Six months after Justice Minister Yariv Levin unveiled the coalition’s plan to neuter the judiciary, and four months after President Isaac Herzog warned that Israel was headed for a “constitutional, security, social and economic abyss,” a dismal landmark moment has arrived.
The Knesset is on Monday passing the first reading of legislation that will protect elected officials from judicial scrutiny of the “reasonableness” of their decisions — the first piece of a legislative package constructed to give near-absolute power to the ruling majority and deny the courts the capacity to protect Israel and Israelis from government abuse.
Only a government bent on doing the unreasonable would move to ensure that the justices — the only brake on majority power in a country with no constitution and no enshrined, unbreachable defense of freedom of religion, freedom of speech and other basic rights — cannot review the reasonableness of its policies.
And this government — with its own and its various component parties’ declared plans to exempt all ultra-Orthodox men from military or national service, and hugely subsidize their full-time Torah study; to enable discrimination on the grounds of religious belief; to expand Israeli sovereignty into the West Bank without equal rights for Palestinians — is leading Israel into thoroughly unreasonable territory.
On the eve of Monday’s first reading, the ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet engaged in an hours-long, no-holds-barred assault on the attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, because she has warned against the anti-democratic nature of this bill and the other elements of the package Levin unveiled six months ago, notably including his plan to grant the coalition almost full control of the appointment of all of Israel’s judges.
One after another, they denounced her for failing to ensure a harsher crackdown on the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have been demonstrating against the planned shackling of the judiciary these past six months. And never mind the fact, as Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai piped up to tell them, that the number of police officers harmed during the protests since January “is zero.”
Levin himself suggested Baharav-Miara ought not to have “taken a side” by issuing a position paper in February warning that his legislative package would give the government virtually unrestrained power without providing any institutional protections for individual rights or for Israel’s democratic character. She explained to him, over his interruptions, that she was doing her job, as the government’s chief legal adviser.
Several ministers called for Baharav-Miara’s dismissal, in what opposition party leader Benny Gantz later termed a “horror show.” Rallying to her defense, President Herzog protested “the unrestrained lambasting of civil servants,” which he termed “intolerable and unacceptable.” Herzog also issued another plaintive appeal, in vain, for a return to the talks he was hosting aimed at forging a consensual judicial reform process.
Police chief Shabtai — who told the ranting ministers that “we could take batons and horses and clear [the protesters blocking roads] in a minute, but how many injuries would there be?” — is already on the way out, having found no favor with the violent, far-right provocateur who is now minister of police, Itamar Ben Gvir. The Tel Aviv police commander, Ami Eshed, has already gone — choosing to resign rather than be humiliatingly sidelined.
Immediately, in the solidarity demonstrations that marked Eshed’s ouster last Wednesday, the police tactics were markedly more violent, featuring water cannon fire at protesters from closer than the permitted range in both Jerusalem and, especially, Tel Aviv, with consequent injuries. Doubtless, Ben Gvir will install a successor to Shabtai more inclined to regularly mete out that kind of treatment.
Renewing its legislative drive, after suspending it in late March when Netanyahu overreached by announcing he was sacking his own Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, the coalition is manifestly indifferent to opinion polls showing most of the country and a goodly part of its own supporters opposed to this shattering of Israel’s sensitive, democratically critical balance of power between the executive and the judiciary.
As the ultra-Orthodox leadership advances its taxpayer-subsidized separatist agenda, and the Jewish supremacist far-right savors the prospect of fast-expanding West Bank settlement growth and annexation, the coalition is manifestly indifferent, too, to the collapse of investment in the high-tech sector that drives the economy; the announced planned refusal of large numbers of vital reservists to serve in a country no longer dependably democratic; the fading hope of normalization with Saudi Arabia; and the fraying of relations with Israel’s key ally, the United States. After US President Joe Biden on Sunday lamented the presence in the Israeli government of some “of the most extreme members” he’d ever seen, one of them, Ben Gvir, retorted with predictable and untenable disdain: “President Biden must internalize that Israel is no longer another star in the American flag.”
One man could have averted the national tragedy that has been unfolding these past six months — the man who initiated it, Benjamin Netanyahu. But he has an agenda, too: maintaining power — with whoever will support him, and evidently, as we are about to see, at almost any cost to our miraculous, riven and essential country.
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