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Haggai Matar & Gideon Levy: Israel’s Fight over Judicial Changes Ignores Occupation & Apartheid

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We speak with two Israeli journalists in Tel Aviv after lawmakers in Israel passed a highly contested bill Monday weakening the power of the Supreme Court by preventing it from blocking government decisions it deems unreasonable. The bill is part of a broader set of judicial reforms pushed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that has sparked months of unprecedented protests, which continued last night. Journalist Haggai Matar says that while the Supreme Court “is not an ally to Palestinians,” its rare rulings in favor of Palestinians are a driving factor in the right wing’s overhaul, as well as decisions meant to curb public corruption. Palestinian leaders have criticized both Netanyahu’s government for pushing the judicial reform, as well as the massive protest movement for not speaking up for Palestinian rights as Israel continues its deadly crackdown in the West Bank. It’s time for the U.S. to show Israel there are consequences for apartheid and anti-democratic legislation, says Gideon Levy, columnist for Haaretz. “What kind of democracy can exist in an apartheid state?” he asks.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Mass protests are continuing in Israel after lawmakers passed a highly contested bill that would gut the power of the Supreme Court by preventing it from blocking government decisions it deems unreasonable. The bill is part of a broader set of judicial reforms pushed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that has sparked months of unprecedented protests.

On Monday, Israeli police fired water cannons at protesters in Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, Israel’s Medical Association has begun a 24-hour strike to protest the gutting of the judiciary. In addition, more than 10,000 IDF reservists have pledged not to report to duty in an act of protest.

The push to weaken the judiciary has been so divisive that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says Israel could be entering a civil war. Prior to the vote Monday, Israeli opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yair Lapid spoke in the Knesset.

YAIR LAPID: [translated] We are on our way to a disaster. If you’re voting for this bill today, you bring the end of the people’s army, you strengthen Israel’s enemies, you harm the state of Israel’s security.

AMY GOODMAN: Moments before the vote took place, opposition lawmakers began chanting “Shame! Shame!” as some lawmakers tore up the text of the legislation.

LAWMAKERS: Busha! Busha! Busha! Busha! Busha! Busha! Busha! Busha! Busha! Busha! Busha! Busha! Busha!

AMY GOODMAN: After Israeli opposition lawmakers walked out of the Knesset, supporters of the judicial reform passed the measure by a vote of 64 to 0. Later in the day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had just been released from the hospital, having a pacemaker implanted, gave a prerecorded address on television.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] Today we carried out the required democratic move. The move was aimed at restoring a degree of balance between the authorities, which was here for 50 years. We passed the bill of reasonableness so that the elected government could lead the policy in accordance with the decision of the majority of the country’s citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: Palestinian leaders have criticized both Netanyahu’s government for gutting the judiciary, as well as the massive protest movement for not speaking up for Palestinian rights.

Monday’s vote came as Israel continues its deadly crackdown in the West Bank. Earlier today, Israeli forces killed three Palestinian men in Nablus. Seventeen Palestinians were also arrested in overnight raids.

In related news, the American Anthropological Association has voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions in a major victory for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, BDS, movement.

We’re joined now by two Israel journalists in Tel Aviv. Haggai Matar is executive director of 972 — Advancement of Citizen Journalism, the nonprofit that publishes +972 Magazine. Matar is a conscientious objector who refused to serve in the Israeli army. Gideon Levy is also with us. He’s a columnist for the newspaper Haaretz and a member of its editorial board. One of his recent pieces is headlined “Israeli Protest Against the Judicial Coup Has Militaristic Characteristics.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I want to start with Haggai Matar. You are a conscientious objector. You are a writer for +972 Magazine, the executive director of 972. Can you respond to what happened in the Knesset, after the opposition walked out — it was a vote of — what was it? — 64 to 0 for gutting the judiciary — and also these massive protests, including today, the healthcare association and the reservists saying they won’t serve as a result of this legislation?

HAGGAI MATAR: Yes. Thank you, Amy, for having me in these very troubling times.

Basically, that the bill was passed — shortly before it was passed, Yariv Levin, the minister of justice, who’s one of the champions of this legislation, went on stage in the Knesset to give all the reasons why he thinks this measure should be passed. And he gave a list of Supreme Court rulings in which he thought the use of reasonableness was unreasonable. And all his examples — all of them — were connected to the Palestinian struggle. So, there was an example of the court allowing Palestinian bereaved families to come to a shared ceremony with Israelis to mourn their dead. There was an example of a Palestinian American citizen who wanted to come into Israel and was stopped for being a BDS activist, and that was struck down by the court.

Now, the Israeli Supreme Court is a not an ally to Palestinians. It has greenlit already dozens of war crimes. But in those very, very few instances where it has put guardrails on occupation and apartheid practices, that’s what the government is targeting, as well as trying to approve all sorts of political corruption that the court has served as a guardrail to.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Haggai Matar, how exactly has the legislation that was just passed weakened the court? Because we’ve heard the gutting or weakening, but we haven’t heard much about the concrete legislation that was passed.

HAGGAI MATAR: So, I think, for context, Israel does not have a constitution, and it is very weak in terms of legislation generally. And a lot of what we see in the fabric of Israeli law and society is based on precedent. And judicial precedent in Israel sometimes relies on this issue of reasonableness.

So, a good recent example was that Netanyahu wanted to appoint for minister of finance someone who was just recently convicted for the third time for tax evasion, fraud and theft, and the Supreme Court basically said this is extremely unreasonable to put someone like that in charge of the Ministry of Finance. So this is a good example and, again, one of the motivations for this initiative. There are other reasons for the government to push forward with this legislation, but I think these examples kind of show what the court has been doing and what the government does not want it to do, in terms of gutting it and suppressing its abilities to act and restrain the government’s power.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And there has been talk of further so-called reforms that the allies of Netanyahu want to pass. What are those reforms?

HAGGAI MATAR: So, it’s important to remember that in January, said minister of justice, Yariv Levin, announced a whole package of a judicial overhaul. It was a set of quite a few bills that the government committed to pass within two or three months in the winter. The massive protest movement is what forced the government to kind of narrow down to just one bill at a time. It’s something that we here call the “salami method,” just slicing it to thin little pieces of legislation. And this is the first one to pass, but there are many more on the way.

Some of them are meant to allow Netanyahu to escape his current trial for political corruption. Other measures are meant to allow the government to annex territories and do basically whatever it wants with any kind of supervision from the side of the court. There are many other pieces of legislation. They, all together, basically are meant to ensure that the government both can do whatever it wants in this current term, and can persecute political rivals and ensure its reelection in the future by disqualifying other political rivals, especially Palestinian citizens, whose parties might be disqualified if the judicial overhaul comes through.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Gideon Levy into this conversation, also in Tel Aviv. Talk about this piece that you wrote about the militaristic nature of these protests. Explain what you mean.

GIDEON LEVY: I have all the sympathy toward this protest movement, the biggest ever in Israel. And I can just appreciate all those hundreds of thousands of Israelis who are going to the streets regularly, week after week, day after day, spending a lot of time, energy, sweat, and many times even blood, in order to express their protest.

But I have also some criticize — some critics about this movement. One, you just mentioned, Amy, the fact that they really totally ignore deliberately the occupation and the apartheid, but not less than this, the structure and the combination of people who lead this protest and who are really running it. Finally, it is about the old boys from the army. I don’t say they are the only one, by all means not, but they are giving the tone, generals who head the state. And now, as we say in Hebrew, and now all of a sudden the state is being taken from them by the right-wingers, and they go to protest. It is very problematic if figures like heads of the Shabak, of the secret services of Israel, who are quite well known, at least to your viewers, Amy, in its brutal methods of blackmailing people and doing all kind of anti-democratic actions in the West Bank, including kidnapping people without any supervision, legal supervision. So, those are the people who speak about democracy. Those are part of the leadership of this protest movement. Those are the heroes of this movement. I have a problem with this. You know, generals and head of secret services cannot teach anyone anything about democracy. They should learn it by themselves before they teach others.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you comment also, as you have in some of your writings, about the irony of talking about preserving democracy, while both sides in this battle continue to assume and expect that the oppression of the Palestinians will continue?

GIDEON LEVY: You can compare it to South Africa, apartheid South Africa. Imagine yourself a struggle among the white community in South Africa about democracy for the white ones. It is a struggle over democracy. And by the way, they had democracy. They had elections. They had quite free press, in a way. They had democracy. But it was a democracy only to a very small part of the population of South Africa.

The democracy that we are now struggling over is a democracy only for the Jewish citizens of Israel, and partially for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. What about 5 million people who live under the control of the same institutions, who have no civil rights whatsoever, who don’t even possess a citizenship of any country in the world? How can you speak about democracy and ignore this? What kind of democracy can exist in an apartheid state? I mean, those things, I understand the desire, the ambition to try to recruit as many people as possible to this protest, which is a just protest. But the way they ignore the real dark side of Israel is for me unacceptable and unbearable.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Haggai Matar, as a conscientious objector, the move of the, what, 10,000 IDF reservists, Israeli Defense Forces reservists, to go on this strike today, the significance of this? And their response to what Gideon Levy is saying?

HAGGAI MATAR: So, I think I very much agree with Gideon, obviously. I think that it is very meaningful that this is happening, that people are using this tool, that, until recently, both conscientious objection and tools like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign were seen as completely beyond the pale, something that’s outside of legitimacy in Israeli politics. And now you have people from the center, the mainstream of Israeli society using both conscientious objection and calling the international community to use Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions to “save democracy” in Israel — of course, ignoring the Palestinian struggle, but using these tools that Palestinians have been using for so long.

I think, first, it’s very impressive that there is such a mobilization of resistance, and it’s troubling that people are not aware enough of what they’ve been missing in terms of the occupation apartheid, and some of them are actually supporting it. And at the same time, I think what we’re seeing is a completely new openness within this protest movement, alongside the militarism, alongside the nationalism, an openness to rethink questions of democracy and equality in a meaningful way. We’re seeing much more, many more people talking about the occupation apartheid now than we have for, I would say, almost 20 years. There’s a willingness that this crisis is creating, which we, as journalists, are trying to capture on and educate people about what they’ve been missing and give them the tools to start understanding what the real problems of democracy have been here, and for decades.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Gideon Levy, I wanted to ask you: To what degree do you believe that all of this judicial overhaul is a direct result of Prime Minister Netanyahu trying to escape his legal troubles and the possibility of going to jail?

GIDEON LEVY: I wouldn’t put everything on this. I mean, Netanyahu is quite a cynical politician, very, very sophisticated and shrewd, but I wouldn’t put everything on this. Don’t forget that the real engine of this so-called reform or revolution is the minister of justice. And he is a genuine ideological hardcore right-winger, nothing to do with Netanyahu’s trial. I think he couldn’t care less about the results of this trial. Mr. Levin has a very clear ideology. One can only envy how clear his ideology is, unlike many times the ideology of the Zionist left, which is always vague. He has a very clear ideology, and he’s trying to implement it. Netanyahu is using it for his own personal purposes. But it cannot be explained, I mean, the whole reform, only by the trial of Netanyahu, by all means not.

AMY GOODMAN: White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called Monday’s Knesset vote unfortunate but reiterated Biden administration’s support for Israel. This is what she said.

PRESS SECRETARY KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: Our commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad. And one of the things that you’ve heard us say before, and I’ll reiterate: The core of that relationship is certainly on democratic values, the shared democratic values and interests. And that will continue to be the case.

You know, President Biden has had a friend of — has been a friend of Israel for decades. It is a personal relationship. It is a lifelong friend of Israel, as I mentioned in my statement that came out moments ago. And we are going to continue to — continue to engage our Israeli counterparts to try and strengthen that special bond. And that certainly will be the plan going forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Gideon, if you can talk about the significance of, in the midst of these mass protests, President Biden inviting and celebrating the Israeli president, Herzog, at the White House? He gave a joint address to a joint session of Congress. And President Biden spoke with Netanyahu on the phone and invited him to the United States, not clear when or where.

GIDEON LEVY: Unfortunately, it’s time to ask the United States: When will you turn from hollow talkings and condemnations into deeds? I mean, for how long will this masquerade go on, in which the United States is not very happy about all kind of things that Israel is doing, but does nothing, but nothing, to influence Israel to change its way? How long will taxpayers in the United States spend so much money over quite a well-off state, whose social needs are very, very low, whose military is one of the strongest and well equipped in the world, and doing all this without any kind of conditions, terms?

Everything is given to Israel, and Israel can do whatever it wants, without really any consideration of what the United States is asking. So, one of the two: Either the United States is not serious about it, which is my suspicion, or the United States really believes that by talkings and condemnations, Israel will change. This is also very disappointing, because after 55 years of occupation, of violating any resolution of the international community, by ignoring American policy toward the Palestinians, Israel continues to do whatever it wants. So, if the United States didn’t draw the lesson, it means that the United States is very happy about everything that Israel is doing. And the proof is that the United States does nothing to change it, including Obama’s regime, administration, and now Biden administration, which has, I’m sure, very good intentions, but this is not enough when it comes to Israel.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And finally, Haggai Matar, I’d like to ask you: How do you see this crisis potentially developing? What are the prospects for it to being resolved? Do you think that the massive protests will prevent any further overhauls of the court?

HAGGAI MATAR: I think the government is in trouble. It might not seem like that when they pass, you know, a bill at 64 to 0, but I do think that they’re in trouble. They’ve been limited from doing what they had initially set out to do, which is a full judicial overhaul. They’ve been basically prevented from doing that. And I think with this latest measure and the responses we’re seeing from so many different parts of the Israeli economy and security systems — and the unions are now talking about potentially going on strike — and the demonstrators in the streets, and there’s just so much going on that I don’t think that what the government is doing is sustainable.

They might take a pause now just to kind of reassess. They might try and push forward, and I think they will probably fail. And there’s a chance this government at some point will collapse and be replaced with a new one, very much like the previous one we had, the so-called government of change, which will put a stop to this whole judicial reform and move towards full authoritarianism. But at the same time, there’s a serious risk that if that happens, there will be a feeling of vindication, of a victory of democracy, whereas, in fact, Palestinians will continue paying the price under such a government, as well. So I think we have to be very, very careful of either the scenario of this government continuing to doing what it wants and of the scenario of this government falling and being replaced by another that is better for democracy for Jews, but just as bad for democracy for Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: And we just have 30 seconds, but, Gideon Levy, just the news of the last hours that Israeli forces killed three Palestinian men in Nablus. Seventeen Palestinians were also arrested in an overnight raid. How aware is the Israeli population? I mean, we are seeing water cannons. We’re seeing some of the methods the Israeli government uses in the West Bank applied to the protesters, but only some — I mean, when you see this level of killing of Palestinians just in the past year. Talk about what is the awareness in Israel and what you think needs to be done about this.

GIDEON LEVY: This, this may be the core of the issue, the fact that Israeli society is living in total denial. The media is the best collaborator to supply this denial. And Israelis don’t know anything, don’t want to know anything about what’s going on half an hour away from their homes. This killing of three Palestinians today is hardly covered. And if it’s covered, it’s covered in the most minimal way you can cover. I mean, a killing of a dog of the army is covered in bigger, bigger ways than killing three Palestinians — at least two of them innocent, as far as I understood.

So, this daily killing is going on. Israeli society couldn’t care less. The occupation is not on the table anymore. And the only way to make it change is when Israelis will have to pay and to be punished for those crimes. As long as this doesn’t happen, they can continue to protest against damage to their own democracy and ignore the fact that they are living in an apartheid state.

AMY GOODMAN: Gideon Levy, I want to thank you for being with us, columnist for Haaretz, member of its editorial board, the Israeli newspaper, and Haggai Matar, executive director of 972 — Advancement of Citizen Journalism, publishes +972 Magazine.

When we come back, 19 attorneys general in the United States are demanding access to people’s private medical records to evaluate whether someone had an abortion out of their states. We’ll go to Kentucky to speak with Planned Parenthood. Stay with us.

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