Crunch time for Israeli democracy

As things stand, and despite talk of compromise, the coalition is set in days to bulldoze through the Knesset its revolution in Israel’s governance, giving all power to Netanyahu

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Police on horseback face Israelis blocking a road as they protest against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
Police on horseback face Israelis blocking a road as they protest against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

It’s crunch time for Israeli democracy.

Simcha Rothman, the chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, has scheduled sessions from Sunday through Wednesday of next week to finalize legislation that will let the governing majority choose Israel’s High Court justices and render Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws immune to judicial oversight.

That legislation, supplemented by other bills working their way through parliament, neuters Israel’s judiciary, giving all governing power to the political majority and leaving our most fundamental rights — to equality, the rule of law, freedom of speech, religious freedoms, elections and more — vulnerable to abuse by the coalition.

By arranging hearings through next Wednesday, Rothman is indicating that the legislation, which passed its first Knesset reading two weeks ago, will not be brought to the plenum for its final (second and third) readings next week. (The plenum rarely convenes on Thursdays, and a minimum 48-hour break is usually required between approval of a bill in committee and a vote in the Knesset). But in theory, Rothman could steamroll the bill to a vote on Sunday, and bring it to the Knesset to be enacted into law almost immediately.

Crunch time indeed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Justice Minister Yariv Levin and MK Simcha Rothman (standing) in the Knesset on February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Amid this unhinged dash to destroy Israel’s foundational democratic system of government and tolerantly Jewish values, Rothman and Justice Minister Yariv Levin claimed in a joint statement on Tuesday that “broad agreement is within arms reach” on judicial reform — a beyond bizarre assertion given that Israel is deep in the process of tearing itself apart over the revolution they are spearheading on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Public protests are escalating, the tech sector that drives our economy is convulsing, and the Israel Defense Forces that ensure our day-to-day survival are at risk of disintegration in an orgy of partisan fury and despair.

Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against the government’s judicial overhaul moves, in Tel Aviv on March 4, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

In one set of leaks to Tuesday night’s primetime news programs, those around Netanyahu let it be known that the prime minister had met Levin three times in the past five days to urge him to immediately soften the terms of the legislation, and had cited the devastating consequences the process is already causing for Israeli diplomacy, security, economy, social cohesion, and the coalition’s political support.

Yet it was, of course, Netanyahu who appointed Levin as justice minister in the first place barely two months ago, who knew exactly which “reforms” Levin intended to impose in order to shackle the High Court, who has consistently publicly backed this fundamental change in Israel’s governance as the legislation has advanced, who has derided protesters as anarchists, who has accused bank chiefs of creating the financial crises they have desperately warned against, and who ignored President Isaac Herzog’s plea to enable a good-faith debate on judicial reform by postponing last month’s first reading of the core legislation.

In a second set of leaks on Tuesday night, those “close to Levin” were reported to be hailing as a “breakthrough” a compromise proposal drawn up by former justice minister Daniel Friedmann, former national security adviser Giora Eiland and others, which those in the Levin entourage were said to describe as the “first framework that could serve as a basis for genuine dialogue.”

Former National Security Adviser Giora Eiland in 2022. (Video screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Eiland asserted this morning that Levin and Rothman “know they have to give ground,” and that it might be easier for them to do so when a compromise route is offered by a group including Friedmann, whom they respect.

Eiland said he and his colleagues sought to address all of the main principles in the coalition’s legislative package, and present more widely acceptable alternatives. Their document indeed offers various less radical formulas — notably offering two frameworks for remaking the Judicial Selection Committee in a manner that does not give the coalition the majority it seeks to choose our justices.

Unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, the brief, two-page text is no panacea — its suggested protections for Basic Laws, for example, are less than hermetic — meaning Netanyahu and his enablers could in theory assert that they were indeed changing course, accept and legislate the Friedmann framework or something like it, but then exploit its weaknesses to revert to their original plans.

Israelis who oppose the government’s judicial overhaul protest in Tel Aviv, March 3, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

As things stand, there is simply no reason to believe that Netanyahu, Levin and Rothman would be ready to cut out the very heart of the overhaul program and consent to a Friedmann-style formula for choosing justices that is essentially no different from the one in use today — the one that Levin claims leaves vast masses of the Israeli public feeling unheard and unrepresented on the bench; the one under which compromise and cooperation is required for candidates to be approved.

At the very least, however, any ostensible preparedness for compromise will first be tested by a readiness on the part of Rothman and Levin, and by extension Netanyahu, to do what they signally refused to do barely two weeks ago: Stop the advance of their current brutal legislation.

Police officers deploy as Israelis demonstrate against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife Sara, outside a hair salon in Tel Aviv on March 1, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

As of this writing, they are doing the opposite.

Rothman’s committee is scheduled to resume its demolition work on Sunday.

And the enactment of the Netanyahu coalition’s revolutionary change in the governance of Israel — from liberal democracy to a tyranny of the majority under an all-powerful prime minister — can follow at any time after that.

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