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Israel implodes. The PM divides and dissembles. And MKs who could save us are silent

An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out on 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.

The words that follow are inadequate to describe what’s playing out in Israel right now.

I’ve spent the entire seven-month lifespan of this government to date (having written numerous warning pieces in the previous months as well) attempting to explain the harm it was unleashing upon our beloved country, imploring the prime minister to stop, and trying to encourage those who can influence him to do so. The dire predicted reality is now unfolding — as rapidly and dangerously as in the gloomiest of my pieces.

It’s like we’ve been taken over by a deranged, masochistic demolition squad. Except that the Jewish supremacists in the coalition know exactly what they’re doing. And the prime minister who empowered them is dissembling as Israel implodes, fanning the flames as the country burns.

Israelis have been turned against each other. Our enemies are emboldened, our allies baffled and horrified. The economy is collapsing. The military is torn.

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The police force is being urged to use more violence against protesters by a thuggish minister who is working assiduously to oust dissenting commanders. IDF generals — trying to counter a rising tide of terrorism, and to prevent growing violence by settler extremists — are being denounced by coalition politicians. On a right-wing TV network, a panelist calls for the release of our former prime minister’s assassin and some in the studio audience applaud.

Police use water cannons to disperse anti-overhaul activists blocking Begin Road in Jerusalem, on July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Volunteer reservist pilots are choosing not to report for duty. Innumerable former IDF, Shin Bet, Mossad and police chiefs are sounding the alarm. Polling, anecdotal evidence and some hard data indicate that some Israelis are preparing to leave and others are moving their money out of the country.

And at the helm of a government seemingly bent on turning Israel from a thriving first-world democracy into an unsustainable third-world autocracy sits a man seemingly unmoved by, well, almost anything, including his own mortality and legacy, not to mention the fate of the nation. A man who tells us that the economic contraction he is impelling is growth, reminds us that “we are all brothers” with “just one country” even as he cynically sows division, and asserts that the Jewish supremacism he is fostering and the near-absolute power he seeks constitute the strengthening of what was once our liberal democracy.

On the edge of the crowd at Saturday night’s pro-democracy demonstration in Jerusalem, an Israeli youth stood with a homemade placard that stated, “I’m about to be drafted. What should I do? Can you advise me?” A few people stopped to offer their guidance. Many more read the sign, sighed or pursed their lips, and walked on — apparently not knowing what to tell him.

***

The Knesset dispersed for its summer recess on Monday, its damage done.

It would only have needed four patriotic Zionists from the coalition’s ranks to thwart the passage of the “reasonableness” law last week, the defining act of this parliamentary session, the first step on the government’s march to neuter the judiciary.

But while the Likud’s former Knesset speaker, MK Yuli Edelstein, pathetically acknowledged on Saturday that he “may have fallen asleep a bit while on guard,” and several other party colleagues are intimating a certain discomfort at the passage of the law and issuing vague professions of a readiness to resist the next phases of the legislation, the fact is that when the vote was called, all 64 coalition members meekly approved it.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with other Likud MKs including Nir Barkat (back to camera) and Avi Dichter (second right) in the Knesset plenum on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Avi Dichter — who headed the Shin Bet security agency in the terrible years when Israel battled and ultimately thwarted the Second Intifada terrorist onslaught, but seems to have morphed into a true politician in the worst sense of the word (including by putting himself up as a candidate to replace his Likud colleague Yoav Gallant when the defense minister publicly opposed the overhaul blitz in March) — claims not to understand what all the fuss is about.

“The Knesset session is done” and “the only overhaul law that passed was ‘reasonableness,'” he declared complacently in a TV interview earlier this week, acknowledging a degree of “thuggishness” in the way it was steamrollered through parliament but asserting that the principal thugs are the “extreme and violent” street protesters against the legislation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in an interview aired Thursday, July 27, 2023, days after his government passed the controversial reasonableness law. (Screenshot/CNN, used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

Dichter was peddling Netanyahu’s narrative — as expounded by the prime minister in a seemingly endless series of US television interviews (while he refuses to present himself for interview by independent media in the country he leads and in the language of its citizenry). Netanyahu has been telling CNN, NPR, NBC et al that the “reasonableness” law — which flat-out bars judicial review of government and ministerial decisions on the basis of their reasonableness — is at once minor and essential, and that those who regard it as a step toward the ruination of Israeli democracy are “silly” alarmists.

But in those same interviews, the self-styled strengthener of democracy has been repeatedly refusing to pledge that he’d honor a High Court decision to strike down the legislation if such a ruling is made. And, in a naked attempt to intimidate the justices before they hear petitions against the law in September, he has dishonestly warned that such a move “would be, in American terms, as though the Supreme Court, that is charged with keeping the Constitution, would nullify a constitutional amendment as unconstitutional.”

In fact, while amendments to the US Constitution must be passed by a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate and ratified by three-quarters of US states, the “reasonableness” law was enacted on the basis of one simple majority vote in Israel’s sole, coalition-controlled parliamentary chamber. Grandly titled though it may be as an amendment to “Basic Law: The Judiciary,” in common with most of Israel’s Basic Laws it required no supermajority or any other approval.

No infringement on the court’s capacity for oversight can responsibly be dismissed as minor

Moreover, since Israel’s justices are the only dependable brake on coalition power — because Israel lacks a constitution, Bill of Rights, second legislative chamber, or other guaranteed protection for its people’s basic rights — no infringement on the court’s independence and capacity for oversight can responsibly be dismissed as minor, and least of all when it is legislated over the objections of the entire opposition.

What’s much more worrying still, however, amid Dichter’s airy talk of just the one law having passed so far and Netanyahu’s empty claims to be bolstering democracy, is that more and far worse lies unmistakably ahead.

The centerpiece legislation — to remake the Judicial Selection Committee and give the coalition near-absolute control of judicial appointments — remains ready for its final Knesset readings. Further declared overhaul legislation will radically constrain that future politicized judiciary from striking down undemocratic and abusive laws even if it wants to.

And (as I’ve written ad infinitum) bills already submitted for potential future passage once the justices are sidelined seek to do everything from legalizing discrimination based on religious beliefs, annexing parts or all of the West Bank without equal rights for Palestinians, restricting media, constricting women’s rights, exempting the ultra-Orthodox from military and national service, weakening the attorney general, and giving the coalition the right to ban rival political parties.

Coalition lawmakers crowd around Justice Minister Yariv Levin to take a celebratory selfie in the Knesset plenum, as they pass the first of the coalition’s judicial overhaul laws, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While Edelstein and that handful of potential “rebels” (who would probably blanch at the very word) are calling for a genuine effort to forge consensus on any future judicial overhaul legislation, the man to watch is the overhaul’s Netanyahu-empowered spearhead, his would-be successor Justice Minister Yariv Levin.

In the minutes before the “reasonableness” law passed, Levin brushed off Gallant’s desperate pleas for some kind of compromise. In a brief address immediately after it passed, Levin took pains to reiterate that it was merely “the first step” in his march to “correct the judicial system”. But most tellingly, Levin — ostensible campaigner for a more diverse and efficient court system — is refusing to convene the existing Judicial Selection Committee, which has not met for more than a year, and is thereby delaying the appointments of dozens of judges desperately needed throughout the overburdened court system. (The High Court will soon be hearing petitions, too, on this untenable breach of responsible governance.)

Why the delay? Because Levin fully intends to get his judicial selection remake law — another amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary — enacted, and thus to choose the judges and justices he wants when the committee next convenes.

***

Netanyahu showed, when choosing not to intervene on Gallant’s behalf in those frantic final minutes before the “reasonableness” vote, that he’s content to let Levin maintain the assault on the judicial system. We watched the prime minister, during parts of the Gallant-Levin faceoff, sit silently between them, opting not to support his defense minister, who had been trying to underline the deepening damage caused to military cohesion by the overhaul rift.

Thanks to Channel 12’s lipreaders, we now also know that, during the fateful debate, the prime minister did engage in some substantive conversation with Gallant — regarding his own physical health. Referencing his rush to hospital two days earlier, when his doctors say he had a potentially life-threatening “transient heart block,” Netanyahu told Gallant: “There’s nothing you can do. If you don’t get to the hospital within minutes, you die.”

He didn’t seem particularly shaken, much less distraught, as he recounted this very recent brush with his own mortality.

Indeed, then and since, he has appeared unshaken and unfazed not only by his health problems, but by the national frenzy he and his coalition insistently stir.

While the IDF warns that the military’s operational readiness will become increasingly harmed if key volunteer reservists go through with their threats to stop reporting for duty, and a senior general specified to lawmakers on Monday that Israel’s enemies believe it is more vulnerable because of its society’s “internal disintegration,” Netanyahu contended on Tuesday that the IDF remains strong and “fully competent.” While the latest data shows huge falls in investment in high-tech, Netanyahu pronounced the economy to be robust as well.

The director general of the Health Ministry is pleading with doctors not to leave the country, the credit rating agencies are issuing negative reports, the former Bank of Israel governor is imploring him to stop the madness, 28% of the public is polled as weighing relocation, but the prime minister is unmoved and undaunted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a briefing on the government’s north-to-south fast-rail plan, July 30, 2023. (Haim Zach / GPO)

He spent a full hour with three coalition colleagues at a Jerusalem hotel on Sunday afternoon giving a briefing screened on Facebook and watched by almost nobody in which he exalted as crucial to Israel’s society, security and economy a grandiose $27 billion project to build a transnational fast-rail system, from Kiryat Shimona to Eilat, with a possible link to the Arabian Peninsula — a plan that has been raised and rejected numerous times in recent years, has no clear funding, and almost certainly won’t be built this time either.

עכשיו מול מלון אוריינט בירושלים:
שוטרות ממשמרות הרודן ???? גוררות בכוח אישה מבוגרת שהגיעה להפגין מול הרודן @netanyahu.
היא עמדה על המדרכה, לא הייתה אלימה בשום צורה, לא הפרה שום חוק. רק הפגינה.
מה קורה פה??? pic.twitter.com/Wbltjf8JfT

— Nava Rozolyo????????‍♀️???????????? (@rozolyo) July 30, 2023

Meanwhile, our increasingly heavy-handed police force kept anti-overhaul demonstrators at bay outside, with three female cops filmed pushing and dragging away one particularly recalcitrant, flag-carrying silver-haired woman protester.

Increasingly heavy-handed policing, indeed, is becoming a familiar feature of the pro- and anti-democracy struggle, with mounting incidents of police brutality, compounded by a new police tactic of repeatedly calling in for questioning those they have roughly arrested in the first place.

Amitai Aboudi outside the police station in Jaffa, August 1, 2023, after his release from a third round of questioning. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Tuesday, the surreal process spun a further cycle, when a teenage protester, Amitai Aboudi, allegedly beaten up as he was arrested last week, and already called in one more time for questioning, was summoned yet again — after his parents filed a complaint against one of the arresting officers. While he was being subjected to interrogation number three, several other protesters, who had gathered outside the police station to demand his release, were also arrested, not for anything as subversive as blocking the roadway, but for making too much noise. All were ultimately released.

Yair Hanuna arrives for questioning at the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID) in Tel Aviv on August 2, 2023 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Wednesday, in yet another surreal twist, the cop who allegedly beat Aboudi, the head of the Yasam riot squad in Tel Aviv, Yair Hanuna, was summoned for questioning together with several other allegedly violent officers by the Police Internal Investigations Division (PIID), and it was the turn of their uniformed colleagues to demonstrate solidarity outside.

On Wednesday evening, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir met with Yasam officers, praised them as heroes, and said it was “puzzling and grave” that some of them were under PIID investigation.

Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir (second left) meets officers from the Yasam riot squad unit, in Tel Aviv on August 2, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

***

If some in the coalition were hoping that the mass public demonstrations would fade after the “reasonableness” law passed, they have thus far been mistaken. The protests may dip during the summer, given that the Knesset is in recess, but with students and military veterans at the fore, they are unlikely to dissipate significantly.

Riot police try to clear demonstrators blocking a Tel Aviv highway, July 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Meanwhile, the economy is not going to recover, the military divide is not going to heal, and that majority of Israelis who either always opposed or have become horrified by the government are not going to regain their confidence until or unless the coalition abandons its program of unilateral judicial destruction.

Israel cannot afford the luxury of tearing itself apart. Its enemies cannot believe their luck, and can be relied upon to try to exploit it

But while many have compared what Netanyahu has unleashed in Israel to democratic deteriorations in Poland and Hungary, and to the toxic divides in the United States, Israel cannot afford the luxury of tearing itself apart. Its enemies cannot believe their luck, and can be relied upon to try to exploit it.

And so, with Netanyahu unyielding and defiantly unperturbed, and Levin beyond unreachable, we return to the hunt for four or more patriotic Zionists in the coalition — four or more men and women to vote against the next legislative salvoes, or at least eight to abstain, and thus deny the government the majority with which it intends to wreak still more havoc.

In no particular order, the Likud’s Yuli Edelstein, Yoav Gallant, David Bitan, Eli Dellal, Gila Gamliel, Ofir Akunis, Nir Barkat, Danny Danon, and, yes, even Avi Dichter, have all blotted their Netanyahu-can-do-no-wrong copybooks by suggesting, however mildly, that perhaps not all is being handled as it should be in the kingdom. They will not be easily forgiven if Netanyahu, Levin, Bezalel Smotrich, Ben Gvir, Simcha Rothman et al continue to have their way. And yet, Netanyahu, Levin, Smotrich, Ben Gvir, Rothman et al can only continue to have their way with their support.

Whereas, if they discovered some collective backbone, they might save the nation. They could start by partnering with the opposition to reverse the “reasonableness” law. Unlike the US Constitution, after all, amending, or unamending a Basic Law in Israel only requires one simple majority vote in our sole parliamentary chamber.

Wildly improbable? Well, forgive me, but with Netanyahu purporting to seek consensus even as he set a November deadline for the opposition to agree to terms he finds acceptable, opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz rebuffed and misrepresented by Netanyahu when intermittently seeking to revive the presidential talks on genuine judicial reform, President Isaac Herzog’s attempts to build a consensus defeated, and Gallant ignored when acting solo, I’ve run out of more “realistic” scenarios, and this country we love and need is being ripped apart before our eyes.

***

A police water cannon fires directly at an anti-overhaul demonstrator holding an Israeli flag while sitting on a wall at the side of the Begin Highway in Jerusalem, on Monday, July 24, as the coalition passed the “reasonableness law.” (Twitter screenshot: Dror Havlana; used in accordance wth Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

I’ll leave you with this — again, because my words are inadequate. An Israeli Humpty Dumpty moment, in a country we simply must put together again.

אלימות המשטרה- פגיעה מכוונת של מכתזית בואש במפגין שישב על חומה בצד, ירושלים.
קרדיט: דרור הבלנה pic.twitter.com/EW2FQ2IjD8

— ????️‍????????ShAuLi (@Shaulirena) July 24, 2023

A man sitting with an Israeli national flag, on a wall at the side of the Begin Highway in Jerusalem, on Monday, July 24, as the coalition passed the “reasonableness law.” And the Israeli police response to his presence.

(Police regulations require that a water cannon may not fire at targets less than 20 meters away.)

(The victim, Meir Harar, has since recounted that “I had shouted ‘Democracy’ a few times, and felt I’d conveyed the message. I sat down. The water cannon fired once next to me. I didn’t believe they would fire [again]. But they redirected the cannon and fired directly at me. I think the clip speaks for itself.”)