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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who on regaining office in December immediately set in motion this entire unforgivable process of destroying Israel’s democratic checks and balances by neutering the High Court, seems more determined than ever to see it through.
In his fateful phone conversation with Joe Biden on Monday, according to his own office’s readout, he told the US president that the first piece of judicial overhaul legislation — barring the courts from using the legal barometer of “reasonableness” to review government and ministerial decisions — would be approved by the Knesset next week. (The Constitution, Law and Justice Committee indeed advanced it on Wednesday night for its final parliamentary readings, amid particularly acrimonious coalition-opposition feuding.)
And while Netanyahu said he would seek to muster wider consensus for the forthcoming further elements of his overhaul package — which include laws to give the governing coalition near-absolute control over the appointment of judges and to radically curb the High Court’s capacity to protect Israelis’ basic rights from government abuse — he also told the president that any such efforts were likely pointless, since, he claimed, the opposition was unwilling and unable to negotiate a compromise.
For Netanyahu, as has been the case from the beginning of last year’s election campaign — when he did everything, including mainstreaming racist, homophobic, misogynistic and Jewish-supremacist politicians, in order to successfully maximize his victory prospects — the equation has always been straightforward: Without sidelining the courts, and subsequently enabling his coalition partners to proceed with legislation that the judges would otherwise strike down, he is politically finished.
It was and is a choice of overhaul or out.
And Netanyahu has single-mindedly followed his devastating overhaul path from the very first week his Likud, far-right and ultra-Orthodox government took office. When he paused the bills in March, it was out of necessity rather than consensual magnanimity, because his sacking of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, for daring to publicly oppose the legislative blitz, had unleashed new highs of public opposition and a brief display of wariness from a minority in the coalition who have since largely fallen into line.
His interest is not only personal but also acutely short-term. Just days ago, already forgotten in the insane Israeli news cycle, Netanyahu was in the hospital with dehydration — possibly after collapsing at home; we’ve not been told — and now has a heart monitor. He is 73. Were he incapacitated, who would take over? Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the deputy prime minister and obsessive spearhead of the legislative onslaught? The former deputy PM Aryeh Deri, ousted from the cabinet by the justices because of his recidivist abuse of public funds? Or somebody else even less inclined to respect Israel’s foundational democratic and liberal Jewish values?
Remaking the way Israel is governed
The rift over the legislation is deepening — with much of the country horrified at the imminent revolution in the way Israel is governed, and others championing the government’s path, some clearheaded and others blindly devoted. The predicted dire consequences for everything from the economy to military cohesion are unfolding as feared.
This is about the remaking of the way Israel is governed — from a hitherto vibrant, imperfect democracy to an autocracy in which almost all power is in the hands of the executive branch, with no effective curbs on the coalition’s authority and no entrenched protections of basic rights
To be clear: Despite the misrepresentations of Netanyahu and his partners, this is not about a disgruntled opposition trying to find a way around its defeat last November. It lost fair and square. It is about the remaking of the way Israel is governed — from a hitherto vibrant, imperfect democracy to an autocracy in which almost all power is in the hands of the executive branch, with no effective curbs on the coalition’s authority and no entrenched protections of basic rights.
For some, on either side of the national divide, nonetheless, the battle is an extension of our ultra-divisive slew of recent election campaigns — a matter of pro- or anti-Netanyahu. But many, many people, including no small proportion of those who voted for the prime minister’s own Likud party and its allies, recognize the fundamental stakes here: that once the judges are sidelined, this government will move to impinge on Israelis’ rights and freedoms.
As its members’ own declared legislative plans indicate, the coalition parties aim to discriminate in favor of the ultra-Orthodox (including by excusing the community from national service), legitimize discrimination on the grounds of religion, impose restrictions on media, reduce women’s rights and more. Combined with plans for the annexation of the West Bank without equal rights for Palestinians, the Zionist miracle of democratic, tolerant Jewish Israel will be no more.
The Israel that this coalition has in mind will be alien to many of its own citizens; some of those who can will leave. The Israel it has in mind will be unloved, even abandoned, by former friends, and vulnerable to its enemies.
The state will be imperiling its own existence.
The potential process of self-destruction, coming to a head right now, on the eve of Tisha B’av — when the Jewish nation recalls the destruction of its ancient temples amid internal intolerance and infighting — is simply unforgivable. The fresh memory of the horrors that can befall the Jewish people without a country of its own, and without the unity and will to defend it, should be more than sufficient to prompt a halt to the self-inflicted assault on national cohesion.
The Jewish people needs this country, and needs it to function in something close to harmony.
Herzog’s determined optimism
In his carefully calibrated speech to a joint session of the US Congress on Wednesday, President Isaac Herzog did his best to exude optimism, while also highlighting what we have to lose.
Israel has “evolved into an exquisite land of democracy… a beautiful Israeli democracy, a mosaic of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Circassians, secular, traditional and orthodox, of all denominations, and all possible views and lifestyles,” he enthused. “A country which takes pride in its vibrant democracy, its protection of minorities, human rights, and civil liberties, as laid down by its parliament, the Knesset, and safeguarded by its strong Supreme Court and independent judiciary. A state founded on complete equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender – as stipulated explicitly in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”
He hailed the “protesters taking to the streets all across the country, to emphatically raise their voices and fervently demonstrate their point of view.” And he acknowledged that “the momentous debate in Israel is painful, and deeply unnerving, because it highlights the cracks within the whole.”
But the commitments to complete equality for all Israel’s inhabitants, to the rock-solid protection of human rights and civil liberties, to a strong and independent judiciary, are not fully endorsed by the lawmakers who govern Israel today. They would not all sign on to the Declaration of Independence.
Ultimately, the president asserted, “I know our democracy is strong and resilient. Israel has democracy in its DNA.”
But DNA mutates.
It’s still not too late, since even a handful of those Likud members who recognize where Israel is headed could insist upon a new and genuine effort at consensus. It’s still not too late for Netanyahu himself to bring meaning to his hollowed promise to serve as prime minister for all Israelis.
But with every passing hour, the hope diminishes, the divide widens, and the danger grows.
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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