Binyamin Netanyahu is a man in a hurry. Israel’s most divisive prime minister has no time for introspection. His hasty attempts to suborn the judiciary, primarily for getting discriminatory laws through, are triggering epochal protests. Over 100,000 Israelis hit Tel Aviv on 21 January. The ire is palpable. Continuing protests expose Mr Netanyahu’s discriminatory mindset and divisive agenda. Israelis fear their democracy is under attack.
Their fears are justified. Mr Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms foresee a major role for religion in Israeli politics. Religious parties already wield enormous clout in Bibi’s coalition government (Bibi is Mr Netanyahu’s popular moniker). Clearly, secular and liberal Israelis are alarmed. They fear Bibi’s proposed reforms are a way of legitimising his pro-Orthodox and anti-minorities ideology. Agitated, protesters are storming the streets. https://www.timesofisrael.com/over-100000-estimated-to-gather-in-tel-aviv-for-largest-anti-government-protest-yet/
The Four Major Threats
Incensed Israelis want nothing short of an end to Bibi’s rule. His insidious attempts to assail the judiciary and upend it in the name of reforms is propelling them. Bibi is notorious for similar duplicitous ‘overhauls’ in the past. He is now proposing to do it again for the sixth time since 1996, the year he became Israel’s prime minister for the first time. His proposed ‘sham’ judicial overhaul is behind the Israeli uprising.
Bibi’s proposed sham judicial overhaul has thrown up four major threats for democracy in Israel. One, the proposal seeks to exempt ultra Orthodox Jews from compulsory conscription. Two, it aims to legitimise regressive gender segregation in public places. Three, it intends to discriminate against minorities. Four, it tries to vest in politico-religious leaders undue control over Jews, their religious conventions and sacred sites. These are all threats to religious inclusion, secularism and democratic values the Israelis cherish.
Not Leaving Anything to Chance
Sure, divisive ideas have no place in progressive forward-looking societies. Inevitable, even before Bibi’s proposals could become law, they are pitting liberal secularists against illiberal religionists of the Right. The clash and the collision are convulsing now into protests of epic proportions. Israelis fear Bibi has the might to win this duel, as the right-wing coalition controls a majority of 65 seats in Knesset’s 120.
Yet, Bibi is not leaving anything to chance. He wants to make sure the final victory is his. This is why he is proposing to subjugate the Supreme Court, which has always taken a non-religious approach to issues concerning the government. For the much polarising Bibi, judicial supremacy muffles the will of his people. For him, a righteous Supreme Court is a strict no-no. This explains his undue haste in proposing a radical judicial overhaul. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2022-12-22/ty article/.premium/netanyahu-attacks-ultra-orthodox-allies-inenglish-but-courts-their-support-in-hebrew/00000185-396ed723-a3d5-7d6fe3ac0000
Overhaul is Inimical to Democracy
Worse for Israeli democracy, Bibi believes the Supreme Court is in cahoots with the political left. The fact the attorney general and the chief justice have dared to speak against the judicial overhaul confirms his belief. Their argument that the proposed overhaul is inimical to democracy is not washing with Bibi and his divisive coalition. Bibi is thus arguing, without logic, the proposed judicial reform is a cure for the judicial ills of activism and overreach. “Opposition lawmakers too have spoken out against judicial activism,” says Bibi.
Quite the contrary. The ultra-Orthodox, in fact, craves for relief from mandatory conscription. They want to study the Torah full time, while subsisting on State subsidies. If their demand is met, as Bibi wants to do, it is sure to burden others with the task of providing both national security and economic support to Israel. Despite the Supreme Court backing this logic, Bibi wants to do away with the mandatory conscription for the ultra-Orthodox.
Craving for an Override Clause
No doubt, Bibi is pandering to the ultra-Orthodox. He is sold out to their contention study of Torah is a basic national act, at par with military service. Fundamentalistic in his orientation, Bibi is hell-bent on making the conscription exemption a reality. Primarily, Bibi’s proposed judicial overhaul aims at making himself more powerful than the Supreme Court, powerful enough to overrule the courts and have his way.
Yet, Bibi is not satisfied. He wants conversions to Judaism, outside ultra-Orthodox organs, are derecognised. He is clamouring for suspending the rights of lesser Jews, the Reform and Conservative Jews for instance, to offer prayers in their holy sites. Bibi is sure to perpetuate a non-inclusive Jewish society if the Supreme Court is removed from these issues. This is why Bibi and his coalition want an override clause to enfeeble and emaciate the judiciary. https://www.timesofisrael.com/ben-gvir-calls-for-revokingstate-recognition-of-reform-conversions/
Phoney Banner of Protection
Bibi sees the overriding clause as a tool to discriminate the minorities and appease the rest. Minorities in Israel include the Arabs and the LGBTQIAs, besides the Reform and Conservative Jews who want treatment at par with the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Bibi and his coalition need a common enemy to rally the Orthodox Jews under a phoney banner of protecting them. For Bibi, defenceless minorities are that common enemy. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/01/benjamin-netanyahu-coalition-israel-democracy/672693/
The arithmetic is simple. An enfeebled Supreme Court means no barriers to erecting an Israeli society, divided sharply and discriminated unjustly in the name of religion. As Bibi’s proposed judicial overhaul seeks amendments to discrimination laws, the idea is to gender-separate public spaces and transport, without the Supreme Court being able to throw a spanner in the works of the religious right. Beyond doubt, Bibi is getting desperate.
Hungering to Alter the Equations
Desperate he is, the Supreme Court has the powers to review how the executive and the armed forces work. As an integral part of these reviews, Israel’s apex court has often defended the rights of Palestinians. The Supreme Court has even protected the Palestinians from outrageous actions of insecure Israeli settlers. Quite often, a neutral Supreme Court presides over cases of illegal expropriation of Palestinian private properties on disputed lands.
This neutrality is touted by Bibi and his partners as judicial activism. Moreover, the Bibi government is hungering for radical alterations in the West Bank equation. This is why he has been talking of effective annexation, without an official declaration. Bibi thinks his annexation cry is a great strategy to perpetuate himself in power. Sadly, the Supreme Court is the sole obstacle. Bibi wants to eliminate this obstacle now. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/experts-react-bibi-is-back-back-again-for-now/
The Powder Keg to Explode
Bibi sees the Supreme Court as a major hurdle for his policy of discrimination too. Despite public posturing to the contrary, Bibi’s coalition wants discrimination in business based on religion. They want traders and service-providers, like medicos, to discriminate their clients by religion and sexual orientation. The coalition is keen to deny these sections access to education and health. Sure, the protests are not going to end soon.
Not commoners alone are protesting over the proposed ‘judicial reforms’. President Isaac Herzog too is backing the protesters. He has alerted Bibi over the protests’ ability to ‘consume’ the whole of Israel. “This powder keg is about to explode, this is an emergency”, he has warned. Mr Herzog is not off the mark. Bibi’s proposals will limit the ability of the Supreme Court to strike down unfair and discriminatory laws, setting off a civil war of catastrophic proportions. This will conflict with the very idea of a fair, just and egalitarian Israel.
Bid to Avoid a Similar Fate
Meanwhile, Moshe Hazan, a central banker with the Bank of Israel, has quit his job to fight Bibi’s proposed judicial overhaul. Mr Hazan is planning to participate in “public-political activity”. He has warned Bibi of the coming brain drain, cataclysmic corruption and capital flight. As the likes of Mr Herzog and Mr Hazan voice their concerns, protesting Israeli commoners are drawing their strength and conviction from their words and actions, which are sure to shape the protests in the coming days.
Undaunted, Bibi is busy working to a plan. The sly Bibi wants to ensure he is not convicted of corruption. The trial is on. He is insecure now, more after the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on Aryeh Deri, his minister of health, who was convicted of tax fraud. The Court ordered Bibi to expel Mr Deri and Bibi had to. Seeing his key minister thrown out by the Court, Bibi is getting nervous. He wants to make sure such a fate does not befall him. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/01/18/deri-ineligible-israeli-supreme-court/
The Spectre of Fundamentalism
Not surprising, Bibi wants to change the way judges are chosen. He is keen on curtailing the Supreme Court’s ability to revoke laws passed in Parliament. He wants to cement parliament’s supremacy to override court decisions with his bare majority of 65. An audacious Bibi wants to turn legal advisers in his puppet ministries into political appointees and make them not answerable to the attorney general.
When this becomes a reality, Bibi will see his dream turn into a reality. Bibi and his coalition will be able to re-enact laws struck down by the court. When the Supreme Court is subjugated, independence of individual ministries will stand imperilled, as they will be accountable to their respective ministers, and not to the attorney general. This possible scenario raises the spectre of a no-holds-barred and a free-to-do government of zealots. https://www.american.edu/sis/news/20230120-israels-netanyahu-facing-off-against-the-supreme-court-and-proposing-to-limit-judicial-independence.cfm
Bibi feels such a government is a dire necessity for him and his coalition government today. He is desperate to improve his coalition’s vote share. After all, he formed his ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox coalition government after winning a mere 30,000 votes out of nearly 5 million, which is a pathetic 0.6 per cent vote share. He sees religion as his saviour to stay on, not quite uncommon in many electoral democracies today on earth. https://www.thetrumpet.com/26449-bibi-is-back/print
Electoral democrats of the earth may pick a leaf or two from Bibi’s divisive playbook. Hungary and Turkey are Bibi’s role models. Bibi will be one tomorrow for others. Already, in India, the government is at loggerheads with the judiciary over junking the collegium system, wherein the government does not appoint judges. The Indian government wants greater say in their appointments. This is how democracies begin to decay.