Dinner With Bibi Netanyahu — Up Close, Personal, and, Surprisingly, Funny
We spent three hours together and he is a leader who can compromise on judicial reform, though he’s right on many of the substantive points.
When I attended Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations, he and his wife invited me and my wife to join them and some friends for Shabbat dinner. The premier asked me to sit next to him. We spent the next three hours discussing and debating the proposed judicial reform and other issues dividing Israel and its supporters around the world.
The previous evening, I spoke at a rally in support of Israeli democracy, which I said would endure even if all the judicial reforms — many of which in their current form I do not support — were to be enacted. Counter demonstrators across the street, who claim to support democracy, tried to shout me down and to prevent me from making the case for compromise.
They reminded me of the woke students who try to shout down speakers with whom they disagree, all in the supposed name of what they regard as democracy: “Free speech for me but not for thee.” My discussions with Netanyahu — whom I’ve known for more than half a century — centered around the controversial proposals to curtail the power of the Supreme Court.
That involves giving politicians more of a role in selecting justices. The prime minister indicated a willingness to negotiate compromises on some of the disputed provisions but said that extremists on the other side refused to budge, because they believed they were strengthening their base by conducting protests both in Israel and in America.
To my mind, Mr. Netanyahu seemed eminently reasonable — far more so than he is portrayed by protesters and much of the press. I offered my help in trying to broker a compromise, since I have friends on both sides of the issue. President Herzog, is also interested in facilitating compromise, but extremists on both sides seem to prefer division to unity.
I believe that the vast majority of Israelis would approve reasonable compromises, but the extremists who oppose a negotiated resolution are louder and more belligerent than the centrists.
Few of those who protested Bibi at the UN — including reform and conservative Rabbis — have any real understanding of the issues involved in the proposed reforms.
Rather, they simply don’t like Mr. Netanyahu and the coalition he was forced to assemble in order to cobble together a governing majority. The reality is that the current Israel Supreme Court is the most powerful in the world. Its power to strike down laws enacted, and actions taken by the elected branches of government exceeds that of any other democracy.
There is no requirement that a litigant must have “standing.” So majority laws and actions can be challenged by anyone. Nor is there a prohibition on the court entering the thicket of politics or economics. So the court can second guess political and economic decisions. Until a recent law was enacted, a majority of justices could strike down executive they deem “unreasonable.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has no such powers. Nor do the high courts of other democracies. Mr. Netanyahu justifies the reforms he supports by saying he wants to make Israel’s Supreme Court more like ours and the courts in other democracies. I believe him. Some on the extreme right, though, want to politicize the courts in their direction and weaken its power to overrule the majority.
They also want to control the selection process by which judges are appointed. Many opponents of any reform want to hand Mr. Netanyahu a political defeat and destroy his coalition, without regard to the merits of specific proposals. Mr. Netanyahu himself seeks a compromise that defuses the deep divisions in the country while allowing the current coalition to survive.
One thing is clear to me, based both on my discussions with Mr. Netanyahu and my considerable knowledge of the Israeli legal system. It is that the proposed reforms have nothing to do with helping the prime minister defend himself against the criminal charges he is currently facing. These charges are quite weak and may well fail on their own merits and demerits.
Moreover, the specific reforms have little or no impact on the ongoing trial. Considering all the pressures, both domestic and international that Bibi is under, he was, during dinner, remarkably upbeat, optimistic, and even funny. He is one of the smartest, best educated, hardest-working, and perceptive leaders in the world. It shows not only in public but in private.