Has Benjamin Netanyahu’s Assault on Israeli Democracy Been Stopped?
On Sunday night, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, a reserve major general whose mother had been a Polish refugee on the S.S. Exodus. His offense was patriotism. The night before, Gallant had appeared on prime-time national television, calling for a “dialogue” on the fate of the Israeli judiciary
On Sunday night, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, a reserve major general whose mother had been a Polish refugee on the S.S. Exodus. His offense was patriotism. The night before, Gallant had appeared on prime-time national television, calling for a “dialogue” on the fate of the Israeli judiciary and a temporary “halt to the legislative process” that is, in effect, assaulting it. “The growing rift in our society is penetrating the I.D.F. and security agencies. This poses a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state. I will not lend my hand to it,” he said. A source close to Netanyahu, changing the subject, said that Gallant was fired for his “feeble and weak response” to the rapidly growing number of reserve officers who, in protest, are refusing to appear for service.
The response from the street was anything but feeble. Overnight, mass demonstrations—of tens of thousands of mostly young people—erupted across the country, building on what have become regular Saturday-night events in the major cities. (During the rest of the week, some show up for improvised, digital teach-ins and spontaneous strategy sessions in towns and neighborhoods.) Protesters were especially focussed on Tel Aviv, where police used water cannons to clear the vital Ayalon expressway. People lit bonfires and chanted, “Democracy or revolt!” and, “You’ve taken on the wrong generation”—and, increasingly, “Bibi, go home.”
On Monday morning, all universities suspended classes to protest the legislation, which they described “as undermining Israel’s democratic foundations”; key hospitals curtailed medical services; and the Histadrut labor federation, which represents most public-sector employees and in which Netanyahu’s Likud is assumed to be very influential, joined with business leaders to call for a general strike. Ben Gurion Airport partially shut down. Banks closed after 1 P.M. One of Netanyahu’s criminal lawyers reportedly said that, if the judicial package went ahead, he would cease representing him. Ehud Barak, the former Prime Minister and chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, who had been both Netanyahu’s commander and a champion of Gallant’s rise, told a TV interviewer, “Pausing the [judicial] overhaul won’t stop the protests. We’ve passed the point of no return.”
By midday, Netanyahu, who had previously dismissed the demonstrators as “anarchists,” was reportedly planning to capitulate. And key members of his cabinet—including his justice minister, Yariv Levin, who has spearheaded the assault—were walking back their threat to resign if he did capitulate; they were considering, instead, how to hold on to power and buy time, with the religious zealots Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich insisting on eventual passage. Then, during the evening, without mentioning Gallant, or restoring him to his post, Netanyahu finally did precisely what his defense minister had asked for: he “suspended” the effort to bring more elements of the judicial package to a vote in this session of the Knesset and agreed to a period of dialogue with members of the opposition, though he stressed that he reserved the right to reintroduce the package in subsequent sessions. “One way or another, we will enact a reform that will restore the balance between the authorities,” he said.
Even before Netanyahu acted, the Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, and the opposition leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid had welcomed an opportunity for a real dialogue; in fact, Herzog had presented his own formula for judicial reform earlier in the month. Yet both Herzog and Lapid committed to enshrine protections for equality and individual liberty in law—which, arguably, some of Netanyahu’s theocratic allies could never accept. Dialogue, in that case, only delays the inevitable collision. Indeed, it is no longer clear that reappointing Gallant, or even merely suspending the judicial assault, will calm down the streets. (Dialogue with a threat of the package’s reintroduction hanging over the talks would be, Barak had said, “between the wolf and the lamb, about what to eat for dinner.”)
Shikma Bressler, a forty-two-year-old physicist at the Weizmann Institute, has emerged as a leader of the protests. On Monday, she addressed a crowd of some hundred thousand protesters that surrounded the Knesset. She said that the government “must abandon the package altogether” and agree only to changes that are arrived at by “broad agreement.” Meanwhile, the far-right La Familia group, which is centered in Jerusalem and has a history of violence, announced that it was also planning to go to the area around the Knesset on Monday night, to protest in favor of the judicial overhaul. The hard right’s demonstrations proved small by comparison, but nobody who has witnessed its yearly marches on Jerusalem Day would doubt that they could grow. Israelis, like Californians, live on a geological fault line and try not to think about “the big one.” But they have also lived on a political fault line, and many now fear that this may, indeed, be the big one.
The eruption began last Thursday morning. Netanyahu’s coalition passed an amendment to what is known as the Basic Law: Government—basic laws are pieces of Israel’s jigsaw constitution—restricting the terms by which a Prime Minister can be required to take a leave of absence owing to medical incapacity, and so, in effect, prohibiting the High Court of Justice from ruling, as it might have before the new law, on whether Netanyahu could be forced to take a leave if the exercise of executive authority entailed a manifest conflict of interest.
This, all knew, was a preëmptive strike: Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust—all of which he has denied—and yet he heads a government that is famously aiming to “reform,” as he puts it, the very judiciary that is trying him. (A complementary bill, not yet enacted, would allow politicians to pocket money donated for their own medical and legal expenses; it might let Netanyahu keep more than quarter of a million dollars that he had received from a relative to use to cover his legal expenses, while potentially inviting all politicians to engage in, well, fraud, bribery, and breach of trust.)
The amendment was also Netanyahu’s opening gambit, the first law in a legislative package that menaces the judiciary more seriously—a package that Yariv Levin and the chairman of the Knesset Justice Committee, Simcha Rothman, were rushing through serial Knesset votes. The package would, among other things, empower a simple Knesset majority to pass or reverse Basic Laws, forbid the High Court to rule on them, and override the High Court’s abrogation of any subsequent law. It would also turn ministerial legal advisers—now legal watchdogs of the (still) independent attorney general—into the political appointees of ministers.
Most immediately menacing, as it was scheduled for a vote this week, was an amendment to the Basic Law: Judiciary, which would give the coalition control over the method for appointing High Court justices and other judges. (Currently, the nine-person appointments committee includes two ministers, two Knesset members—one or more of whom is from the coalition—three High Court justices, and two representatives of the Israel Bar Association; seven votes are needed, which accords the government’s members a veto.) “Pass the law on appointments and you don’t need the rest of the package,” Suzie Navot, the vice-president for research of the Israel Democracy Institute, told me, because the High Court is the “only institution that can limit the power of the majority.”
Netanyahu, for his part, claims that it is the High Court that has been roiling the country, promiscuously overturning Knesset legislation that expresses the right of the majority to have its way. On Thursday night, he called for unity but then proceeded to advance six common smears of the Court. (The next night, Danny Kushmaro, a news anchor on Channel 12, Israel’s main television station, took the unprecedented step of debunking those smears, one by one.) Over the weekend, in London, where he met Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Netanyahu described himself to Piers Morgan as a “classical liberal” aiming to achieve “balance.”
The problem, however, has never been an activist Court that doesn’t know its limits but, rather, a quasi-theocratic state apparatus that, from the start, has only partially observed liberal-democratic boundaries—allowing rabbinic control over marriage and divorce, or separate state-supported school systems, for example—and left other civil rights unprotected. Netanyahu’s theocratic allies, to whom he’s made himself hostage, see themselves as custodians of the general will, which is, they believe, divine. “Democracy is the decision of the majority, the decision of the people,” Simcha Rothman said, in 2src21, noting that, for himself, the term means “doing what the Holy One, blessed be He, says.”