This Passover, Israel will recall ancient freedom under the threat of modern tyranny

No divine force is hardening Netanyahu’s heart. And yet he and his viziers, with their legislative decrees, are tearing apart our astonishing nation

David Horovitz

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).

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

Two weeks from now, the people of Israel will sit down for the Passover Seder, recounting and reliving the story of our Exodus from slavery in Egypt to peoplehood in the Promised Land. And it will ring a little hollow.

For the modern miracle of our freedom and independence in a revived Jewish homeland — our astounding achievement in forging a thriving, tolerant, light-unto-the-nations State of Israel, from out of the ashes of the Holocaust and in morally unified defiance of our regional enemies — is being reversed before our very eyes.

As I write these lines, the so-called “Constitution, Law and Justice Committee” in our sovereign parliament is finalizing legislation that if, or more probably when, enacted into law next week, will begin the process of providing our duly elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with many of the autocratic powers of a modern-day pharaoh.

The legislation, with which Netanyahu’s minions were still tinkering this week even as they crushed opposition objections to its democracy-destroying terms, shatters the independence of our court system. It will enable Netanyahu’s majority coalition to fill the next two vacancies on the High Court when its president, Esther Hayut, and a colleague reach retirement age this fall, to then appoint one of those two new appointees as court president, and gradually but inexorably politicize the entire judiciary.

Further laws to be enacted after the Knesset takes its Passover break will radically constrain the High Court justices’ capacity to thwart even the most discriminatory coalition legislation, and deny them the right to protect even the most basic human and civil rights from abuse.

Gradually stacking the court with its appointees, while simultaneously restricting the justices’ oversight, Netanyahu and his viziers will thus clear the path for the introduction of a stream of evil decrees that our judges would otherwise have thwarted, many of them already announced, some of them already proceeding through parliament.

Overnight Wednesday-Thursday, the Knesset passed a law that prevents the forced recusal of a prime minister under almost any circumstances — legislation tailored to ensure that the High Court cannot order Netanyahu’s ouster even if he utilizes his powers to extricate himself from his ongoing corruption trial.

Soon, the prime minister and his allies will determine that Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, be permitted to return to senior ministerial office, despite the justices having deemed his appointment, as a recidivist criminal who misled a lower court when securing a plea bargain, unreasonable in the extreme and ordered his removal in January.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and other justices at a hearing of the High Court of Justice on petitions against the appointment of Shas party leader Aryeh Deri as a minister due to his recent conviction for tax offenses, January 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Further down the road, our supreme ruler and his associates will be fully exempting the ultra-Orthodox community of any obligation to participate in the military defense of the country against external enemies or even to perform alternate national service. Increased public funds will be allocated to young ultra-Orthodox men so that the stipends they receive for studying Torah full-time are comparable to those paid to conscripted soldiers. Funding will also be boosted to inadequately supervised ultra-Orthodox school networks that do not teach basic subjects — helping to create a cycle in which the fastest-growing sector of the Israeli populace is disincentivized from working and increasingly subsidized by a workforce paying disproportionately high taxes while shouldering the responsibility for national defense.

Also raised by members of Netanyahu’s monarchial circle, and thus potentially heading down the pipeline, are plans to legitimize discrimination on the grounds of religious belief, to deny automatic citizenship to some immigrants who would hitherto be eligible, to allow private funding for politicians, to take political control over the committee that oversees our elections, to annex part or all of the West Bank without equal rights for non-Jews living there, perhaps even to reconquer Gaza as well…

As our overlords steamroll their laws through parliament, Israel’s Zionists, patriots and democrats will attempt to legally resist. The political opposition, and a range of activists, will petition those High Court justices to strike down the legislation before it can strike them down. But were the court to rule in favor of preserving its essential independence, this, in the skewed vision of our “justice” minister Yariv Levin, “would mark the crossing of every red line.” Directly threatening Israel’s top court, the self-styled champion of Israeli democracy declared on Monday: “We certainly won’t accept it.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset on February 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A nation that cherishes its freedom

If the Netanyahu coalition’s brutal insistence on unleashing its revolution just in time for Passover should highlight anything, however, it is that the revived Jewish sovereign nation cherishes its freedom and will not easily be denied it.

Netanyahu won the election, but not a mandate to empty out the democracy that restored him to power.

The extremism of his government’s legislative agenda, the heavy-handedness with which it is steamrollering its power-grab through parliament, the no-holds-barred assault on opponents in which even the Holocaust is weaponized, and the relentless insult to the public’s intelligence that sees coalition leaders disingenuously assert daily that they are bolstering democracy — all of these are provoking ever wider dismay, disgust and a determination to democratically resist.

Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the US consulate in Tel Aviv, March 16, 2023. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

A second circle of horrified Israelis is also forming — those who regard the judicial overhaul as a potentially legitimate correction of an imbalance of powers, but have internalized that it is tearing apart the nation and should not be bullied through in this form, with this speed. That we are in the midst not only of a constitutional crisis, but of a national tragedy.

Along with unceasing, expanding mass demonstrations against the unfolding efforts to de-democratize us, and the rise of protests by those ideologically closer to the coalition but prioritizing national unity, the biggest potential impediment to Netanyahu’s revolution is the reservists’ revolt.

The leader’s response to a growing disinclination among active volunteer reservists in key units to serve an anti-democratic government has been to order the hapless IDF chief to somehow prevent the ostensible “insubordination” that this policy is driving.

Entebbe rescue mission veterans arrive in a black Mercedes to take part in a protest against government’s planned judicial overhaul, at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, March 15, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

But if the prime minister is irritated, rather than sobered, by the horrified response from a military in which he once so proudly served, unmoved even by the admonishment of members of the commando squad from the iconic Entebbe rescue in which his brother was killed, perhaps it can be hoped that others close to him will yet relocate their backbones.

Does Yoav Gallant, the minister of defense, really want to preside over the fracturing of the Israel Defense Forces, on whose service and routine heroism Israel’s existence depends? For how long can he tune out the anguished warnings of the former generals and other patriots who spent decades alongside him in uniform, risking their lives for the sake of our free, tolerant and enlightened Israel? For how long can Avi Dichter, another government minister, brush aside the protests of his fellow former Shin Bet security chiefs?

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi seen during a tour near the border with Lebanon, northern Israel, March 16, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Privately, Gallant is said to have been conveying to Netanyahu his concerns about the mounting dissent in parts of the military — dissent over the fracturing of the unspoken bargain by which Israelis consent to mandatory service on behalf of a free and democratic Israel, protected by an independent, internationally respected High Court, confident that the orders they are given will be carefully considered and moral.

In the latest insult to our citizens’ intelligence, finance and junior defense minister Bezalel Smotrich — he of the (subsequently backtracked) “Israel should wipe out Huwara” notoriety — appeared on television Tuesday night to claim that the coalition is listening to the voices opposed to the revolution, to call for dialogue on the steps ahead, but, in the next breath, to declare that the law enabling the coalition to take over the judiciary will be passed next week as planned.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK Simcha Rothman hold a press conference in the Knesset, March 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Thus the first of the edicts, politicizing the High Court, is almost upon us. If it becomes law, the justices, still independent, will in all likelihood suspend its implementation, hear reasoned arguments for and against it, and likely strike it down as shattering the separation of powers and contradicting Israel’s foundational democratic values.

Levin says he won’t accept that? A single prominent Likud figure, Economy Minister Nir Barkat, on Tuesday declared that he will. Just possibly the likes of Gallant, Yuli Edelstein, and others in Netanyahu’s party who place country above career will rediscover their principles and insist that the court’s ruling be heeded, at whatever price for their coalition. Just possibly.

Will Netanyahu then defy the court? Does he really want to go that far?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting on the state budget, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem)

In just a single address to the nation, with just a few of his adept formulations, he could declare magnanimously that he recognizes the depth of division, the damage to the fabric of our society, and, even now, belatedly heed the president’s call for a halt, a rethink, patience, dialogue, genuine reform, the beginnings of a process to heal the national rift, a return to sanity, a recommitment to democracy.

No divine power has hardened his heart. The choice is his and his alone: This year, next year, as last year, will Israel be a free people in its Promised Land?

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