Op-edIf he had wanted a ladder to climb down, this was it

Netanyahu crushes a potential mini-revolt, insists on politicizing the judiciary

Horrified by disunity in the ranks, the defense minister was about to publicly plead for a halt to the coalition assault on the courts’ independence. Then came a summons from the PM

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).

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi observe a joint US, Israeli military exercise at the Air Force command center, January 25, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi observe a joint US, Israeli military exercise at the Air Force command center, January 25, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

A day of extraordinary drama in the bitterly divided State of Israel — which saw escalated protests against the government’s imminent judicial revolution, and the first signs of real dissent in Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing Likud — ended with the prime minister declaring that the core legislation, to give the coalition almost complete control over the appointment of Israel’s judges, will be enacted in the Knesset next week as planned.

If a mini-revolt was indeed brewing, it was crushed before it had even managed to announce itself.

Netanyahu addressed the nation about an hour after his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, had been scheduled to do so. Gallant, a former IDF general, was widely believed to be planning to publicly demand a halt to the entire package of legislation, under which Netanyahu and his far-right and ultra-Orthodox coalition allies are aiming to politicize and radically constrain the High Court, the only effective brake on government excesses.

Gallant is reported to have conveyed to Netanyahu in recent days acute concerns that the planned neutering of Israel’s internationally respected High Court, which would also expose Israeli troops and commanders to a greater risk of international prosecution for any alleged abuses, is causing devastating divisions in the military, especially among reservists in the Air Force and other elite units, some of whom have been threatening to stop turning up for active service.

Similar worries have been expressed to the prime minister by the IDF’s chief of staff, who reportedly stressed that the army’s operational capabilities will be harmed, and the head of the Shin Bet security service, while former heads of all of Israel’s security apparatuses have publicly campaigned against the judicial revolution, including by addressing the mass rallies that have been held across Israel for the past three months as the legislation has advanced.

Gallant’s anticipated public call to halt the legislative blitz sparked rumors Thursday afternoon that a handful of other Likud leaders who have offered mild criticisms of their own — including the former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter and ex-Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat — might join forces to try to force Netanyahu’s hand.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant seen during a tour near the border with Lebanon, northern Israel, March 16, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

However, shortly before Gallant’s scheduled address to the nation, and with other Likud Knesset members denouncing him and calling for his ouster for his apparently imminent defiance of the party line, Netanyahu summoned the defense minister to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

As Gallant made the 40-mile journey from Tel Aviv, unnamed sources close to Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who has been spearheading the legislation, leaked dark threats to the media about “consequences” for Netanyahu if he halted the process, and other anonymous Likud sources warned, “If Netanyahu stops the legislation and capitulates, he’ll discover he doesn’t have a government.”

The conversation between Netanyahu and Gallant was brief and decisive. Gallant emerged to announce that he had presented Netanyahu with the details of the “impact of the legislative processes on the IDF and the defense establishment” and, at the prime minister’s request, was “delaying” his planned statement.

Soon after that, Netanyahu addressed the nation instead.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement to the nation on the judicial overhaul, on March 23, 2023. (Screencapture)

The prime minister acknowledged that opponents of his overhaul “fear a theocracy, a non-liberal state, laws against LGBTQs, secular, women, minorities.” They believe, he admitted, that democracy is endangered by “a Knesset and a government acting without brakes, and that will harm individual rights.” He promised to “take into account” the concerns expressed by Gallant regarding “the implications of the situation on our national security.” And he declared piously that, “We can’t let any disagreement, however fierce, endanger our joint future.”

He also, however, repeated and expanded on his past assaults on the justices of the High Court, asserting falsely that they operate a self-selecting closed club — when in fact the justices and the government both have veto power on candidates; claiming inaccurately that they had prevented the expulsion of illegal migrants — when in fact it was Netanyahu who canceled his own agreement with the UN on the issue; and making distorted comparisons between the processes for choosing judges in Israel and those in the US, New Zealand and Canada. And he denounced the political opposition for refusing to enter a dialogue on what he called the “democratic reforms” — when in fact opposition leaders have urged negotiation, but demanded as a precondition that the coalition halt its legislative onslaught.

And then Netanyahu declared that the most significant element of the legislative package — changing the process by which Israel chooses its judges to give the governing majority control over the first two High Court appointments in any Knesset term, heavy influence over any subsequent High Court appointments, the ability to choose the Court’s president, and full authority over appointments to the lower courts — would be voted into law next week as planned. He noted, accurately, that the legislation had been modified in recent days — a previous draft gave the coalition automatic control of all High Court appointments — and said that the change was introduced to address critics’ fears that the court would henceforth be controlled by the political majority. And he claimed, as he has time and again over the past three months, that his power grab “is not the end of democracy; it’s strengthening democracy.”

Netanyahu’s address was more conciliatory in tone than many he has delivered of late. He allowed that opponents of the revolution “are not traitors,” having previously described them as “anarchists,” and (before backpedaling) notoriously compared some of them to the settler extremists who set Palestinian homes on fire after a terror attack last month.

Students protest against the judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, March 23, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He also promised, vaguely, sometime in the future, to anchor in law the basic individual rights of all Israeli citizens — including free speech, freedom of religion, equality and more — that the current legislative package would render immune from court protection.

But there’s tone, and then there’s substance.

And ultimately, Netanyahu, who assembled this unprecedentedly hardline Israeli coalition, and appointed Levin to lead this unprecedented legislative offensive against Israeli democracy, opted to hold to his extreme course. He showed himself undeterred by the mounting protests, the warnings from within and without of economic chaos, and, most dangerously, the concern conveyed by his defense minister that the cohesion, solidarity and shared sense of purpose in Israel’s security forces are being shattered.

If he had wanted a ladder to climb down, this was it — championing national security above a radical, destructive agenda; heeding his defense minister’s warning at the expense of his centerpiece legislation. But yet again, Netanyahu showed how skewed his priorities have become.

And thus the day of extraordinary drama — in which it briefly appeared that the prime minister might be pressured to reembrace Israel’s vital interests, or risk a challenge from a few remaining Likud politicians prepared to put the well-being of their country ahead of their own careers — ended with Israel still hurtling, in the oft-repeated words of President Isaac Herzog, toward the abyss.

Most Popular
read more: