With hundreds of thousands of Israelis taking to the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over reforms to the judicial system proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, what are Americans to make of it?
“Well, basically, what Netanyahu is proposing is to make the appointments of the judges less political and their powers less sweeping. The Supreme Court has been a very sort of left-leaning element in the Israeli government,” says Victoria Coates, senior research fellow in international affairs and national security with the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
“And so, it’s a reform that a number of Israelis support, but making it somewhat more controversial is the fact that the prime minister himself is under investigation for various charges of corruption and bribery,” Coates says. “And so, there is a perception—which I personally don’t think is true—but that there’s a broad public perception that he is trying to manipulate the courts for his own legal gain.”
Coates further discussed the significance of the protests.
“I think it’s really remarkable, and the estimates are as many as 700,000 people were out in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last night, and that’s a country of 9 million people,” Coates says. “So, you’re coming up on 10% of the country is participating in this. I think it certainly demonstrates how passionately Israelis feel about their politics and about their country, and the degree to which they feel participant in this process.”
Coates joins the “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss why Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, whether the protests could have larger ramifications for Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, and what the response has been like from the Biden administration.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Samantha Aschieris: Victoria Coates is joining today’s podcast. Victoria is a senior research fellow in international affairs and national security here at The Heritage Foundation. Victoria, thanks so much for joining us.
Victoria Coates: Thanks for having me, Samantha.
Aschieris: So, we’ve been seeing these reports of protests in Israel in response to Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s proposed changes to the judicial system. And NBC reported on Monday that Netanyahu actually agreed to pause a divisive plan to overhaul the country’s judicial system until the next parliament session. That’s according to a statement from one of the coalition partner parties. So, first and foremost, what can you tell us about these proposed changes?
Coates: Well, basically, what Netanyahu is proposing is to make the appointments of the judges less political and their powers less sweeping. The Supreme Court has been a very sort of left-leaning element in the Israeli government. And so it’s a reform that a number of Israelis support, but making it somewhat more controversial is the fact that the prime minister himself is under investigation for various charges of corruption and bribery. And so there is a perception—which I personally don’t think is true—but that there’s a broad public perception that he is trying to manipulate the courts for his own legal gain.
Aschieris: And what do you think of these proposed changes? I know they’ll be delayed until, as I just mentioned, until the next parliament session, but do you think these changes make sense?
Coates: I certainly think some reforms are necessary. I think if there’s a fault for what the prime minister did, it was sort of too far and too fast given these complicating perceptions that I mentioned. And so it seems to me that there should be a compromise here that can be reached and that if we can get to a cooling off period and then move on to a more sober, broad-based reform process, that that would be a lot better for Israel.
Aschieris: And I also wanted to talk about some other reporting that we’re seeing that Netanyahu also fired his defense minister. That also sparked a lot of protests. What was this all about and why did he do this?
Coates: Yeah, the defense minister, [Yoav] Gallant, came out over the weekend with a statement very much against Netanyahu. And it was while the prime minister was traveling. And so I think there was a feeling that he didn’t coordinate it with the prime minister’s office ahead of time. As I said, the prime minister was traveling. That’s always a bad time to do something really disruptive. And so Netanyahu responded by firing him. I think it would be a really good idea, after a cooling off period, if they could reconcile and come together to work on this for the good of the country.
Aschieris: I also wanted to just ask your thoughts on the significance of the protest that we saw and what was playing out in Israel.
Coates: Yeah, I think it’s really remarkable. And the estimates are as many as 700,000 people were out in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last night, and that’s a country of 9 million people.
Coates: So you’re coming up on 10% of the country is participating in this. I think it certainly demonstrates how passionately Israelis feel about their politics and about their country and the degree to which they feel participant in this process. And so if this can be resolved peacefully rather, in an orderly fashion, and get to a desired reform, I actually think it winds up being a great example to the region of a functioning democracy.
Aschieris: Yes, absolutely. And I wanted to also see, have we seen this scale of protests in Israel before?
Coates: There has been periodically. I don’t know exactly the size. So I don’t know if these are record-breaking. Certainly they’re among the larger. But remember, there’s also a tradition in Israel of sort of everybody coming out in the street on remembrance days. So the notion of getting into the communal square as a population is not unusual for the Israeli.
Aschieris: Regarding the protests themselves, do you think they signal any sort of change in Israel’s culture or do you think this might just be a one-time thing that we saw play out?
Coates: No, I think the broader shift that you’ve seen in Israel really over the last 20 years is from a very left-leaning with real socialist roots in the original sort of foundation of Israel and what developed in the decades after that that did make a rightward turn some 20 years ago. And that that process of Israel becoming not a intrinsically left-leaning state to becoming a more centrist state, and if not centrist, right-leaning, I think definitely is what’s being reflected here.
Aschieris: And just from the U.S. perspective, what have we been hearing from the Biden administration? What has their response been like?
Coates: Well, they’ve had a sort of conflicted relationship with Israel. We had the spectacle of the secretary, or not the secretary, but the undersecretary for political affairs summoning the Israeli ambassador in the State Department this week to complain about a series of issues.
And I think the administration has, on the one hand, wanted to continue successes like the Abraham Accords. They’ve made the decision not to move the Embassy back to Tel Aviv. But on the other hand, they’ve also tried to very aggressively elevate the Palestinian issue and to try to get back into an Iranian nuclear deal. And I think those are sending very mixed signals to Jerusalem and to the region, quite frankly.
Aschieris: Yes. And just speaking of the region, I wanted to get your thoughts on if these protests could lead to ramifications with Israel and other Middle Eastern countries.
Coates: I don’t think necessarily. Again, if it’s resolved peacefully and kind of an orderly reform process goes into place, I don’t see any lasting ramifications.
Aschieris: Victoria, just before we go, I wanted to get your final thoughts on what we’ve been talking about today.
Coates: Well, I think the most useful role the United States can play is one of being an interlocutor, that we should be talking to everybody, seeing if there’s anything supportive we can do, while being very respectful of the fact that this is an internal Israeli issue. And at the end of the day, it’s really none of our business. If we can support and assist in getting it resolved, we should because we’re a good partner and ally, but otherwise we should probably keep our noses out of their business.
Aschieris: Well, Victoria Coates, thank you so much for joining me. Again, Victoria Coates, a senior research fellow in international affairs and national security here at The Heritage Foundation. Victoria, thanks so much.
Coates: Thank you, Samantha.
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