Israel’s most extreme right-dominated government ever is seeking to undermine the judiciary’s independence. And the people are pushing back.
Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is a political veteran, an old warhorse who has fought and won many a battle individually and on behalf of his Likud Party.
But the massive backlash – mostly by commoners – against his controversial proposal to overhaul the country’s judiciary has taken the sheen of his achievements and left him much weaker politically.
Netanyahu’s plan aims to empower the government to have the power to appoint judges of the Supreme Court, the country’s top court, whose past decisions have made both the hardliner prime minister and his far-right allies angry. The changes would have severely curtailed the court’s power to act against elected leaders, especially the prime minister. The plan also aims to diminish the power of the government’s legal councillors.
Even some members of his cabinet, including the defence minister, opposed Netanyahu’s plan as hundreds of thousands of Israelis staged mass protests for weeks. Even US President Joe Biden, an all-weather ally of Tel Aviv, uncharacteristically criticised the embattled prime minister.
Netanyahu eventually appeared to back off, delaying the judicial reform vote in the Knesset as both Israeli pundits and politicians – including President Isaac Herzog – pointed out that for the first time ever, the Jewish state might reach “the brink of a civil war” if the government tried to bulldoze public opinion.
“When there is a possibility to prevent a civil war through negotiations, I will give a timeout for negotiations,” Netanyahu said, as he lived to fight another day.
But the hardline still appeared defiant as he responded to Biden by saying that “Israel is a sovereign country”. It was a clear signal that he might yet take a chance with the judicial package later on.
Country at crossroads
Alon Liel, the former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, is among the experts who believe that the Jewish state has reached an inflection point with Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan.
In recent months, a big part of the Israeli public began fearing that Netanyahu aims “to change the democratic nature of the country,” according to Liel. “People got very worried, angry, annoyed and went to the streets in big numbers. We never had demonstrations this size in the history of Israel,” Liel tells TRT World.
Liel believes that many Israelis see Netanyahu’s judicial plan as an attempt “to lower” the status of the legal system, altering the Supreme Court’s neutral character. While it’s not all clear whether Netanyahu will try his chance again, the opposition so far managed to stop the prime minister’s legislation on the plan, he says.
If Netanyahu is able to pass the legislation in relation to the judicial overhaul in the Knesset, the Jewish state will cease to be a democracy anymore, according to Liel. “If he wins, Israel will be a dictatorship. If he loses, Israel will stay a democracy,” he says. “I don’t think there could be any compromise between democracy and dictatorship,” adds Liel.
There is a possibility that Israel might switch to a dictatorship, which might be much more suitable for the Netanyahu government to implement their illegal annexation plans of the West Bank and other Palestinian enclaves, according to Liel.
The Netanyahu government wants to destroy any possibility of Palestinian statehood, and this kind of destruction plan can not be implemented under the political umbrella of a democratic state, says Liel. His far-right coalition partners have long advocated such a policy, pushing him to realise this destruction plan.
Like Liel, Yoram Schweitzer, a former member of the Israeli intelligence community who now heads the Program on Terrorism and Low-Intensity Conflict at the INSS, a prominent think-tank, sees Netanyahu’s judicial plan as a serious threat to Israeli democracy.
What Netanyahu and his extremist allies are trying to do with this so-called judicial reform is “unequivocally a regime change,” Schweitzer tells TRT World. “If he succeeds, that would be a political and judicial crisis, the worst Israel has ever known,” says Schweitzer.
But why does Netanyahu want to take such a risk for Israel?
Personal interests and far-right allies
Both experts point out two factors, Netanyahu’s legal troubles related to ongoing corruption investigations against him and the far-right agenda of his extremist allies, as possible motivations for the Israeli leader’s ongoing judicial overhaul attempt. “His personal problems are affecting his behaviour and the behaviour of his surroundings,” says Liel.
“He is willing to deteriorate Israel at the expense of its citizens, who do not support him, to achieve his own private interests,” says Schweitzer, referring to Netanyahu’s corruption cases, which can lead to the removal of the prime minister from the high office.
As a result, Netanyahu has no problems going very far in terms of his judicial overhaul, which almost equals a regime change in Israel to protect himself from any conviction, says Schweitzer. Netanyahu believes that to avoid any court sentence, which can end up “jailing” him, he needs to stay in power and should be able to appoint judges, according to Liel.
“This is why he made a coalition with the most extreme elements in Israeli politics,” says Schweitzer, referring to Netanyahu’s coalition partners ranging from Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), to Bezalel Smotrich, the head of the extremist Religious Zionism party.
Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, both illegal settlers in occupied Palestinian territory, were able to become ministers under the Netanyahu government, pushing the prime minister to restructure the Israeli army, which created the perfect storm in the country’s military establishment in January. This week, Netanyahu also signed an agreement with Ben-Gvir, allowing him to build “a private militia”, shocking many in Israel.
Far-right ministers like Ben-Gvir, who want to stay in power to keep their strong bargaining positions in Israeli politics intact, need a politician like Netanyahu with a number of legal troubles to realise their extreme political demands, says Liel. “Now they are blackmailing him by threatening to leave the coalition,” he adds. Netanyahu’s coalition government has a one-seat majority in parliament.
Interestingly, during the anti-government protests, demonstrators carried telling posters – including a photograph of a crying Theodor Herzl, the godfather of Zionism, and a picture showing an upset David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel – invoking the idea that Netanyahu and his extremist allies are on the way to destroying the foundations of the state.
Alienating the West
Due to Netanyahu’s dependence on far-right parties, the Likud leader is making “all kinds of concessions” to these extremists, which can complicate Israel’s connections with its allies like the US, says Schweitzer.
“They cannot continue down this road,” said Biden, referring to the judicial plan of Netanyahu and his far-right allies. “I hope he walks away from it,” he added.
But Ben-Gvir shot back at the US president, saying that Israel “is not another star on the American flag”, brewing tensions with the Jewish state’s biggest ally. Even some Netanyahu allies called the Biden statement a production of “fake news”.
Netanyahu’s concessions to the Israeli far-right will alienate both Americans and Europeans as well as hundreds of thousands of citizens who are floating the country’s streets protesting the judicial reform, according to Schweitzer.
With his judicial overhaul, which will dismantle Israel’s check and balance system, Netanyahu aims to bring all security apparatus, including the country’s intelligence services and the army, into a break with the judicial system, says Schweitzer. “This is something that jeopardises the security of Israel,” he says, adding that it could also compromise the country’s economics.
But hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens on the streets show the country’s strong determination to prevent him from implementing such a plan, according to Schweitzer.