Shortly before 4 p.m. on Monday, July 24, 2023, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition voted to approve the so-called “reasonableness” law — the first part of its plan to politicize and radically constrain Israel’s hitherto independent judiciary — and thus set in motion a process that risks tearing apart the State of Israel.
The legislation was spearheaded by Likud Justice Minister Yariv Levin, and steered through its committee stages by far-right Religious Zionism Knesset member Simcha Rothman. Significantly it was Levin — the “real prime minister of Israel” in the words of many opposition MKs — who celebrated “the first step in a historic process to correct the judicial system,” and posed for selfies with fellow coalition MKs once the law had passed.
But it was Netanyahu — discharged just hours earlier from the hospital where he was fitted with a pacemaker after a potentially life-threatening “transient heart block” — who ensured its passage.
In March, the prime minister had temporarily suspended the enactment of a more central element of the overhaul package, under which the governing coalition would be able to choose almost all of Israel’s judges, amid huge nationwide protests and a warning from his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, that the legislation was causing dangerous rifts in the Israel Defense Forces, the people’s army. Since then, the protests have only escalated and the rifts in the military widened.
Thousands of volunteer reservists have said they will not report for service; several hundred of them are pilots in the active reserves, hundreds of others serve in elite units, and their skill, experience and commitment are nothing less than central to Israel’s capacity to defend itself and face down its enemies. Even as the Knesset was debating the law on Monday, Gallant could be seen in the plenum tussling with Levin over the legislation, and endless unsourced reports suggested that he was still trying to broker some kind of eleventh-hour compromise with the opposition.
But Netanyahu, who at one point had Gallant and Levin sitting on either side of him, openly arguing, chose to let the legislation proceed. Levin and the far-right police minister Itamar Ben Gvir were reported to have told him that either the law passed or the coalition fell. Netanyahu, who looked understandably exhausted amid the political crisis and his medical ordeal, tragically chose the unity of his hardline coalition over his manifest key responsibility as prime minister: the unity of the nation.
The “reasonableness” law — backed by all 64 coalition members, while the 56 opposition MKs boycotted the final vote — is significant in and of itself.
It bars judicial review of government and ministerial decisions on the grounds of their reasonableness — depriving the courts of an important legal barometer. Critics fear it will pave the way for the coalition to seek the removal of key “gatekeepers” of democracy — first and foremost the attorney-general, Gali Baharav-Miara. She has issued legal opinions against the overhaul legislation, and worked to protect demonstrators from the heavy hand sought by police minister Ben Gvir, and her removal could enable Netanyahu to extricate himself from his ongoing corruption trial. Several members of the coalition, indeed, have repeatedly made clear that ousting Baharav-Miara is precisely what they have in mind.
But the particularities of the law are less important than the fact that it was blitzed through parliament over the objections of the opposition, despite the pleas of President Isaac Herzog, amid multiplying signs that the coalition’s declared agenda is deterring investors in Israel’s high-tech industry, and over the advice of US President Joe Biden, who repeatedly urged Netanyahu to seek consensus and keep Israelis unified, especially in the light of this small country’s array of regional enemies.
The parties in the Netanyahu coalition won a clear mandate in November’s elections — a mandate to govern, that is, but not to change the way in which Israel is governed.
A substantial proportion of the population believes Yariv Levin’s arguments that Israel’s judges do not properly represent the diversity of the population, that they are unelected, elitist busybodies intervening to prevent the politicians from implementing the will of the people. But a substantial proportion of the population, too, respects the courts, and especially the High Court of Justice, as the only brake on government abuse, the only guaranteed protector of rights and freedoms in a country with no constitution and with a parliament that cannot defy a single-minded coalition.
No sooner had the law passed than demonstrations intensified outside the Knesset. If the experience of 29 weeks of protests against the overhaul is any guide, those demonstrations will spread from now on.
And the number of volunteer reservists choosing not to serve is likely to mount. Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and other IDF top brass have been briefing ministers with increasing frequency and concern about the likely impact; Halevi had reportedly been trying to meet with Netanyahu since Thursday, but was only granted an audience after Monday’s vote.
Huge numbers of Israelis believe with good reason that this coalition, once the judges are sidelined, intends to legislate for an Israel no longer committed to the values of democracy, equality and tolerant Judaism set out in the 1948 Declaration of Independence. Huge numbers of Israelis feel themselves profoundly alienated from the Netanyahu government — and never more so than now.
“This is a time of emergency,” Herzog declared on Sunday, as he tried to broker some kind of compromise. “An agreement must be reached.”
But no such agreement was forthcoming. Said Opposition Leader Yair Lapid shortly before the fateful vote, “With this government, it is impossible to reach agreements that preserve Israeli democracy.”
The Netanyahu coalition steamrolled to a Knesset victory on Monday afternoon. But Israel, hitherto relatively harmonious and extraordinarily resilient, has sustained a dangerous defeat.
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