Chaos reigns in Israel, a country in the throes of an ad hoc general strike called by trade unions, university students, numerous industries across the country, and many military and civil defence reservists. Demonstrators are storming buildings and fighting the police. Some council leaders say they are beginning a hunger strike. If you wanted to fly into Ben Gurion airport today, as tens of thousands of people usually do of a weekday, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. It’s closed.
Why is all of this happening? In the immediate term, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sacked his defence minister, Yoav Gallant. Gallant is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and is a loyalist. He said that Netanyahu should possibly cool it with some of his judicial reforms. And so he had to go.
Gallant was backed by much of Israel’s defence establishment, which has been warning that political turmoil leaves the country less safe. But that didn’t seem to matter to Bibi. In effect, as the Economist’s correspondent Anshel Pfeffer writes: ‘Basically, Netanyahu has now said he has no confidence in Israel’s entire security establishment.’ His actions also signal that forcing his reforms through is more important – at least in the short term – than the country’s security.
Naturally, the assorted left and opposition in Israel have not been whipped up into a general strike by the sacking of a rightist defence minister. The protests are a culmination of a bid by Netanyahu and his far-right allies to gut the Israeli judiciary and to diminish its political independence.
As an aside, the term far-right is completely justified in this case. Likud, Netanyahu’s party, is now on the very edge of mainstream Israeli politics. Bezalel Smotrich, of the Religious Zionist party, is Israel’s finance minister. He’s a self-confessed extremist, someone who simply would not be in government if Likud itself were more mainstream and able to work with centrist and centre-right parties.
It is clear that, if the government can manage it, it will force through a major judicial reform bill in the coming days. That bill aims to diminish fundamentally the judicial review capacity of the Israeli Supreme Court, to give the government powers over the appointment of judges and to diminish the ability of the country’s legal officers to exercise oversight on politicians.
Ultimately it seems that, from the prime minister’s interviews and the statements of his law ministers, he wants parliament to be able to veto the Supreme Court – if only by a narrow majority of one, the kind of majority his coalitions can usually cobble together.
No other comparable democracy does this, and Israeli citizens are right to believe they might soon enter uncertain waters. Many fear the removal of these checks and balances would make the prime minister more powerful than he already is. And if he is in a fighting mood – which Netanyahu always appears to be – strengthening his office does not seem to be a recipe for civic peace and harmony.
All attempts at compromise, including from the country’s President, Isaac Herzog, have been angrily dismissed by the coalition. Netanyahu maintains that the Israeli Supreme Court has undue powers over politics – and especially over him.
He is subject to an ongoing criminal investigation for alleged corruption and bribery and his country’s legal officers, including the attorney general, have tried to have Netanyahu recuse himself from judicial reform because he is about to be part of a criminal case himself – to no avail.
Now he wants to remove a constraint on his ability not only to govern as he likes, but possibly to remain in office if convicted of serious financial crimes. Naturally, this has his opponents somewhat steamed up.
Rumours swirl. Many of them seem quite outrageous. They, possibly more than anything concrete, have driven the opposition onto the streets.
Here’s a flavour of them. One says that Netanyahu is preparing to appoint a legal novice as head of the country’s Supreme Court: a post that is normally held by the most august lawyers in the land. But, if this rumour were true, the position could be held by a random guy. Someone picked for political expediency rather than judicial temperament and intellect. If that happened in this country, I would expect similar discontent.
Another rumour: that Netanyahu wants to turn the country’s attorney general – in Israel, a position with responsibilities and powers distinct from that of the prime minister and cabinet – into an appointee. In effect, making the holder of the office the prime minister’s lawyer rather than a force with powers to check on him.
Netanyahu’s most excitable critics see a dictatorship not too far away if all of these things are made to happen. They are probably over-stimulated. The Prime Minister might pause his legislative blitz in an announcement this evening.
But it is extraordinary that such a crisis has not only seized Israel’s entire body politic and paralysed its society and national defence, but that its architect has pushed ahead – in the face of practically the whole country – just so he can win what is ultimately a petty factional battle with the country’s lawyers.
This piece was originally published in The Spectator.