Israel, our beloved Jewish and democratic state, is at risk of being taken apart by its own democratically elected incoming government.
A toxic slurry of legislation is being prepared that threatens to render this unique and wonderful country vulnerable to the tyranny of an intolerant, dangerous governing majority.
So much radical reorientation of Israel’s hitherto broadly tolerant direction and so many radical infringements on our freedom are being discussed, in a bewildering deluge of demands, agreements-in-principle, and legislative initiatives by members of the soon-to-be ruling coalition of Benjamin Netanyahu, that it is hard to know what to focus on first in sounding the alarm.
But that alarm must be sounded, to all who care about maintaining our near-miraculous modern exercise in Jewish sovereignty in our ancient homeland. Because if the key anti-democratic measures being discussed by Netanyahu and his allies unfold as their advocates intend, our democratic Israel will be gone, and a Jewish Israel will be unsustainable — divided and resentful within, criticized and gradually abandoned by key allies without, and consequently less capable of defending itself against its already salivating enemies.
On Thursday, The Times of Israel published a list of significant coalition deal clauses, agenda items and policy plans by the incoming Netanyahu-led government, based on published agreements, statements from the coalition partners themselves, and widely reported material on their proposals.
Included in this list are the new government’s plans to rescind a ban on racists running for and serving in the Knesset. This ban, introduced in 1985, was utilized at the time to exclude Meir Kahane’s Kach party, and in recent years to keep the Kahane-inspired Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir’s viciously anti-Arab, anti-miscegenation cronies, among other unpalatables, from running for parliamentary office.
Legislation is also being discussed that would legalize discrimination within Israel. No, seriously. The relevant clauses in at least two parties’ soon-to-be-signed coalition deals with Likud reportedly provide for laws to be changed to allow service providers to refuse customers “due to religious belief.” An initiative apparently designed primarily for use against the LGBTQ community — a community reviled by many of the next government’s members — it carries horrific echoes and offers untold further potential targets and applications. Arabs? Women?
The incoming coalition is intending to deepen the legislative basis for widespread draft avoidance by the ultra-Orthodox community (rather than working, as successive governments should have worked, to introduce a range of national service programs, military and civilian, and insure that all young Israelis perform a similar period of service within a framework appropriate for them). It is also planning to allocate significantly more state funding for full-time yeshiva study and for ultra-Orthodox schools, notably including those that do not teach a core curriculum. The collective impact of these moves will be to consign members of the ultra-Orthodox community to deepened poverty and dependence on the state, while they take a diminishing role in the workforce and in the defense of the state, and are instead ever-more-disproportionately protected and financially supported by the rest of Israel’s soldiers and taxpayers.
Religious Zionism’s coalition deal, meanwhile, reportedly refers to plans for “applying sovereignty in Judea and Samaria” — that is, annexing much or all of the West Bank without anything close to equal rights for its non-Jewish residents. This is a process that, if fully implemented, would destroy Israel’s Jewish majority and its democracy at a stroke, and turn Israel into the apartheid state its enemies have falsely branded it for decades.
At the same time, the incoming coalition will be alienating much of the Jewish Diaspora with plans to further diminish the status in the Jewish state of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism (to which most American Jews are affiliated) — including by tampering with regulations on conversions to Judaism for citizenship purposes — and to amend the Law of Return to exclude or limit the rights of would-be immigrants who are not halachically Jewish.
Many of these plans, and many of the numerous other radical proposals for the remaking of Israel as an intolerant nondemocracy, would ordinarily be impossible to implement, no matter how dominant and unified the government and how capable, therefore, of pushing its legislation through parliament. That’s because Israel’s top court, the High Court of Justice, has been able to warn against and in rare cases strike down legislation and government decisions that the justices deem in contravention of Israel’s Basic Laws — the closest thing we have to a constitution.
But all the incoming coalition parties are also planning to constrain and quite possibly neuter the High Court, and thus to overcome Israel’s last-resort protection against the most dangerous excesses and abuses desired by the political majority. Bezalel Smotrich unveiled specific proposals shortly before the November 1 election that would render the top court impotent; his Religious Zionism party now says it has agreed with Likud to advance “significant and historic reform” of the judicial system. According to Likud’s draft deal with United Torah Judaism, furthermore, all parties in the incoming government will be required to give “complete and total preference” to this legislative process.
The planned reforms, the UTJ agreement states, will include a so-called “override clause,” by which the Knesset can simply re-legislate laws struck down by the justices. Previously declared proposals by the incoming coalition parties, meanwhile, are designed to make it nearly impossible for the justices to strike down a law in the first place, and to reconstitute the High Court with justices less likely to oppose the right-religious agenda — by imposing early retirement on the current High Court bench and/or adjusting the composition of the panel that selects justices.
Israel’s Channel 12 news on Friday night quoted from a book Likud founder Menachem Begin published in 1952, a quarter-century before he first led his party to power, in which he wrote, regarding the checks and balances between the political majority and the independent High Court: Why should “five, seven or eleven non-elected people be able to cancel… a law passed by the representatives of the electorate?” Because, explained Begin, a lawyer by training (University of Warsaw, 1935), a parliamentary majority can be “utilized by a group of leaders as a cover for their tyranny.” Therefore, the people must “entrench its rights… so that they cannot be denied even by a parliamentary majority. This is achievable only via ‘judicial supremacy.'”)
There is more, much more, unthinkable policy and legislation under consideration — some of which may not ultimately be implemented but which is being normalized simply by virtue of being discussed. And the legislative process is already underway: The Knesset is about to approve laws that will provide Ben Gvir unprecedented power as minister of police; give Smotrich, who seeks a theocratic Israel, powers previously held by the prime minister, the defense minister and the IDF over settlements and the West Bank in general; and enable Shas’s Aryeh Deri, despite his suspended sentence for tax offenses, to hold senior ministerial office. Some of what was inconceivable just weeks ago will be the law in a few days’ time.
At the heart of this unfolding revolution stands Netanyahu himself, former courageous IDF officer, Israeli patriot and longest-serving prime minister, whose motivation in first shamefully mainstreaming and, now, conceding so much power to such extreme political forces, with such radical agendas, defies simple explanation.
Is Netanyahu truly prepared to cause all this harm to Israel — to demolish a High Court whose independence he championed for decades; to unleash the pyromaniacal Smotrich and Ben Gvir in the Palestinian arena; to risk alienating international allies and partners, Jewish and gentile — merely in order to extricate himself from his trial, however convinced he is of his innocence and aggrieved at his accusers?
Some of his partners have indeed declared a determination to abolish the “fraud and breach of trust” charge common to all three of the criminal cases he is fighting. Alternatively, a mooted “French law,” under which a serving prime minister could not be prosecuted for alleged offenses committed while in office, would shut down the trial altogether — if retroactively applied and if there were no longer an independent High Court capable of intervening. (The “French law” is a misnomer in the Israeli context, where there are no prime ministerial term limits, and thus a corrupt leader need never be brought to justice.) But surely Netanyahu recognizes the untenable cost for the country he served with such distinction for so many decades.
And yet, while assuring American audiences in a series of lightweight English-language interviews that he will protect Israel’s democratic tradition, its minorities’ rights, its international relations, its ties to the Diaspora and more, he will over the next few days be working to finalize a series of agreements that, if they remotely resemble the draft texts and the public claims of his coalition partners, will lead to the very opposite result. The man who brought some of Jewish Israel’s most radical activists into the political mainstream, who carved out prominent roles for them in his new government, and who is signing off on agreements to advance their agenda, is telling us — or rather telling overseas audiences — that he will protect Israel from them, that we should not believe what we can see unfolding before our eyes.
Possibly this week and by January 2 at the latest, he will swear in his democratically elected, unprecedentedly undemocratically minded coalition, comprising his own Likud party — still officially self-designated as the National Liberal Movement — alongside two ultra-Orthodox parties cynically peddling a brand of work-shy, exploitative Judaism fundamentally at odds to Orthodox Jewish tradition, and three far-right groupings full of Jewish supremacists, racists and homophobes.
The Silence of the Likud
Theoretically, in the short term, the only force that could thwart him is his own Likud. But today’s Likud has been reduced by Netanyahu to a husk of the proud liberal-democratic party once presided over by Begin. Its current crop of MKs is either too weak-willed, personally ambitious, or enthused by the new coalition’s agenda to rise up in anger.
In the next few days, we may hear a great deal about disgruntled senior Likud politicians, but they will be chuntering about being excluded from the ministerial wheelhouse, not about the ship of state being steered onto the rocks.
The Yair Lapid-led outgoing coalition, for its part, not only lacks the Knesset numbers to resist the disaster, but having failed its voters during its bumbling, complacent election campaign, seems incapable of uniting to effectively highlight what is about to happen here. Lapid gave a biting speech on Thursday night, warning against the “dangerous, extremist” government that is about to succeed his, and specifying how and why its plans will “dismantle the foundations of Israeli society.” But he has been unable to unify the other Zionist parties that oppose Netanyahu and to galvanize powerful democratic public opposition.
In exuberant scenes at Likud headquarters early on November 2, hours after the polls had closed and with the extent of his victory becoming apparent, Netanyahu promised to form “a national government that will look after all the citizens of Israel, without exception.” His new coalition will not do that.
“We have one state, one destiny, one future,” he also said in those heady early-morning hours. Indeed, we do.
But the future to which he is leading Israel is not one Netanyahu himself would have tolerated just a few years ago. It is being created and shaped by a democratically elected political majority, but does not reflect the will of the Israeli majority or protect the rights of Israeli minorities — a case, as Menachem Begin so presciently put it, of “a group of leaders” abusing their majority power “as a cover for their tyranny.”
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
I'm proud of our coverage of this government's plans to overhaul the judiciary, including the political and social discontent that underpins the proposed changes and the intense public backlash against the shakeup.
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