With yesterday’s passage of the first part of the Israeli government’s divisive proposal to overhaul the judiciary, Israel’s domestic crisis has ominously deepened, throwing Israel into its worst domestic crisis in decades.
Not since the 1993 Oslo peace process and Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has Israel been so internally splintered and divided.
On July 24, in what could be a pivotal moment in Israeli history, much like the 1967 Six Day War, 64 members of the Knesset, all belonging to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far right-wing coalition, unilaterally passed a radical measure to restrict the power of the Supreme Court.
The bill was pushed through parliament by Justice Minister Yariv Levin of the Likud Party and steered through its three readings by Simcha Rothman, the chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and a member of the Religious Zionist Party.
In justifying the bill, Levin said recently, “Arabs buy apartments in Jewish communities in the Galilee and this causes Jews to leave these cities, because they are not ready to live with Arabs. We need to ensure that the Supreme Court has justices who understand this.”
The opposition boycotted the vote, in a grim and unmistakable sign of its utter disapproval of the bill, which strips the high court of its right to review and block government legislation it deems unreasonable and potentially destabilizing and dangerous.
Critics inside and outside Israel broadly charge that Netanyahu and his allies are intent on weakening the court, undermining Israel’s invaluable system of checks and balances, and recklessly concentrating power in their own hands.
Netanyahu’s adversaries believe that once the court is sufficiently neutered, the government will be emboldened to pass additional legislation that would further weaken Israeli democracy.
More specifically, they fear that minority and women’s rights could be jeopardized, religious freedoms could be curtailed, and an annexationist agenda in the West Bank, aimed at destroying the possibility of a two-state solution, will be ardently pursued. All this would be done without the fear of the court’s intervention.
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, went ahead with his controversial plan to radically reform the judiciary after inter-party talks to find a compromise, led by President Issac Herzog, failed after three months of effort.
From an ideological and cultural perspective, this acrimonious dispute is about the country’s future. Netanyahu and his supporters want to turn Israel into a more nationalist and religious state, but his adversaries regard Israel in more pluralistic and secular terms.
Fearing that Netanyahu’s government is willfully destroying Israel’s liberal democracy, tens of thousands of Israelis have conducted a nation-wide campaign of civil disobedience on a massive scale that has lasted for months now.
They have blocked highways, disrupted operations at Ben-Gurion Airport and called labor strikes. Most recently, they marched from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a last-ditch attempt to persuade Netanyahu to consider their reservations.
Amid the turmoil, army and air force reservists have threatened to stop reporting for volunteer duty. This unprecedented development prompted the chief of staff, General Herzi Halevi, to warn that the cohesion of the armed forces has been adversely affected, and that, without a unified military, Israel could face existential peril.
Nadav Argaman, who led the Shin Bet internal intelligence agency until two years ago and whom Netanyahu appointed, warned that “any legislation that does not have a broad consensus will lead Israel to chaos.” Echoing a comment made by Herzog four months ago, he said, “I greatly fear we are on the brink of civil war.”
Several former chiefs of staff, including Ehud Barak and Moshe Ya’alon, as well as some former directors of the Mossad, namely Tamir Pardo and Shabtai Shavit, have also urged Netanyahu to halt the judicial overhaul, which is expected to continue later this year.
“The legislation is shattering the common foundations of Israeli society, tearing the people apart, dismantling the Israel Defence Force, and causing grievous harm to Israel’s security,” they said in a scathing joint statement. “Stop the legislation and begin a process of talks, with changes to be made only under broad consensus among the people and in the Knesset.”
And in a stunning op-ed piece in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Yossi Cohen, a former Mossad director and a Netanyahu loyalist, wrote that even if the government’s legislation is “right and justified,” it is being implemented in a manner that “endangers the national security resilience of the State of Israel.”
Certainly, Israel’s enemies have been watching developments with glee. Today, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, described yesterday’s commotion as Israel’s “worst” day since its creation 75 years ago. “This day, in particular, is the worst day in the history of the entity, as some of its people say. This is what puts it on the path to collapse, fragmentation and disappearance, God willing,” he said.
Israel’s chief ally and benefactor, the United States, has expressed doubts about the path on which Israel has embarked. U.S. President Joe Biden has urged Netanyahu to slow down the legislative process so as to reach “the broadest possible consensus.” Yesterday, his press secretary labelled the bill as “unfortunate.”
Netanyahu has ignored these heart-felt pleas.
On the eve of yesterday’s Knesset vote, Netanyahu, 73, was rushed to hospital and implanted with a pacemaker after he was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. Despite this medical emergency, he was soon back on the airwaves to promote judicial reform.
Claiming that the balance of power between the judiciary, the legislature and the executive has been upended and needs to be restored so that the democratic will of the electorate can be expressed, he assured Israelis that Israel would remain “democratic” and “liberal” and would not degenerate into a theocracy. He also claimed that “individual rights for all” would be honored and protected.
Following the passage of the bill on July 24 Netanyahu rejected criticism that he is undermining Israeli democracy. Doubling down on his policy, he said his objective is to restore “a measure of balance between the branches of government.”
Calling for national unity and renewed dialogue with his political opponents, he said, “Let us reach agreements. I extend my hand in a call for peace and mutual respect between us.”
Scoffing at Netanyahu’s overture, the leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, dismissed it as “an empty show.” Lapid, who was prime minister before Netanyahu’s return to the office, claimed he has lost control of his cabinet. “As anyone involved in attempts to reach broad agreements has discovered, Netanyahu is not really Israel’s prime minister. He is a prisoner of (Justice Minister) Levin and (far-right politicians) Rothman and (Itamar) Ben Gvir” of the Religious Zionist Party and the Jewish Power Party.
Without the support of these parties, Netanyahu could not have formed a majority government late last December.
Netanyahu was clearly in a bind as he steered the legislation through the Knesset. Had he listened to the protesters, his allies would have abandoned him, forcing him to call a new election. Since political survival is and has always been his overarching consideration, he went for broke and rammed his bill through parliament.
By doing so, he has seriously widened the already grave political and social fissures that are tearing Israel asunder.
He may well be remembered as Israel’s gravedigger.