Israel media review

Order of (potential) magnitude: What the press is saying on November 13

A High Court demand that the state defend the constitutionality of a law underpinning the government’s coalition deal has some readying for new elections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Defense Minister Benny Gantz during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/Pool via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Defense Minister Benny Gantz during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/Pool via AP)

1. Nisi face: Apparently watching US election chaos and feeling nostalgic, Israelis may be slouching toward their own national poll. Or at least that’s how it looks in the press Friday, after the High Court demanded the government explain why the Basic Law amendment backing the coalition deal between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister/Defense Minister Benny Gantz should not be struck down in answer to a series of petitions, which is widely read as a possible preview of the court doing just that.

  • Per ToI’s Michael Bachner: “The court on Thursday issued an order to show cause requiring the defendants — the Knesset, the attorney general, the Likud and Blue and White parties, Netanyahu, Gantz and other coalition lawmakers — to explain why legislation that narrows the Knesset’s powers, including its authority to bring down the government, should be allowed. It also called into question parts of the legislation that demand that any further changes to that particular Basic Law be done only with a super-majority of 70 lawmakers out of the 120-member Knesset.”
  • He notes that the “surprise decision … is a rare hint by the High Court that it is considering nullifying an amendment to a Basic Law, and it drew outrage from right-wing politicians — including calls to disregard such a potential ruling — alongside praise from the left.”
  • “This is exactly what Netanyahu created the coalition crisis over the summer for — to pull together a High Court bypass law — if the judges decide to intervene in the alternate prime minister arrangement,” tweets Kan’s Yoav Krakovsky. “Blue and White almost agreed to give [it to him], but talks halted and they moved on to the budget crisis. One way or another, elections are here. Get your planners open.”
  • While some reports make it seem as if the court is mulling striking down the coalition deal itself, in fact it would only remove the quasi-contituional law propping up the deal. Should the court intervene following the order nisi, it will be entirely up to the members of the coalition to decide what they want to do — this then becomes a political, not a legal question. Gantz or Netanyahu or both can decide that, as agreed in their deal, they dismantle the government and go to elections immediately; or they can draw a new deal; or they can stick to the current one with mutual faith.
  • Many temper the potential explosiveness of the move with expectations that the court will shy from taking any such step.
  • “The announcement contains the potential for political and legal drama,” reports Channel 12. “However, it’s possible that at the end of the hearing, which will include nine judges, the petition will be rejected and there will be no change to the coalition deal.”
  • Haaretz reports that the judges decision to expand the bench to nine judges, the maximum, signals the importance the court is giving the case.
  • But it also adds that “The order to show cause is not necessarily an indication that the justices intend to repeal the amendment. At a hearing on the petitions last month, Chief Justice Esther Hayut expressed reservations over striking down the legislation, which as a basic law has constitutional status in Israel, in the absence of a formal constitution.”
  • Yedioth Ahronoth’s Tova Zimuki also expresses caution at reading too far into the court’s move: “This is indeed a warning light blinking yellow, but there’s nothing in it to say yet that the High Court intends to intervene in a large way or even cancel it,” she writes.

2. Bench coup: Not surprisingly, the outrage machine in Netanyahu’s camp gets ratcheted up to 11 by the hint of a scintilla of any court intervention.

  • Israel Hayom’s front page headline includes a huge quote calling the move by the court “a judicial coup.”
  • The paper’s columnist Haim Shine accuses the court of turning itself into an alternative government and leading an anti-law revolution.
  • “Israel, as far as I know, is the only country in the world where the danger to democracy comes from law enforcement officials, the courts and government offices,” he writes, describing the Israeli version of the so-called deep state.
  • Channel 12’s Amit Segal tweets that the court is acting “like someone playing with matches at the entrance to a giant ammonia factory. Even under the reasonable assumption it does not intervene, its mulling a judicial coup.”
  • But these may be crocodile tears. Israel Hayom’s Mati Tuchfeld calls the court’s move a “gift” to Netanyahu: “If he has already decided in his gut to go to elections, then yesterday he got the perfect excuse to do just that.”
  • Shalom Yerushalmi, in ToI sister site Zman Yisrael, also writes that Netanyahu will likely emerge from this the winner: “The prime minister can go to elections whenever he feels and at the same time turn the High Court into a very convenient and available target. He’ll stick the judges in with the state prosecution and the attorney general who are chasing after him and say they are all partnered with the left, Arabs, the media and protesters outside Balfour who want to take him down and rule the country.”
  • In Walla, Tal Shalev says a court decision would be a “mercy killing” for the already-tottering government, and also notes that it will especially help Netanyahu take down far-right insurgent Naftali Bennett.
  • “A campaign against the court system will roil the right-wing base and force Bennett to exit his comfort zone of corona, corona, corona,” she writes.
  • Shalev notes that Bennett has recommended putting everything to the side to deal with the virus, including his beloved West Bank annexation, but won’t be able to do so in a campaign that becomes a referendum on Netanyahu.
  • “If this is what the elections will look like, Bennett will need to take a clear stance. Every answer will force him to lose votes to one of the sides.”

3. A Mansour for all seasons: Another politician facing some pressure is Mansour Abbas, the Joint List member and leader of Ra’am who is under fire and in the headlines for showing a willingness (and then some) by some accounts to work with Netanyahu on issues affecting his community.

  • Speaking to Channel 12 news, Abbas attempts to break down the forced marriage of the Joint List, noting that his conservative religious faction has much more in common with the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties than with the center-left of the spectrum often regarded as his “natural partner.”
  • “Netanyahu is a realist regarding the use of force, who knows well the limits of military action. It’s known here that only the right-wing can make peace and only the left war. I want peace, Netanyahu doesn’t want war, we have what to talk about,” he says.
  • Asked by Makor Rishon’s Ateret German why he voted with the rest of his party against normalization deals with the UAE and Bahrain, he says he was toeing the party line and deferring to the fact that the deals are preceding one with Palestinians. But he adds that he did think of going rogue.
  • “I thought that if I vote for it or abstain, it could have been a stronger or more influential position for demanding advancing the Palestinian track. But fine, there will be more chances to vote on peace deals, we’ll see,” he says.
  • Kan’s Eran Singer writes on Twitter that “even if none of his promises come to fruition, Abbas has already gotten what he asked for: He’s no longer an anonymous MK. 2. It’s impossible to ignore the dissonance between Joint List members and the Arab public: In the party and in social media they are calling him a traitor on national principles, but in the Arab street his way has supporters.”
  • Haaretz’s lead editorial, meanwhile, bemoans the Joint List becoming a proxy battlefield for the coalition’s fighting, with Gantz working with others in the Joint List who oppose Abbas. The legislative goodies they are promising each side should be advanced regardless of the politicking.
  • “Abbas wants to have significant political clout on the one hand, and Arab society has justified demands on the other hand. But these must not make them forget with whom they’re dealing. Suffice it to see what Netanyahu did to Blue and White to understand that he is a dangerous political rival and an expert at the divide and rule tactic,” it reads.

4. Pricks and pickles: Vaccines are all the rage, as Netanyahu announces Friday that Pfizer has agreed to sell Israel some 4 million doses of its vaccine, should it go to market.

  • Netanyahu’s announcement, in which he calls the agreement a “great day for Israel,” is covered as major news by nearly all the news outlets.
  • ToI’s Nathan Jeffay writes that “The anticipated deal so soon after the optimistic reports from Pfizer is a significant coup, and a morale boost for the Israeli population. It was the announcement that Health Ministry officials had been looking forward to making for months. But significant questions remain about the matter of logistics. And there is currently no detailed plan in place that addresses cooling and transportation.”
  • Channel 13, which highlights the quote “light at the end of the tunnel,” says the cold chain is the main challenge, but also notes that the Pfizer drug has not yet been approved and the results everybody is excited about are only preliminary.
  • Yedioth notes that “Israel’s place on the list of countries waiting for the vaccine is still not known,” noting all the countries that are likely ahead of it. According to the paper, Israel will get a few doses starting January, but significant numbers will only arrive later.
  • Speaking to Army Radio, Health Ministry head Chezy Levy says that all the talk about vaccines may actually end up hurting Israel’s attempts to get them. “The multitude of reports on vaccines is not doing us any favors because we are in talks and on the way to deals with more companies. Quiet is great for some of them.”
  • As for Israel’s own home-brewed vaccine, Kan reports that according to the Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, all 23 people who have received the shot so far are doing well without any significant side effects and 13 more people are slated to be added to the study in the next two weeks.

5. Handover fist: By the time the vaccines come along, the US will have a new president. As the Washington Post notes, even Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Review Journal is now advising Trump to drop his legal shenanigans and claims of fraud.

  • In Israel Hayom, also owned by Adelson and his wife Miriam, there is no such stance taken. As columnist Ariel Kahane writes Friday: “ Biden’s victory, even if it turns out to be certain, still wasn’t a done deal, and certainly not official. The entity that elects the president, the electoral college, has not yet convened. The vote counting is not over. In any case, the loser did not recognize the results. He claimed the election had been stolen, and that there was fraud, and that in effect victory had been snatched from him.”
  • “There is also nothing wrong in Trump demanding a probe into whether or not there was fraud, and we cannot rule out his claim that “every legal vote” counts, and not “every vote counts,” as he puts it,” he writes.
  • Others are continuing to look ahead to what a Biden administration will mean for Israel. ToI’s Jacob Magid looks at those who will be under Biden and writes that “On the issue of Israel, multiple sources involved in the campaign said that all of Biden’s picks will be closely aligned with the position of the president-elect. Biden does not see eye-to-eye with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on West Bank settlements and the need for a two-state solution, but views safeguarding the security of the Jewish state as an issue of utmost importance in the region.”
  • Still, one can argue that Israel has become a wedge issue in Washington, and Walla’s Barak Ravid writes that the heaviest burden of navigating the complicated relationship with the US will fall to Gilad Erdan, ambassador to the US and UN.
  • “Erdan’s challenge will be to try and change the trend of Israel being a divisive political issue between Democrats and Republicans, and to build a network of ties with the Biden White House at a time when splits over policy matters will be inevitable,” he writes.
  • Haaretz reports that Israel is preparing for Biden’s likely less-friendly policies toward the settlements by cramming everything it can before he gets into office: “Jerusalem City Hall and the Israel Lands Authority have been identifying and expediting approval of building plans of construction beyond the Green Line over the next two months, to prevent them from being stopped once Joe Biden enters the White House in January. Once the administration in Washington changes, the municipality and the Lands Authority expect a construction freeze.”
  • And until Biden takes office, Netanyahu is being forced to walk a tightrope between Trump, known for a tendency to be vindictive and Biden, who is seen as less likely to make a mountain out of a delayed phone call or congratulations,” writes ToI’s Raphael Ahren.
  • “Netanyahu knows Trump’s wrath could target even his staunchest allies if he feels betrayed and abandoned by them,” he comments. “The benefits of a cozy start with the Biden administration likely pale in comparison to the potential damage a vengeful Trump could cause Israel.”
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