This week in Jerusalem, about 100,000 Israelis took to the streets to demonstrate against plans by the recently elected coalition government of Benjamin “ Bibi” Netanyahu to reduce the power and independence of the judiciary. If Netanyahu and his new ultra-right allies get their way, the reforms will (a) weaken the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down laws (b) allow court rulings to be over-ridden by a simple majority in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset and (c) give the government more power over the committee that gets to appoint the nation’s judges.
To many of the protesters, Netanyahu’s newly found enthusiasm for judicial reform could well be related to the charges of corruption he is facing. Netanyahu has denied that link. The extent of judicial reform, he has argued, would bring the balance between the court and the Knesset more in line with what is common practice in France, Britain, and the United States, where – routinely – judicial appointments to the US Supreme Court are a highly politicised process.
None of this has cut much slack with the demonstrators. “You voted for Bibi”, one placard at the Jerusalem protest read, “ You got Mussolini.” The mayor of Tel Aviv has warned that once a democracy has been turned into a dictatorship, the road back to a democracy will commonly involve bloodshed. Israel’s president Isaac Herzog – usually just a ceremonial figure – has called for compromise. Yet it is pretty hard to imagine what these mutual concessions would look like, even if the will to consider them existed.
Democracy, hardly ideal
To an outsider… Given the actions of the government of Israel in the past 20 years alone, it seems weird to think that judicial reform is what has got 100,000 people onto the streets. All in order to defend a “democracy” that systematically condones atrocities against the Palestinian minority under their control, and in defiance of international law and numerous UN resolutions.
To be fair, some of the protesters do also oppose their government’s actions in Gaza and on the West Bank. Yet overall, domestic public opposition to the crimes committed by settlers and the Israeli Defence Forces – and these include the disproportionate use of military force against Palestinian civilians, the bulldozing of homes and the relentless expansion of settlements – has been on nothing like the same scale as the current unrest.
The two state “solution”
When it comes to almost anything involving Israel, the New Zealand government can be relied on to voice the usual diplomatic homilies. Like this, for example, from mid 2021:
Aotearoa New Zealand remains committed to a two-state solution and welcomes the agreed ceasefire to ensure a just and lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Right. Did we really believe a pause to yet another round of the indiscriminate use of force by the IDF will do much “to ensure a just and lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians alike”? Like the European Union and the Biden administration. New Zealand continues to say it is “committed” to a two state solution, even while the accelerating pace of settlement construction is rapidly eroding what little remains of the Palestinian land on which this fantasy world might be constructed. In 2023, invoking the two state solution is like calling on Father Christmas to end child poverty. But regardless, here’s the European Union recently in full rhetorical flight:
The EU remains committed to a negotiated two-State solution, based on international law, the 1967 lines, with equivalent land swaps, as may be agreed between the parties, with the State of Israel and an independent, democratic, contiguous, sovereign and viable State of Palestine living side by side in peace, security and mutual recognition.
Choosing to abstain
At the UN in November 2022, New Zealand chose to abstain from a carefully worded UN resolution that expressed the UN’s grave concern about:
….the continuing systematic violation of the human rights of the Palestinian people by Israel, the occupying Power, including that arising from the excessive use of force and military operations causing death and injury to Palestinian civilians, including children, women and non-violent, peaceful demonstrators, as well as journalists, medical personnel and humanitarian personnel; the arbitrary imprisonment and detention of Palestinians, some of whom have been imprisoned for decades; the use of collective punishment; the closure of areas; the confiscation of land; the establishment and expansion of settlements; the construction of a wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory in departure from the Armistice Line of 1949; the destruction of property and infrastructure; the forced displacement of civilians, including attempts at forced transfers of Bedouin communities; and all other actions by it designed to change the legal status, geographical nature and demographic composition of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and demanding the cessation of all such unlawful actions…
The UN resolution also expressed grave concern about
the ongoing demolition by Israel, the occupying Power, of Palestinian homes, as well as of structures, including schools, provided as international humanitarian aid, in particular in and around Occupied East Jerusalem, including if carried out as an act of collective punishment in violation of international humanitarian law, which has escalated at unprecedented rates, and by the revocation of residence permits and eviction of Palestinian residents of the City of Jerusalem,
Deploring the continuing and negative consequences of the conflicts in and around the Gaza Strip and the high number of casualties among Palestinian civilians in the recent period, including among children, and any violations of international law, and calling for full respect for international humanitarian and human rights law and for the principles of legality, distinction, precaution and proportionality…
And so on. Yet New Zealand – despite our enthusiasm for the laws that underpin the international order – decided to abstain. Why? Here’s the explanation offered by MFAT:
New Zealand regrets that the ICJ proposal has not been circulated to Members in sufficient time to allow for an appropriate level of consideration. New Zealand also wishes to clarify that it has concerns with the nature of the question as drafted. In particular, we do not agree with the legal characterisation described at 17 bis (a) as an annexation under international law.
So we sat on the fence over these lattest outrages because we – allegedly – hadn’t had enough time to think about them properly, and because of a quibble about whether the land being seized by the settlers truly qualified as a formal annexation.
For the record, international law makes no distinction between the settlements on West Bank land claimed by the Israeli state and the “outpost” settlements set up on privately owned Palestinian land seized by Israeli settlers. They’re both illegal under international law. While we quibble over legal definitions of annexation, the new Netanyahu ultra-right wing government gets on with it:
Israel has “legalised” nine colonial outposts in the occupied West Bank, turning them into official settlements. The decision, which is said to be the first legalisation of such outposts by the Israeli government since 2012, has caused further irritation in Washington.
According to Axios, in addition to the legalisation of the nine outposts, the Israeli government has decided to connect dozens of other illegal outposts to state infrastructure like water and electricity, and approve the planning and building of thousands of new housing units in the settlements.
But hey, New Zealand is all in favour of a two state solution. Make no mistake about that!
Footnote One: This BBC story gives a tiny insight into life under occupation. Reportedly… Earlier this month, shouting settlers broke into the home of a Palestinian family, one of the settlers kicked the homeowner in the groin, and then received a handshake from one of the IDF soldiers as he left. All while the BBC cameras were rolling.
Footnote Two: The mainstream media has occasionally done good work in informing the world about the occupation. In this interview a few years ago with Israel’s former PM and former Defence Minister Ehud Barak, the British journalist Tim Sebastian provided a model of morally sharpened questioning worthy of study at any school of journalism.
BTW… Earlier this month, Ehud Barak drew an explicit link between the new Netanyahu government and Nazi Germany. Barak likened the calls by Israeli president Isaac Herzog for compromise on Netanyahu’s plans for judicial reform to British PM Neville Chamberlain’s attempts to appease Hitler.
Footnote Three: Last December, information released by UN human rights experts illustrated the deadly impacts of the IDF’s disproportionate use of force during the past year:
150 Palestinians have been killed in the occupied West Bank by Israeli forces so far this year, including 33 children. . In addition, a boy was killed by either Israeli forces or Israeli settlers who were firing side-by-side. At least two Palestinians were killed by settlers. 10 Israelis, including five settlers, one settlement guard and four Israeli forces have been killed by Palestinians in the occupied West Bank in 2022.
Let’s all hope the two state solution suddenly materialises, sometime soon.