cultural dispute and Montenegro’s path toward EU accession, Nightly’s Ari Hawkins spoke to Abazovic, the outgoing prime minister, who has governed on an interim basis since the no confidence vote in August of 2022. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Montenegro is a NATO member and an EU candidate country. What barriers remain to EU accession?

Montenegro is in full membership of NATO and our main foreign policy goal is to be as soon as possible, a member of the EU. After some, let’s say, issues with rule of law, I think we’ve made a strong positive impact in the last two years, especially when fighting against corruption and organized crime with new methodology [which was key] to move forward in the integration process.

Of course, at the end of the day, [EU accession] will be a political decision, but I really believe that what’s happened after the aggression of the Russian Federation in Ukraine, the EU has paid more attention to the countries which want to join the EU. And Montenegro, a frontrunner, can definitely be a positive example for other countries. I think that the role of Montenegro is also to show that everything is possible and that Western Balkan countries need to be part of the bigger European community.

What do you say to critics who said the agreement that preceded [the vote of no confidence] was a sign the Serbian Orthodox Church was wielding too much political influence? Or even disrupted progress toward joining the European Union?

When we have open questions, you have the frustration of one group or one organization, and they are using that for, let’s say, a political fight. But if you solve the problem, this is the way you will reduce the political influence. [The Serbian Church] doesn’t have the interest anymore like before to be involved and [wield] power in political life … In Montenegro, we definitely have a political consensus on joining the EU, so for me, it’s not credible when someone says some groups or organizations are stopping [EU entry], it’s not true. We need to find [a way] to be better in the decision making process and finish our part of the job.

Can you explain how the Serbian and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church exercise cultural and political power in Montenegro? Why have protests recently erupted between the countries pro European and pro Russian blocks?

The question [of the two churches] has been open for a long, long time, and my government decided to finish this question. That was to make a general agreement with the [Serbian] church, which was attacked by the opposition as not something which is in correlation with the interest of the state … I tried to convince the people at that moment that after we finish this [church dispute], everything will be much better than before and this has happened … We need to have some kind of political courage and political vision. We [can’t] just put our problems under the table and say that they are not existing in one moment, [because] they will come up. It’s much better to put everything – the social and political problems – on the table, and fix the problem … People have the right to have every kind of freedom, including religious freedom, and this is not always connected with [their] political views.

MYSTERY DEATH — On Feb. 28, 2023, the U.S. Treasury in their daily report of government financial transactions noted a $7 billion payment in the “estate and gift” taxes section. That’s exponentially higher than a usual day, and it’s the highest since 2005. According to a Treasury Spokesperson, it’s also not a reporting error. The $7 billion payment suggests an estate or gift of around $17.5 billion. But perusing through death notices turns up no death of anyone with such a fortune around that day. So where’s that money from? There are multiple potential explanations, including the possibility that Forbes, and the rest of us, could have missed a billionaire living in our midst. Tim Fernholz reports for Quartz.

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