Israel’s existential challenge is of its own making
Israel is facing an unprecedented existential challenge, and it is not due to the Iran nuclear program or a third Palestinian intifada, or even a barrage of inaccurate Hamas missiles or an indictment by the International Criminal Court — all of these threats notwithstanding. For the first time since its inception, Israelis are talking openly about an imminent civil war, a government bent on steamrolling the state’s democratic institutions, and a lethal conflict brewing within Israel’s borders.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s toxic Cabinet of ultrareligious, ultranationalist, homophobic, misogynistic, openly racist and isolationist ministers is less than a month old. And yet it is already drawing fire from politicians and activists from the left and center, who are describing it as “fascist” and “authoritarian.” Former prime minister and decorated war hero Ehud Barak called on every Israeli to “join the fight” against this government’s “illegitimate” actions, which revolve “around a coup,” by becoming “involved in street battles” to oust Netanyahu.
Incidentally, it was the same kind of acidic rhetoric uttered by Netanyahu himself back in 1995 that got then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin killed by a Jewish zealot belonging to the far right that dominates today’s government.
What triggered this unparalleled diatribe was the intent by the government to implement Minister of Justice Yariv Levin’s plan for judicial reform. Nothing like this has ever happened in Israel’s short history. Basically, the plan limits the powers of the judiciary, in particular Israel’s High Court, and makes the legal opinions of the government’s legal counsel “nonbinding.” In the words of Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon, if the reforms pass, “government won’t be above the law; it will be the law.”
According to The Jerusalem Post, the plan seeks to amend laws to include the Override Clause, which gives the Knesset the ability to override High Court of Justice rulings, and change the makeup of the Judicial Appointments Committee so that the coalition or people of its choice will have an automatic majority. It will also cancel the “legal unreasonableness” clause, which the High Court sometimes uses to cancel government appointments or decisions that are deemed “extremely unreasonable.” Basically, the far-right coalition wants to appoint judges whose ideological and political agendas are similar to or are in line with its own.
No wonder that the move has been called a coup, with the conservative Jerusalem Post warning of a civil war and adding that “the thought that this latest experiment in Jewish sovereignty will be in jeopardy because of internal discord should shake us all at our core.”
And the response to this attempt to “change the state’s DNA” came on Saturday, when between 80,000 and 100,000 Israelis gathered in the center of Tel Aviv to denounce the government’s attempt to strip the judiciary of key powers. Smaller protests and sit-ins took place on Monday and others are planned this weekend.
If the so-called reforms are passed by the Knesset, then Israel’s democratic, secular system will have come to an end.
A defiant Netanyahu retorted by saying that voters approved his judicial reform plan when they headed to the polls last October and gave the Likud and the once-fringe far-right parties their vote. But in reality, Netanyahu and his future coalition partners had not talked publicly about their intentions for the judiciary during the election campaign.
If the so-called reforms are passed by the Knesset, then Israel’s democratic, secular system will have come to an end. Netanyahu’s loose cannon partners want to change the Basic Law and laws regarding Jewish immigration (the Law of Return), stripping Israelis (read that as Arabs) of their citizenship and executing Palestinians involved in the killing of Israelis. They will go as far as adopting laws regarding segregation and the termination of all public activities on the Sabbath, among others. Secular and democratic Israel will cease to exist.
This kind of “demolition derby” of the state’s legal foundations will resurrect former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s warning that Israel can choose to be a Jewish state, but it will no longer be a democratic state. The irony here is that the Israel that Netanyahu and his radical partners seek to create is not the one envisioned under the Abraham Accords, or by the founding fathers of the state. How can an openly racist, anti-Arab, fundamentalist, fascist entity claim to be at peace with its Arab neighbors?
Another irony is that this will be a purely domestic crisis of Israel’s making. No one can blame the Palestinians, Iran or any other party for the country’s looming woes.
The caveat here is that a beleaguered Netanyahu may choose to export the crisis in order to deflect Israeli public opinion and postpone internal strife. He could do so by inventing a confrontation with Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon. The extremists in his camp may even push him to launch a preemptive strike against Iran. One thing is true: That the crisis in Israel is serious and a self-serving Netanyahu is not in a position to rein in his partners and avert an open war with almost half of Israeli society. With so many genetic contradictions in the very fabric of the political players, Israel is on the verge of imploding.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.