The controversy around the constitutional overhaul proposed by the Netanyahu government understandably leaves outside observers confused. The purpose of this article is to understand this controversy and to suggest a constructive solution to the current constitutional crisis.
In the absence of a written constitution, Israel’s system of checks-and-balances between the three branches of government has evolved empirically. For the first three decades that followed Israel’s independence in 1948, the Socialist Mapai party dominated Israeli politics. In the absence of a bicameral parliament, of a presidential veto to legislation, and of regional elections for the Knesset, the only counter-power to the government was (and still is) the Supreme Court. Menachem Begin was full of praise for the Judiciary precisely because judges were a shield of last resort in a system dominated by his nemesis David Ben Gurion.
In contemporary Israeli politics, judicial activism is generally criticized by the right and defended by the left. But, five decades ago, the opposite was true. Indeed, Yitzhak Rabin resigned in 1977 because then-Attorney General Aharon Barak decided to prosecute him over the bank account he and his wife illegally held in the U.S. (Rabin’s resignation paved the way for Likud’s historical victory).
Israel’s Supreme Court became more activist under the presidency of Meir Shamgar (1983-1995) and of Aharon Barack (1995-2006). During that period, the Court made five profound changes to Israel’s constitutional order by declaring that:
- Israel’s basic laws collectively constitute a de facto constitution and that the Court has the authority to strike down unconstitutional legislation;
- Everything is justiciable, meaning that the Court can rule on any matter and not only on legal ones;
- There should be no restriction to petitioning the Court, and therefore standing applies to anyone;
- The Attorney General’s advice is binding and must be accepted as is by the government;
- The Court can strike down government decisions not only for being illegal but also for being “unreasonable” in the Court’s opinion.
Some of those principles are common in other democracies. But, in Israel, they were not the outcome of legislation nor of public debate. They were simply and unilaterally imposed by the Court itself. This judicial overreach went further yet after the Knesset passed in 2018 a basic law that officially defines Israel as a nation state. The Court was expectedly petitioned to strike down the law.
According to its own doctrine (i.e., basic laws enjoy a constitutional status), the Court should have dismissed the petitioners out of hand. It did not. Rather, the Court argued that it was free to revise its own doctrine and strike down basic laws as well. The new basic law was spared that fate only because the Court could not find anything wrong with it.
This new constitutional order produced an imbalance because the Judiciary ends up having the last word on matters of policy, and because the activist Court is now used as a de facto second chamber by the opposition when it loses a vote in parliament. Add to this the fact that the Israeli left was dealt a fatal and durable electoral blow by the Second Intifada, while it can count on sympathetic judges in the Court, and you understand why the Israeli right has been bemoaning for the past two decades that it keeps winning at the ballot box only to be struck down by the bench.
Hence has judicial activism become a right-left issue in Israeli politics. Having won a majority after five consecutive inconclusive elections, and having formed a government that sees judicial overhaul as a priority, the pro-Netanyahu right feels that it has hit the jackpot and that it cannot let go of a golden opportunity.
The reforms presented by Yariv Levin on January 4th, 2023, include the following:
- The government would handpick Supreme Court judges of its liking;
- The Court would in effect lose its power to strike down unconstitutional legislation because the Knesset would be able to re-legislate it with a simple majority of 61;
- The Court would no longer be able to use the principle of “unreasonableness” to strike down government decisions;
- The ruling of government legal advisors would cease to be binding, and ministers will be entitled to hire and fire their ministry’s legal advisor at will without the involvement of the Ministry of Justice.
In effect, the government would become mostly unrestricted.
Altogether, those four reforms go too far, and they would replace one imbalance with another instead of fixing the imbalance produced by the Court over the years. In order to improve checks-and-balances and to enjoy broad public support, the reform of Israel’s judicial system should include the five elements below:
- The principle of justiciability (i.e., the purview of the High Court) must be clearly delineated so as not to apply to all aspects of government policy and of Knesset legislation;
- The principle of “unreasonableness” should be restricted but not repealed altogether – as proposed in fact by Supreme Court Justice Noam Solberg;
- Standing should be narrowed to petitioners who can prove that they are affected by a law or administrative decision;
- Both judicial review of legislation and the override of the Court should require a special majority, not a simple one. Israel should adopt a charter of basic rights and freedoms if it is to add an override clause to its mechanism of checks-and-balances;
- The override clause should not apply to the fundamental rights spelled out by the bill of rights. Basic laws should not be within the reach of judicial review, but the Knesset should not escape judicial review just by arbitrarily adding the adjective “basic” to any legislation.
Such reforms need to be discussed and to gather wide support. The current coalition controls 53% of the Knesset but only received 48.38% of the popular vote. It should not force radical reforms with the support of barely half of the electorate. Recent polls clearly show that most Israelis do not want an imbalanced and rushed reform.
As for the committee that appoints judges, it has already been reformed in a positive way. The committee is composed of nine members: the minister of justice, another cabinet member, two members of Knesset, two members of the lawyers’ association, and three Supreme Court judges (including the Court’s president). The assertion that “judges appoint themselves” was mostly true until 2008 because the three Justices would team up with the lawyers’ association to impose their picks.
But this is no longer the case. In 2008, the law was amended so as to require a majority of seven out of nine, thus breaking up the “automatic majority” of the judges. All members of the committee are now forced to compromise. This mechanism, which enabled conservative justice ministers such as Ayelet Shaked and Gideon Sa’ar to block overly activist judges and to nominate more moderate ones, shows that piecemeal and constructive reforms are possible. This being said, an additional reform of the committee can be discussed.
The compromise proposal of President Herzog, as a basis for discussion, is welcome. The State of Israel needs an agreed, clarified, and balanced constitutional order.
France has had two Jewish heads of government: Léon Blum between 1936 and 1937, and Pierre Mendès-France between 1954 and 1955 (Michel Debré, who served as prime minister between 1959 and 1962, had a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother; Laurent Fabius, who served between 1984 and 1986, is of Jewish descent but his family converted to Catholicism and he was raised as a Catholic). Though their Jewishness was a matter of controversy at the time, especially for Léon Blum, a Jewish prime minister would not raise eyebrows in France today. Being head of state is a different matter, however. In Europe, heads of state (whether hereditary monarchs or elected presidents) incarnate the nation. In France, they inherit the mantle of kings and emperors. Since the establishment of the Fifth Republic by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, French presidents have often been described as “Republican monarchs” because of their extended powers. By running for president, Eric Zemmour is setting a precedent of the first Jew vying for what the French call “la fonction suprême” (the supreme function).
One could have expected Catholics, monarchists, and ultra-conservatives object to a Jew claiming the virtual crown of French kings. After all, when Léon Blum became premier in June 1936, monarchist parliamentarian Xavier Vallat complained that “For the first time, this Gallo-Roman land is going to be governed by a Jew.” Yet the very opposite has happened with Zemmour, who has gathered the support of France’s most conservative figures. Zemmour’s maiden speech as candidate on 5 December 2021 was preceded by public endorsements. Among them was ultra-conservative politician and author Paul-Marie Coûteaux, who declared that Eric Zemmour shall “incarnate ‘the king’s second body’, the immemorial and immortal body of France” and become in effect “King of France.”
Anticipating the bewilderment of his audience, given Zemmour’s Jewishness, Coûteaux explained that Zemmour’s authentic love for France has granted him access to the Catholic anointment of French Kings: “This transubstantiation, which was once called ‘the king’s two bodies’, is a moral matter, and, like every moral matter in a Christian land, is a question of love. Yes, Zemmour is a love story, an unshakable love for this country.”
Coûteaux’s speech was altogether bizarre and telling. The Catholic and monarchist right, which eight decades ago vilified Léon Blum as a “Talmudist” unfit to rule over a “nation of peasants” (in Xavier Vallat’s words), is willing today to anoint an Algerian Jew because he has proven his indefectible love for France and because such love is needed to protect an old Christian nation from Islamization (whose main source, incidentally, is Zemmour’s native Algeria). Coûteaux is not an isolated and iconoclastic case. Zemmour has also been endorsed by Philippe de Villiers, a prominent Catholic and monarchist politician. France’s Catholic right is not endorsing Zemmour simply because his intellect and debating skills far surpass those of Marine Le Pen. Something deeper is at stake.
One of Zemmour’s leitmotivs is that France is not a race but a Catholic nation, and that immigrants must assimilate (and not merely integrate) into that nation by learning its language, by adopting its culture, by identifying with its history, and by keeping religious observance to the private sphere. Zemmour proudly reminds his audiences that he did just that as a “Berberian Jew,” and that today’s immigrants can and must do the same. Zemmour often quotes, and fully endorses, the famous formula of Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre who said during a debate at the French national assembly in 1789 that Jews “should be granted everything as individuals but nothing as a nation.” This formula was turned into policy by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1806 following the resolutions of the “Grand Sanhedrin.” Zemmour continues to endorse this policy of “replacing Jerusalem with Paris.”
Unlike Bruno Kreisky (a former Austrian chancellor who, despite having Jewish parents, said he had no connection whatsoever with Judaism), Zemmour openly identifies as a Jew. His wife is Jewish (so is his mistress…), he celebrates Jewish holidays, and he occasionally attends an Orthodox synagogue. Yet his identification as a Jew is solely religious and not national. His religious allegiance is to Judaism, but his national allegiance is to France. Hence is he not a Zionist.
When Zemmour advocates the preservation of French civilization, he sounds genuine because he has embraced that civilization. When he says that immigrants should give French names to their children, he cannot be accused of nativism since his family did just that after immigrating from Algeria. “Racism,” Zemmour explained in his abovementioned speech, means “claiming that those who are different from us are inferior because they are different, and that you can only be French if you descend from Clovis. How could I possibly believe that, me, a little Berberian Jew who came from the other side of the Mediterranean?” As an admirer of Bonaparte, Zemmour can think of another Mediterranean foreigner who fell in love with France and became its leader. Yet Zemmour owes his popularity among French nationalists not only to his assimilationist ideology, but also to his description of France as the “New Israel.”
In his book Destin français (“French destiny”), Zemmour has a chapter named “Saint-Louis, the Jewish king.” In it, he claims that, since the Carolingian dynasty, the Franks considered themselves the new chosen people and that the French monarchy took from the Hebrew Bible both its rituals (such as the king’s ointment) and its concepts (such as the chosen people and the divine source of power). For Zemmour, there is no contradiction between his religious allegiance to Judaism and his national allegiance to France, because “For centuries Israel was France’s model.” Moreover, Zemmour writes in this chapter, “It is no coincidence that Israel has been hated for decades by France’s post-Christian and post-colonial Left which, after having venerated Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China … has subjugated itself to Islam as the ultimate banner against nations … Israel is the mirror of a France they hate.”
Zemmour’s 2014 book Le suicide français (“The French Suicide”) was his first bestseller and made him a household name. The book dedicates eight pages out of 527 to the different historical perspectives on the Vichy regime. Those few pages are actually about US historian Robert Paxton, whose book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944 (published in English in 1972 and in French in 1973) challenged traditional French historiography on Vichy. Zemmour dedicates 1.5 percent of his book to Paxton as part of his general thesis, which is that the French radical left failed to overthrow de Gaulle in May 1968 but managed to undo his legacy over the next forty years by way of systematic “deconstruction” in academia, the media, the judiciary, and the high civil service. According to Zemmour, the French left enthusiastically embraced Paxton because his book was a perfect fit for the “deconstruction” of French history.
Zemmour challenges Paxton’s thesis that the Vichy government was eager to collaborate with Germany. Until Paxton, the consensus among French historians was that Vichy had played a double-game to try and preserve the French people. Although Paxton challenges this thesis, he himself admits that three quarters of France’s Jews survived the Holocaust –as opposed to a quarter of Dutch Jews for example. Paxton claims that 75% of France’s Jews survived thanks to French civil society. Until Paxton, Zemmour explains, many historians agreed that Vichy’s double-game had played a role in preserving French Jews. Such was the opinion of French historian Robert Aron and of US historian Raul Hilberg (both of whom were Jewish).
In recent years, Paxton’s thesis has been challenged by Alain Michel, a Franco-Israeli historian and Conservative rabbi mentioned by Zemmour in his book. Michel holds a Ph.D. in history but he is not a history professor, and his 2011 book Vichy et la Shoah (“Vichy and the Shoah”) was published by an obscure publishing house. Michel claims that the Vichy government traded foreign Jews, or recently naturalized ones, to preserve “French Israelites.” In any case, all Zemmour does in Le suicide français is to confront Paxton’s thesis with that of three Jewish historians who claim that Vichy’s double-game did play a role in preserving some French Jews, in spite of Vichy’s antisemitic policies.
In his book Destin français (2018), Zemmour elaborates further on the distinction between French and foreign Jews (or recently naturalized ones) under the Vichy government. This distinction was sometimes advocated by Jews themselves. Zemmour quotes a letter from Jacques Helbronner, then president of the Consistoire (the institution established by Bonaparte in 1808 to administer Jewish worship and congregations in France) to Marshall Philippe Pétain. In it, Helbronner blamed the “invasion” of France by foreign Jews for understandably reviving an antisemitism now directed at “old French family of the Israelite religion.” Pétain promised Helbronner that he would distinguish between Jews “rooted” in France, especially war veterans, and recent Jewish immigrants.
There is, of course, a political motivation behind Zemmour’s efforts to posthumously reconcile the respective legacies of de Gaulle and Pétain. His aim is to unify the French right, which was split by the Algerian war. In the 1980s, President Mitterrand had cynically encouraged the ascendency of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s “national front” by changing the electoral law (he briefly replaced a first-past-the post system with proportional voting in 1986). While Mitterrand had no problem allying with the Communists, he branded Le Pen as illegitimate – thus undermining the right’s electoral prospects. Zemmour is trying to end this divide, which implies wooing the right that had welcomed Pétain in 1940, had opposed de Gaulle in 1962, and had raised the anti-immigration banner in the 1980s.
Zemmour’s efforts to legitimize the hitherto illegitimate right, however, have led him to murky waters. In his recent book La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (“France hasn’t said its last word”), Zemmour laments the fact that the three Jewish children murdered by an Islamist terrorist in March 2012 in the city of Toulouse were buried in Israel and not in France. According to Zemmour, the parents and grandparents of the murdered children (the Sandler family) felt a stronger affiliation to Israel than to France, something Zemmour regrets. This statement was extremely insensitive toward the Sandler family and its tragedy. Zemmour could have argued that a growing number of French Jews prefer Israel to France for their burial by using official statistics and while leaving the Sandler family alone (Zemmour has since then called Samuel Sandler to apologize).
Another indication of how far Zemmour is ready to go to “kosherize” the deep right was his recent statement on the Dreyfus Affair. This legal and political drama tore France apart over a century ago, setting secularists against Catholics, republicans against monarchists, and advocates of principled justice against defenders of raison d’État. Zemmour recently declared that we shall never know the whole truth about the Dreyfus Affair, that it is not entirely clear whether Dreyfus was guilty or innocent, and that anyways Dreyfus had been accused not much as a Jew but as a German (Dreyfus was a native of Alsace, which Bismarck had annexed to the German Reich in 1871).
Zemmour seems to be aiming at army officers, 40% of which believe that Dreyfus was not innocent. Yet by casting doubt, out of cynical political calculation, on Dreyfus’ innocence as well as on the fact that Dreyfus was framed because he was Jewish, Zemmour is crossing a red line. That Dreyfus was innocent and that his false accusation was motivated by antisemitism is not a matter of debate among historians. Even Jean-Marie Le Pen, known for his provocative and outrageous statements (he once described the Holocaust as “a detail” of World War II) has not tried to “reopen” the Dreyfus Affair
Hence is Zemmour accused by his opponents of absolving the antisemitic right with the seal of a Jew. Except that, in recent years, Jews in France have been attacked and murdered for being Jewish by Islamists, not by neo-Nazis or Vichy nostalgists. The gruesome list includes the barbarous murders of Sébastien Sellam in 2003, of Ilan Halimi in 2006, of the children of Toulouse’s Jewish school in 2012, of the customers of a kosher supermarket in Paris in 2015, of Sarah Halimi in 2017, and of Mireille Knoll in 2018.
While Zemmour is embraced by France’s most conservative figures, despite being open about his Jewishness, it is the French left that singles him out as a Jew (even as a Zionist). On 18 September 2021, Zemmour was heckled by “antifa” activists (a far-left movement) who yelled at him: “Zemmour, Zionist, go back to your country!” On 29 October 2021, far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélanchon said in a TV interview that Zemmour’s ideas were influenced by what he described as Judaism’s intrinsic conservatism and strong attachment to a particular identity. On 13 February 2022, environmentalist candidate Yannick Jadot accused Eric Zemmour of being “the antisemites’ useful Jew” (“Juif de service” in French).
Like Saint-Louis, Zemmour aspires to become France’s Jewish King. As he wrote in his book Destin français, “Israel is the mirror of a France they [the French left] hate.” But so is Zemmour himself. Hence the tragedy of Eric Zemmour. He may have achieved the tour de force of anointing “a little Berberian Jew” (to quote his own words) as the candidate of French Catholics and archconservatives. Yet Zemmour is still singled out as a Jew no matter how French he claims to be, thus replicating the lethal illusion of assimilated French Jews (such as Alfred Dreyfus) who sincerely believed that their love for France was mutual. It never was and never will be, as Theodor Herzl realized in Paris. And, incidentally, there is no more need for Zemmour to “replace Jerusalem with Paris”: Jerusalem has been rebuilt, while in Paris Jews are still singled out.
Israel’s relations with China have always been marred by dilemmas. Those dilemmas became more acute in recent years with the intensified geopolitical contest between the U.S. and China. As President Joe Biden is reaffirming Western cohesion to face off China, Israel may have reached the tipping point it had hoped to avoid: choose side and take the risk of alienating China. In June 2021, the Biden Administration asked the newly sworn Israeli government to add its voice to a joint statement by UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) members expressing concern over China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority. This American request faced Israel with a conundrum, which was discussed and assessed by Israel’s new foreign minister Yair Lapid and the top echelon of his ministry.
At stake was a classic case of foreign policy dilemma between realpolitik and principles. Israel has no interest in crossing China; but it is also has moral obligations as a Western democracy, as a state whose people suffered from persecution, and as a U.S. ally. After weighing the pros and cons, Yair Lapid decided to join the Western criticism of China – a decision for which he was thanked by the U.S. administration, but which raised the ire of China and its threat to retaliate (never mind that China systematically backs anti-Israel resolutions at the UN). China’s threats caused Ukraine to back down and to withdraw its signature from the joint statement. The fact that China imposed painful economic sanctions on Australia to punish it for advocating an international probe into Covid-19’s origins must have concentrated the mind of Ukraine’s president.
Israel, like other signatories of the joint statement, will likely pay a price for its principled decision. Hence does the United States have a responsibility toward democracies. The Biden administration is correct to coalesce the free world around an expanding and repressive China; but it must also complete its strategy by shielding its allies from China’s economic bullying. Ukraine’s flip-flop and Australia’s woes are but a reminder that America’s legitimate expectations cannot be a one-way street. As China threatened to interrupt its supply of Covid-19 vaccines to Ukraine, the U.S. should have stepped in with its own supplies. The fact that the U.S. has taken advantage of Australia’s ostracization by selling more American coal to China is both cynical and counterproductive.
Israel would have much to lose from downgrading its economic relations with China – relations that were built thanks many years of diplomatic efforts. Israel was the first Middle East country to recognize, in 1950, Mao Zedong’s government; yet it also refrained from establishing full diplomatic relations for fear of alienating the U.S. (which fought North Korea between 1950 and 1953) and France (which fought China-backed Vietnamese communists until 1954). After the 1955 Bandung Conference and the 1956 Suez war, China engaged in a resolutely pro-Arab policy. Yet the Sino-Soviet split, together with the severance of relations between the USSR and Israel in 1967, produced the conditions for a quiet rapprochement between China and Israel.
Abandoned by its former Soviet ally, China lost its only military supplier. Having fought and defeated Soviet-backed Arab armies, Israel was known for its expertise in upgrading Soviet military equipment. Hence did China initiate secret military ties with Israel in the late 1970s under the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping. By the late 1980s, military ties between Israel and China were reported to be worth billions of dollars. Israel publicly admitted to their existence in 1992. That same year, the two countries established full diplomatic relations. But Israel’s military ties with China caused tension with the United States.
In March 1992, the U.S. government accused Israel of transferring American military technology to China. In 2000, America stopped Israel from selling its airborne early warning and control radar system (AEW&C) to China. Although this system had been developed exclusively by Israel and did not include American technology, the U.S. government feared the sale would alter the military balance in the Strait of Taiwan to China’s advantage. In December 2004, the U.S. government asked Israel not to sell drones to China. Again, the technology was Israeli, but the U.S. feared it might provide too much of a qualitative military advantage to China. The same year, Israel and the U.S. signed an agreement in which Israel committed not to sell any military equipment to China that might include American technology.
While Israel had to downgrade its military ties with China, economic relations between the two countries flourished. In 2013, it was announced that China would be involved in building the “Med-Red” project, a commercial railway planned to run from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. In 2015, Israel became one of the founding members of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), despite strong American reservations. In March 2016, Israel and China announced the negotiation of a free-trade agreement. In 2016 as well, China invested $21.5 billion in infrastructures in the Middle East and Africa. Its “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), partly financed by AIIB, involves investing heavily in transportation infrastructures (such as roads, railroads, and seaports) to connect China to European and African markets. China is also involved in building infrastructures in Israel, such as the Carmel tunnels in Haifa, the light rail in Tel Aviv, and the expansion of the Ashdod and Haifa ports.
China’s interest in Israel is related to Israel’s scientific excellence and innovation, especially in high-tech, agriculture, water technologies, and biotech. Even though Israel’s deepening ties with China are now mostly commercial and technological, they are still a source of concern for the United States. Since the U.S. perceives China as an economic rival in the global sphere, senior U.S. officials have warned their Israeli counterparts that trade and technological relations between Israel and China are going too far. In January 2019, for example, U.S. national security advisor John Bolton expressed to Israeli leaders his government’s discomfort that the Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE are investing in Israel, and that a Chinese company is building the new Haifa port.
Neither Israel nor China have an interest in economic decoupling. China is Israel’s third trade partner (after the EU and the U.S.), and Chinese investments in Israeli technology are mutually beneficial. Indeed, the U.S.-China trade is worth hundreds of billions of dollars despite acute disagreements between the two powers. Israel cannot reasonably be expected to disengage economically from China, but it does and will continue to coordinate with its U.S. ally Chinese investments in sensitive areas such as 5G and infrastructures.
While China used to separate between business and politics, and while its support for anti-Israel UN resolutions could be seen and forgiven as mere lip service to Chinese interests in the Muslim world, China’s Middle East policy has taken a worrying turn in recent months. During the May 2021 confrontation between Hamas and Israel, China adopted an aggressive stance vis-à-vis Israel both at the UN and in its state-controlled media: it co-sponsored (and not only supported) a biased UNHRC resolution against Israel; it initiated three Security Council emergency sessions aimed at condemning Israel; China’s foreign minister castigated the U.S. for shielding Israel and the Security Council (implying that Israel had no right to defend itself from Hamas); and Chinese media became replete with anti-Semitic slurs (typically accusing the Jews of controlling finance and the media).
In March 2021, shortly before the latest Israel-Hamas flare, China had signed a cooperation agreement with Iran in defiance of U.S. sanctions. Sensing partial U.S. retreat from the Middle East, and aware of America’s determination to reach an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, China is positioning itself as a competing power in the region. A China that openly challenges the U.S. and upgrades its ties with Iran can hardly be a neutral Middle East actor. Hence, it seems, China’s outspoken support for Hamas during the recent conflict with Israel.
If China can decouple between bilateral and multilateral relations (developing strong economic ties with Israel while supporting anti-Israel UN resolutions), so can Israel. Chinese officials claim that China’s voting pattern at the UN has not changed on the Middle East, but the evidence (detailed above) suggests otherwise. The same officials claim that votes on Xinjiang or Tibet constitute an interference in domestic Chinese affairs, but they refuse to apply the same logic to votes on the West Bank or Gaza. Seen from Jerusalem, this double-standard is disingenuous.
The Biden administration can count on Israel to close the ranks of Western democracies. At the same time, however, Israel’s economic relations with China must be allowed to grow within the range of U.S. strategic interests and security concerns. As for China, it must understand that decoupling (between bilateral and multilateral diplomacy) and interference (whether on Xinjiang or Gaza) can no longer be a one-way street, due to Israel’s strategic relations with the United States, to the expectations of the Biden administration from its allies, and to recent changes in China’s UN votes on the Middle East.
Israël s’apprête à aller aux urnes pour la quatrième fois en moins de deux ans. Les Juifs de France qui s’inquiètent à juste titre de cette instabilité auraient tort de l’attribuer au système politique israélien. C’est un fait qu’Israël n’a jamais connu une telle instabilité politique depuis son indépendance. Les causes de ces élections à répétition ne sont pas structurelles mais conjoncturelles : Benjamin Netanyahou n’a pas de majorité, il refuse de s’écarter, et il tient le pays en otage pour se maintenir au pouvoir coûte-que-coûte.
Pour comprendre cette perte de majorité, il faut remonter aux élections de février 2009. Netanyahou revient alors au pouvoir après une traversée du désert qui aura duré dix ans (il fut premier ministre entre 1996 et 1999). Le Likoud arrive en deuxième place derrière Kadima (27 et 28 sièges respectivement) mais parvient à former un gouvernement grâce au Parti travailliste alors dirigé par Ehud Barak, ainsi qu’aux partis orthodoxes qui refusent de soutenir Tzipi Livni (la chef du parti Kadima). La coalition est hétéroclite et contre-nature, mais Barak préfère être ministre de la défense de « Bibi » que de « Tzipora » (le surnom machiste qu’il donne à Livni). Le parti travailliste finit par se rebeller et Barak fait sécession en 2011 avec cinq députés. 2011 est également l’année de la grogne sociale, que Netanyahou neutralise en échangeant Gilead Shalit pour un millier de terroristes avec du sang sur les mains. En 2012 Livni perd la direction de Kadima au profit de son rival Shaul Mofaz, qui créé la surprise en se joignant au gouvernement de Netanyahou.
Aux élections de janvier 2013 Kadima s’effondre (de 28 à 2 sièges), mais le Likoud a également pris un coup puisqu’il passe de 27 à 20 sièges. Netanyahou a formé une alliance avec Lieberman pour être la plus grande liste après les élections (elle le sera avec les 11 sièges de Lieberman), mais ce choix s’avère être une erreur stratégique pour deux raisons : 1) Il fait perdre de nombreux électeurs au Likoud ; 2) Il fait de Libermann l’ennemi juré de Netanyahou car ce dernier n’honore pas son engagement d’intégrer Libermann au Likoud (les deux partis se sépareront en 2014). Netanyahou est contraint par Yaïr Lapid, le grand gagnant de cette élection (19 sièges), d’exclure les partis orthodoxes de la coalition. Netanyahou forme donc un gouvernement avec ses rivaux que sont Lapid, Bennett, Livni, et Liebermann. Au bout de deux ans-et-demi, Netanyahou met fin à cette coalition en provoquant des élections anticipées.
Il gagne son pari puisque, aux élections de mars 2015, le Likoud monte à 30 sièges et parvient à réintégrer ses alliés orthodoxes dans la coalition. Mais il s’agit en réalité d’une victoire en trompe-l’œil car la nouvelle coalition de Netanyahou repose sur une majorité-rasoir de 61 députés (sur 120). Sa coalition est donc menacée en cas de défection et elle est sujette aux chantages des députés puisque chaque voix est nécessaire dans une majorité aussi serrée. Netanyahou tente d’affermir son pouvoir par le biais de manipulations de plus en plus troublantes. En juillet 2014, il avait tout fait pour empêcher l’élection de Reuven Rivlin à la présidence de l’État car celui-ci figure sur la liste des cibles de Madame Netanyahou. Quelques semaines avant l’élection, « Balfour » (le surnom de la résidence du premier ministre) tente même de soumettre un projet de loi pour dissoudre l’institution de la présidence de l’État. C’est à la suite de cet épisode que Gideon Saar, alors ministre de l’Intérieur et étoile montante du Likoud, démissionne du gouvernement et de la Knesset. À la surprise de tous, il annonce son retrait temporaire de la vie politique.
La décision de Saar a des raisons plus profondes que le comportement erratique de « Balfour ». Il s’avère en effet que Netanyahou a entraîné le pays à des élections anticipées en 2015 pour préserver « son » journal Israel Hayom (un tabloïde propagandiste généreusement financé par le milliardaire américain Sheldon Adelson). En novembre 2014, en effet, la Knesset approuve en première lecture un projet de loi qui eût obligé Israel Hayom d’être payant (le journal est distribué gratuitement, ce qui asphyxie économiquement Yediot Aharonot, le tabloïde rival et anti-Netanyahou). Les partenaires-rivaux de Netanyahou ont voté pour le projet de loi : Yaïr Lapid, Tzipi Livni, et Avigdor Liebermann. En provoquant des élections anticipées, Netanyahou empêche que le projet de loi ne fût approuvé en seconde et troisième lectures. Netanyahou a inauguré un modus operandi qui se répétera en 2019 : entraîner tout un pays à des élections inutiles pour servir son intérêt personnel. L’État c’est moi, premier acte.
Après les élections de 2015, Netanyahou s’arroge le portefeuille de la Communication. Il limoge immédiatement le directeur général du ministère et nomme à sa place un fidèle de longue date. Par ailleurs, Netanyahou inclut dans les accords de coalition un article qui oblige les membres du gouvernement d’approuver toute décision du ministre de la Communication. La signification de ces signes suspects sera révélée quatre ans plus tard avec la mise en examen de Netanyahou dans le « dossier 4000 » : selon l’acte d’accusation, Netanyahou aurait forcé la vente de parts de la société « Yes » à la société « Bezeq » pour un somme de 170 millions d’Euros, contrairement à l’avis des experts du ministère de la Communication et de son directeur-général limogé par Netanyahou, et ce afin de de fournir à « Yes » les liquidités dont elle avait urgemment besoin. Or le propriétaire de « Yes » est l’homme d’affaires Shaul Alovitch, dont l’influent site d’information « Walla » est très critique de Netanyahou et de sa famille. Comme par miracle, ce même site devient très « pro-Bibi » dans les mois qui précèdent l’approbation de la vente des parts de « Yes » à « Bezeq ».
Netanyahou n’est pourtant pas rassasié, et son obsession avec les médias continue – au point qu’il pousse presque le pays à de nouvelles élections en mars 2017. Il veut maintenant bloquer la refonte de la chaîne de télévision publique pourtant décidée sous son gouvernement précédent. Il soupçonne en effet que cette nouvelle chaîne ne lui sera pas favorable. Et il s’avère en plus que la présentatrice du 20 heures sera la journaliste-star Geoula Even qui n’est autre que l’épouse de Gideon Saar, honni par « Balfour ». Le ministre des Finances Moshe Kahlon, dont le parti de dix sièges est vital à la coalition, dit non. Netanyahou menace de nouvelles élections, mais Kahlon tient bon et Netanyahou ne met pas sa menace à exécution.
Parallèlement, Netanyahou a réussi à élargir sa coalition. Il a longuement négocié avec le parti travailliste pour son entrée au gouvernement, mais l’aile droite du Likoud s’oppose à une telle reconfiguration de la coalition qui entraînerait un gel de la construction dans les implantations. Le leadership des implantations et le ministre Likoud Zeev Elkin font tout pour faire échouer les pourparlers avec le parti travailliste et pour convaincre Liebermann de se joindre à la coalition. Pas facile de convaincre Liebermann, qui ne tarit pas d’insultes sur Netanyahou (« menteur, arnaqueur, voyou » sont les superlatifs cités par la presse). Mais lorsqu’il s’avère que Netanyahou est prêt à céder son royaume pour un cheval (le ministère de la Défense pour cinq députés), Lieberman accepte. Lieberman finira par démissionner en novembre 2018, prétextant ce qu’il appelle la capitulation de Netanyahou face au Hamas. Netanyahou aurait pu tenir avec 61 députés, comme il l’avait fait entre mai 2015 et mai 2016, mais il décide d’avancer les élections.
Après les élections d’avril 2019, le bloc de Netanyahou (Likoud et alliés) se réduit à 60 députés et n’a donc pas de majorité. Liebermann ne veut plus entendre parler de Netanyahou, et ce dernier n’a donc pas de gouvernement. Plutôt que de laisser un autre député tenter sa chance (comme le prévoit la loi), Netanyahou exige de son parti de voter pour une dissolution immédiate. Aux élections de septembre 2019, le parti Bleu et Blanc arrive en tête du Likoud avec 33 députés contre 32. Le « bloc Bibi » compte 55 députés et le « bloc anti-Bibi » en compte 65. Étant donné que Benny Gantz exclue la formation d’un gouvernement avec la liste arabe unifiée, la situation est bloquée. La seule solution est un gouvernement d’union entre Bleu et Blanc et le Likoud. Mais Netanyahou préfère retenter sa chance avec une troisième élection en espérant qu’il obtiendra une majorité de 61 députés pour légiférer une immunité en sa faveur et mettre fin à son procès pour corruption. C’est Zeev Elkin, l’ancien confident du premier ministre, qui nous révèle cette âpre vérité en décembre 2020 : « Monsieur le premier ministre » déclare-t-il devant les caméras, « vous avez entraîné le pays à quatre élections en deux ans par calcul personnel (…) vous avez rejeté un gouvernement d’union après la deuxième élection en espérant à tort qu’une troisième élection vous apporterait la majorité requise pour faire passer des lois personnelles afin de vous protéger de votre procès pour corruption ».
Les accusation d’Elkin vont plus loin : « Vous avez détruit le Likoud, l’avez transformé en une cour byzantine et en culte de la personnalité qui fait taire toute critique » et qui promeut les courtisans serviles et incompétents. Après les élections de mars 2019 (les troisièmes) le « bloc Bibi » n’a que 58 députés et Netanyahou finit à la dernière minute par accepter un accord avec Benny Gantz. Mais Netanyahou laisse dans l’accord un piège que les avocats de Gantz n’ont pas repéré : sans approbation du budget, la Knesset s’auto-dissout et l’accord de coalition devient désuet. C’est pourquoi Netanyahou bloque le passage du budget pendant six mois en pleine crise économique, et c’est pourquoi nous nous dirigeons vers une quatrième élection.
Cette élection, Netanyahou ne pourra pas la gagner à l’instar des trois précédentes. Mais il atteint son but en restant premier ministre intérimaire. Il met donc sa survie politique avant l’intérêt national.
Seul Gideon Saar a eu le courage de se mesurer à Netanyahou pour mettre fin à cette folie. Netanyahou a fait beaucoup de bonnes choses pour Israël, en particulier en politique étrangère. Mais après quinze ans au pouvoir et après deux années de prise en otage d’Israël pour se protéger de son procès, il ne mérite plus de diriger le pays auquel il a beaucoup apporté mais auquel il porte à présent atteinte.
The possible extension of Israeli sovereignty (widely yet inaccurately described as “annexation”) to parts of the West Bank (or Judea & Samaria in Hebrew) raises two distinct questions on such a move: a) Would it be productive? b) Would it be legal? To most if not all European leaders, the answer to both questions is no. They should rethink their approach to the (currently unlikely) prospect of Israeli annexation. Here is why.
The two-state solution shall remain a myth so long as the Palestinians and their supporters insist on the above chimeras. Most Israelis, however, would agree to a two-state solution based on the following principles: a demilitarized Palestinian state; Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan valley and the settlement blocs; a united Jerusalem without some of the city’s Arab neighbourhoods; the integration of Palestinian refugees in their own state. Those were the parameters spelled-out by Yitzhak Rabin shortly before his assassination in November 1995. And those are the parameters of President Trump’s “deal of the century.”
The Palestinians admittedly reject those parameters. Yet they also rejected parameters that would have granted them a state over nearly the entire West Bank (after land swaps) and the Gaza Strip: those of President Clinton in December 2000; those of Prime Minister Olmert in September 2008; and those of Secretary of State Kerry in February 2014. Palestinian rejectionism was encouraged by a negotiating strategy that had so far worked for them: say no and expect a better offer. So long as the Palestinians felt that time was on their side, they had no incentive to compromise. By ending this cycle, President Trump has lifted an obstacle to a realistic two-state solution.
By annexing the settlement blocs and the Jordan valley, and by freezing construction in the areas designated to a Palestinian state, Israel shall set the conditions for a two-state solution acceptable to most Israelis. It will then be for the Palestinians to decide whether they prefer the status quo or a demilitarized state that shall not pay life salaries to the families of terrorists and that shall not educate its children in the hatred of Jews.
Partial annexation would be consistent with international law because the West Bank was not a sovereign territory before its conquest by Israel in 1967. When Britain ended is mandate in May 1948 it created a legal void that was filled by Israel, Egypt and Jordan following the 1949 armistice agreements. Jordan conquered part of the former British mandate in 1948 and annexed it in 1950. This annexation was never recognized by the international community (except for Britain and Pakistan), and therefore the West Bank (it was called “Cis-Jordan” then and is still called “Cisjordanie” in French) did not become a sovereign territory.
Moreover, Jordan conquered this territory in a war of aggression in 1948, while Israel conquered it in self-defence in 1967. This territory was part of the mandate which the League of Nations had designated for Jewish self-determination in 1922. The 1949 armistice agreements did not establish a border but a temporary ceasefire line. UN Security Council 242 does not require an Israeli withdrawal to that line, and resolution 2334 allows for mutually agreed border adjustments.
The Trump plan includes land swaps of similar sizes between Israel and a Palestinian state, as well as territorial continuity between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Even by annexing 30% of the West Bank (the maximum allowed by the Trump plan), Israel would only add a small Arab population to its sovereign territory. That population would be given access to Israeli citizenship, like the rest of Israel’s two-million Arabs who are represented in parliament, in the supreme court, and in the civil service.
The European Union (EU) has imposed sanctions on Russia after its annexation of Crimea, but Crimea was part of a sovereign country unlike the West Bank. And the EU can hardly evoke the principle of consistency since it does not impose sanctions on Turkey for its occupation of an EU member (Cyprus). As for those who say they oppose unilateral moves as a matter of principle, it is for them to explain why they supported Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.
Those in Europe who threaten Israel with sanctions in case of a partial annexation seem not to realize that Israelis, having paid in the past the intolerable price of their naïveté, are now willing to pay the tolerable price of their realism. As Golda Meir used to quip: “We prefer your condemnations to your condolences.”