ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 283

  • Members of Israel's security forces use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking an entrance to the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 24, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
    Members of Israel's security forces use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking an entrance to the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 24, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
  • A riot policeman stands behind a metal fence in face-off with demonstrators during a protest rally against the government's judicial reform plan, in Tel Aviv on July 24, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
    A riot policeman stands behind a metal fence in face-off with demonstrators during a protest rally against the government's judicial reform plan, in Tel Aviv on July 24, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
  • Security forces remove a protester near an entrance to the Knesset, on July 24, 2023 (HAZEM BADER / AFP)
    Security forces remove a protester near an entrance to the Knesset, on July 24, 2023 (HAZEM BADER / AFP)
  • Security forces stand guard next to barricades as protesters gather at an entrance to the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 24, 2023 (Hazem Bader/AFP)
    Security forces stand guard next to barricades as protesters gather at an entrance to the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 24, 2023 (Hazem Bader/AFP)
  • Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest against the government's judicial reform plan in Tel Aviv on July 24, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
    Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest against the government's judicial reform plan in Tel Aviv on July 24, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Justice Minister Yariv Levin as the Knesset votes to enact the 'reasonableness' law, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Justice Minister Yariv Levin as the Knesset votes to enact the 'reasonableness' law, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Op-ed

How do we safeguard Israel, when the government is at war with much of the people?

The coalition’s brutal bid to neuter the courts and legislate Israel away from a democratic, liberal Jewish ethos may yet prove its downfall. Meantime, nonviolent protests are key

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).

Main images from anti-overhaul protests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on July 24, 2023: AFP / Jack Guez, Menahem Kahana and Hazem Bader; Knesset photo: Yonatan Sindel / Flash90

The morning after, we emerge to an Israel with internal battle lines drawn, an Israel potentially at war with itself, a government certainly at war with much, perhaps most, of the people.

We internalize that not a single one of the 64 members of that government so much as abstained, far less voted against, Orwellian doublespeak legislation under which cabinet and ministerial decisions, no matter how unreasonable they may be, can never be thwarted by our judges on the grounds of their unreasonableness.

We recognize that the “reasonableness law” is merely the thin end of the wedge — “the first step in a historic process to correct the judicial system,” in the words of Yariv Levin, our mistitled minister of justice. Ahead now lie the laws he has promised since January to render the judiciary impotent in the face of all government abuse. This will be imposed via the legislation that sits ready and waiting, having passed its first reading in March, to destroy the calibrated mechanism by which our judges are chosen, and turn them instead into coalition appointees. And that law, in turn, will be bolstered by “override” legislation to constrain and even preemptively prevent the judges from striking down anti-democratic laws — a gambit that our prime minister seemed to have promised he had “thrown out” but now says he didn’t.

We realize that after the judges are shackled, the legislation they would have blocked, much of it written into or implied by the coalition agreements, will follow — the legalization of discrimination based on religious beliefs, the annexation of parts or all of the West Bank without equal rights for Palestinians, the restricting of media, the constriction of women’s rights, the blanket exemption of the fastest-growing sector of the populace, the ultra-Orthodox, from military and national service.

A bill to formalize the ultra-Orthodox free pass was submitted to the Knesset by the coalition’s United Torah Judaism party on Tuesday morning (and quickly disavowed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud). It would be achieved via another case of doublespeak, in which mass, full-time Torah study (which in Orthodox Jewish tradition is supposed to be pursued by the subsidized best and the brightest) would be considered a form of national service and funded by the rest of the workforce.

This draft legislation was presented hours after the prime minister engaged in another of his disingenuous critiques of those thousands in the military reserves — including war heroes in their 30s, 40s and 50s — who are choosing or threatening not to keep reporting for voluntary duty, branding them refusers. (Needless to say, this coalition doesn’t do irony.)

After the judges are shackled, the legislation they would have blocked, much of it written into or implied by the coalition agreements, will follow

We brace for other “gatekeepers” of our democracy to be targeted — first and foremost Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who has so irritated the coalition by advising against its anti-democratic judicial legislation, upholding the public’s right to demonstrate, and opposing National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s constant (and increasingly successful) pressure for more aggressive policing of the protests. Shortly after all government decisions were rendered “reasonable” in the Knesset on Monday, the junior mistitled justice minister David Amsalem appeared at the podium to demand that Baharav-Miara be put on trial.

We are compelled to conclude that Netanyahu is either unwilling or unable to resist the powerhouse Jewish supremacist lunatic fringe he invited into the core of his government. Levin insisted on passing Monday’s legislation “as is.” He and Ben Gvir reportedly threatened to destroy the coalition otherwise. We watched a desperate Defense Minister Yoav Gallant plead with Levin, in the Knesset plenum, in the minutes before the fateful vote, to “give me something” to soften the blow, to ease the reservists’ concerns. In vain. We saw Netanyahu, seated between them, choosing to allow Levin the upper hand.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin (right) argue across Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on July 24, 2023, ahead of the vote on the reasonableness law. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi had reportedly been seeking to meet with Netanyahu since Thursday, to update him personally on the dangers that the national disagreement over Levin’s legislation pose to unity in the military ranks. Halevi resorted to warning publicly on Sunday that Israel would find itself in no less than existential peril without a unified IDF that includes the “best” soldiers. “If ours is not a strong and unified army, and if the best do not serve in the IDF, we will not be able to continue to exist as a state in the region,” he said. The prime minister deigned to meet with him only after the vote was done.

Halevi resorted to warning publicly on Sunday that Israel would find itself in existential peril, nothing less, without a unified IDF

Of course, Netanyahu’s schedule had been complicated by his second encounter in days with his own mortality: Even as he was ushering through legislation so destructive to Israel, on the eve of Tisha B’Av, he was laid low with an unreliable heart. Emerging from the hospital and making his way to the Knesset just hours before the vote, now fitted with a pacemaker, he was evidently undeterred by any notion of a biblical chastening.

***

With the Israeli middle ground shifted to the right since the suicide bombing onslaught of the Second Intifada, with little hope for a viable accommodation with the Palestinians, with settler numbers growing and the ultra-Orthodox sector soaring, Israel had been moving inexorably for twenty years toward governments in which the far-right and Haredim would hold greater sway.

But that process was accelerated by the “just not Bibi” insistence of many in the non-extreme right — Gideon Sa’ar, Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Liberman, Ze’ev Elkin, et al. The only route back to power for Netanyahu last year was through alliances with anyone and everyone from the religious right who would sit with him — no matter how unpalatable their agendas — leading to a coalition unreflective of the center-right to center-left Israeli mainstream.

What Monday’s vote made unprecedentedly plain was that Netanyahu is not merely riding the Levin-Smotrich-Ben Gvir tiger, but that he would lead Israel toward potential civil war rather than dismount

Displaying a most unfamiliar attribute — weakness — he gave Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich immensely powerful ministerial positions when negotiating his coalition, even though he knew that Smotrich is a theocrat and Ben Gvir a racist provocateur, evidently determined to keep together his alliance with these political predators at almost any cost.

What Monday’s vote made unprecedentedly plain was that Netanyahu is not merely riding the Levin-Smotrich-Ben Gvir tiger, but that he would lead Israel toward potential civil war rather than dismount.

Coalition lawmakers crowd around Justice Minister Yariv Levin to take a celebratory selfie in the Knesset plenum, as they pass the first of the coalition’s judicial overhaul laws, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In his speech to the nation on Monday night — expected, and even seen by some, to be conciliatory — he ostensibly invited opposition leaders to negotiate consensual terms for the next stages of the judicial revolution. In fact, he gave them a deadline of November to submit to terms acceptable to him — “more than enough time,” he asserted airily — with the unspoken implication that, if they do not come to heel, he and the tiger will proceed as they did on Monday, unilaterally.

***

The fateful question for Israel, the question that will determine its future, is whether the Netanyahu-facilitated brutal coalition overreach — the combination of Levin’s bid to deliver near-absolute power to the executive branch, and the partners’ various plans to move Israel away from its democratic and liberal Jewish ethos — will yet prove its downfall.

Its policies are alienating vast swaths of the electorate, in large part because of their direct impact on vast swaths of the electorate: the high-tech firms that see investors pulling away, the reservists who fear their willingness to serve will be abused, the entire national workforce battling rising living costs and soon to be asked to subsidize a non-working ultra-Orthodox sector that doesn’t even share the obligation of national service. If elections were held today, even a politically inept opposition might manage to unseat it.

But elections are more than three years away — if the government doesn’t change that system. Netanyahu has chosen coalition unity over national unity. And Levin, Smotrich and Ben Gvir would be only too happy to take charge if Netanyahu were incapacitated.

For all the admonitions from the US, other friendly governments and some Diaspora Jews, for all the worrying delight among our enemies, the most potent hope for Zionist patriots would appear to be the vast national protests — that they continue relentlessly, that they do not allow themselves to turn violent or to be goaded into violence, that they strive for inclusivity under banners to protect democracy, foster unity and protect our common home.

Security forces use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators in Jerusalem on July 24, 2023. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

Those words are easy to write but fiendishly difficult to uphold; vast numbers of protesters have widely diverse motivations, agendas and temperaments. But a unified mass protest movement gave even Netanyahu pause in March, when he suspended the bill that would politicize the selection of judges, and complicated the passage of Monday’s law. Every single Likud member voted for it, but would they do the same — amid wide, growing national ferment and a tanking economy — on the rest of Levin’s more drastic legislation later this year?

The zealots dominating this government do not represent the Israeli majority

Well, maybe they would.

And maybe things will get a lot worse before they get better.

But the zealots dominating this government do not represent the Israeli majority. And a resilient Zionist Israel — an Israel committed to the values of its Declaration of Independence — can and must win out.

Because there was one message that Netanyahu delivered on Monday night that was undeniably accurate and vital, even though he is failing to heed it: “We have one nation, one home, one people… We must safeguard these above all else.”

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