Yoav Gallant is the stereotypical right-wing Israeli politician with hardline views and a militaristic background. Befittingly, his father was an ace sniper who took part in many missions in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and named his son after Operation Yoav (in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War), where the sharpshooter was the first soldier to break into a prominent enemy fort.
Later, Yoav followed his father’s footsteps and distinguished himself in the IDF and almost became Chief of General Staff of the IDF (his nomination was overturned over allegations of derelictions, at the last moment). Later, Yoav joined the Kulanu party briefly and then transited to the ruling Likud party ~ his strong credentials saw him become the all-important, Minister of Defense.
However even for an ostensible hardliner like Yoav, serving under the longest-tenured Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, attempts to brazenly reduce the power and independence of Israeli judiciary in favour of the executive, tantamounted to diminishing democracy. Yoav urged caution on judicial ‘reforms’ publicly and a furious Netanyahu didn’t take too kindly to Yoav’s caution ~ soon the Minister of Defense was sacked.
The Israeli saga rings somewhat familiar with the ensuing turf wars between the Indian executive and its judiciary, in an outpouring of opinions that has gone beyond the normal tensions and disagreements, typically besetting the two realms. Even the Vice President had joined the chorus to hit the judiciary’s soft spot of the ‘Collegium’ system which comes with its own intrigues, biases and inefficiencies (not that the proposed alternative of usurping powers from the judiciary towards politicians is the better option).
Moral grandstanding of the politicos or the judiciary notwithstanding, the preferable stance of insisting on judicial reforms without compromising on the foundation of democracy i.e., enhanced transparency and accountability within the existing ‘Collegium’ system is an anathema to the politicians, who would instead prefer taking ‘control’ over appointments of judges.
Without condoning the ‘Collegium’ as it stands today, the suggested ‘reform’ of giving the reins to the dispensation of the day is fraught with even more unimaginable risks. The Israeli executivejudiciary tussle is no different and had Netanyahu pushed his way, the judiciary could have got compromised into losing its existing independence and ended up being beholden, strengthening notions of an illiberal and authoritarian state. Interestingly, both India and Israel got independence around the same time (1947 and 1948 respectively) and both had centrist governments till the mid-1970s (Congress in India and Labor in Israel). The advent of right-wing assertion started almost simultaneously, though Israel took the lead in ‘coalition’ governments. Right-wing politics got in proverbial ‘strongmen’ like Menachem Begin, Yitzak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and perhaps the ‘strongest’ of them all, Benjamin Netanyahu. India too went beyond single party rule and moved towards the ‘coalition’ era with alternative persuasions of right-wing sprinkling. It has certainly swung to its hardest right in recent times with unprecedented ‘nationalism’ as the rallying cry.
As part of this phenomenon, many moves that could be argued to be undermining the independence of various institutions e.g., central investigative agencies, constitutional offices, media etc., is perceived by those who are ideologically opposed to it. It would however be naïve to assume that the previous governments (including the moderate/ centrist) did not try to ‘control’ the various institutions similarly ~ the difference is only in the matter of degree and extent.
While the executive-judicial standoff in India did not go beyond calculated shadowboxing, expected positions by partisan spokespersons and some media commentary ~ it has met with an unprecedented public uproar and unrest in Israel. In a country where ‘nationalism’ is the way of life and an existential necessity, Netanyahu’s gambit with ostensible ‘reforms’ has not cut ice with the masses, especially the youth who have tired of revisionism and bluster. Seeking to send a powerful and intimidatory signal to his own colleagues for harbouring or expressing any contrarian opinions, Netanyahu committed the unthinkable act of firing his defense minister ~ in the bargain, biting a lot more than he could chew! The public outcry was universal and all sections of society, including embassies abroad and the all-powerful diaspora like the Jewish Democratic Council of America as the country nearly came to a standstill.
Such a groundswell of dissonance shocked even the President, Issac Herzog, who had to appeal, “For the sake of the unity of the people of Israel, for the sake of responsibility, I call on you to stop the legislative process immediately”. Finally, Netanyahu had to forego his bravado and agree to delay the process for discussions ~ a comedown from the hubris displayed earlier. Essentially only the Supreme Court and its independent pronouncements were the main statutory establishment that could checkmate the authoritarian, majoritarian and populist streak in Netanyahu. The protesters were careful to keep their protest ‘nationalistic’ and ensured that they did not raise side issues (like occupation of Palestine) that could have afforded Netanyahu distraction by ascribing the protests as ‘anti-national’.
Secondly, the protest had been joined in by some of the most respected names in Israeli civil society, former senior combatants, and business houses to give a picture of a holistic concern, as opposed to that of a certain community, profession or partisan/ideological group. Netanyahu had upped the ante of illiberalism, suppression, and intolerance of proverbial ‘others’ (even by his own low standards) to a level that united the country into imagining the worst for its democratic traditions.
Netanyahu was been left stunned by the public reaction as his usually gratifying turn towards majoritarianism had seemingly run its course. The whole issue in Israel and India ought not be reduced to a binary choice between executive and the judiciary, but to one which seeks to improve the existing framework without diminishing the hallowed balance and segregation of powers between the two organs.
Nothing should compromise the healthy tensions of ‘checksand-balances’ that are absolutely critical for the survival of democracy. Perhaps, if Netanyahu had only restricted his enthusiasm for reforms to the extent that they fast-tracked and improved the judicial process instead of trying to ‘control’ and usurp powers completely, he may have succeeded. We too in India need to improve our dire ‘Collegium’ system drastically and on priority ~ but the way to do that is not to surrender power to the executive as that ‘remedy’ may be far worse than the ailment today.
The reaction of the Israeli citizenry beyond partisan loyalties has been the key differentiator versus India where partisan loyalties can justify, condone and even approve the most bizarre and undemocratic moves. In Israel, it has not been the win of the opposition, but of democracy
(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)