On Israel's journey across the wilderness, from the desert to the well, it has strayed upon the motorway to Hell
In Israel, raging opposition to the government has been a thing of the right. Even when leftists held mass protests and were very displeased indeed, they usually remained well-behaved. This may be about to change, because the incoming government seems set to cross a very dangerous line.
It is not that previous Likud-led governments did not do horrible damage. In the 1980s, Menachem Begin brought 400 percent inflation and a pointless occupation of Lebanon that gave birth to Hezbollah (but also peace with Egypt). Yitzhak Shamir scuttled a mature effort to hand the West Bank problem to Jordan, leading to the first Intifada. Benjamin Netanyahu, with the generous help of Palestinian terrorists, helped scuttle the 1990s Oslo Accords. But still, the basic compact enabling a diverse nation to somehow coexist was sufficiently preserved.
I urge those inclined to dismiss warnings as hysteria or bad sportsmanship to put aside standard reactions, take pills against nausea and submit to a survey of the coming crimes against what has passed for Israel’s democracy.
To begin with, the incoming coalition appears determined to enact something called an “override clause” which would enable any Knesset majority of 61 out of 120 to cancel rulings of the Supreme Court. The hare-brained argument for this rests on the notion that the majority must be allowed to govern – as if no limits whatsoever should ever be set on governments.
It is no coincidence that almost no democracies on Earth have any such thing (Canada is the sole exception, under circumstances that do not apply here, and in the US the bar for constitutional amendments is now impossibly high): It neuters the judicial branch and means the citizens have no rights. The obvious first victims will be the Palestinians, who depend on the court for the tiny protections they still enjoy, but in reality no group in the country will be safe from oppression – not just by the ruling party but from any small coalition partner that party needs to satisfy.
The override clause alone would suffice for Israel to apply to join the ranks of fake democracies, but more is planned, to ensure its acceptance as a veritable leader in that club. The new coalition wants to give politicians total control over the choice of judges at all levels, which in Israel’s reality would make them puppets. No other democracy gives politicians control like this, with the exception of the United States, which should be nobody’s model today. Every other democracy has attempted to devise better ways to maintain a professional, independent judiciary responsible to the public and the law, and not to political overlords.
To complete the picture, the incoming coalition wants to redefine key civil service positions – critically the “legal advisers” that exist in ministries and at the Cabinet level – into political appointees who serve at the pleasure of elected officials. This would upend a status quo in which civil servants have been critical to reining in the excesses of politicians, and providing them with sound and independent legal counsel and representation.
For a sign of where this is going, look no further than Arye Deri, the former jailbird who is the leader of the Sephardic religious party Shas. He already served years in prison for bribe-taking (having provided the current defendant Netanyahu with the model for claiming charges against him were fabricated by the deep state). After his release he got in trouble yet again and under a plea bargain is no longer eligible to serve in the Cabinet. He demands a new law to get around this; it would be itself illegal in being transparently tailored to fit the needs of one person, and Deri presents this as the first big test of the override clause. I get it: no one wants to fail right off the bat! That would be embarrassing.
Deri is far from the only convicted criminal who will get a place of honor at the ignoble table being currently set. In addition to the Noam party (whose signature issue is extreme homophobia and which will reportedly be put in charge of “Jewish identity”) he would be joined by Itamar Ben-Gvir, a brute who once bragged about “getting to” Yitzhak Rabin physically (one of his cohort did, as we recall).
Ben-Gvir has since faced dozens of indictments, including on terror-related charges, which resulted in a number of convictions. According to reports, he will receive a turbo-charged version of the police ministry, which with the aid of several reforms would make him the overload of the police he knows so well but is manifestly unqualified to lead.
Ben-Gvir has made his name on provoking violence with Arabs, drawing guns on them in parking lots and things of this nature. He and his fellow religious fanatics favor changing the delicate status quo on Jerusalem’s supremely combustible Temple Mount to allow Jews to pray on the level that includes the Mosque of Al Aqsa, which many of them want to destroy to rebuild the Jewish Temple. Any of this would almost surely lead to violence and badly damage the peace treaty with Jordan, which is the custodian of the Muslim holy sites and which Israel badly relies on for strategic depth.
Ben-Gvir’s partner in the Religious Zionism list is Betzalel Smotrich, another rabble-rouser who is known for claiming to be a “proud homophobe,” bemoaning the presence of Arabs in his wife’s maternity ward, and advocating for the supremacy of Halakhic law in Israel. He has the temerity to demand the defense ministry.
While I doubt he will get that – Netanyahu probably does not want to blow up the Middle East just yet, and it looks like Smotrich will (insanely) receive the finance ministry of one of the world’s leading technology powers (for now). But according to reports the far-right will be given oversight over the Civil Administration which controls construction permits – and home destructions – in the West Bank and also provides (or denies) entry and exit and work permits to Palestinians. Expect a massive boom in settlement and mounting tensions with the Palestinians.
Israel’s only hope of surviving as a Jewish state is to maintain, somehow, the slim possibility of an eventual partition from the Palestinians in the West Bank. Four more years of accelerated settlement could be fatal to such hopes – and indeed these ultranationalists have plans to either forever rule the Palestinians or to somehow compel them to leave by the millions.
A very plausible outcome is a third Intifada. And there is little doubt that the policies of Ben-Gvir as National Security Minister will draw in many from Israel proper’s Arab minority who are citizens. I expect massive bloodshed that could cause the Arabs to boycott future elections, assuring victory for the right. I strongly suspect that’s the plan — a feature, not a bug. If you think that’s cynical, you do not know this crowd.
So far we have Israel becoming a version of Turkey or Hungary on the fake-democracy front, and a version of Yugoslavia (RIP) on the Palestinian front. But there is more: a Jewish version of Iran.
I have written many times about the danger to modern Israel that comes from the combination of the Haredi insistence on huge fertility (almost seven children on average per family), refusal to teach these children a core curriculum of math, science and English to make them usefully employable, and sanctification of lifelong religious study by men (with the expectation of a state salary for it). With the sector’s population doubling itself every 16 years and already constituting almost a fifth of the Jews, collapse is inevitable. Barring a U-turn very soon Israel would become a Third World country brimming with theocratic rules that will force many of the secular people who account for almost the entirely of its current economy to flee.
The only way around this is to phase out child subsidies and yeshiva salaries and to condition all school funding and licensing on a serious application of a core curriculum. But the incoming Netanyahu government is set to not only do none of it and instead vastly increase Haredi budgets.
This nightmare is coming because of sheer stupidity. Even after the oddly somnolent election campaign by the liberal Prime Minister Yair Lapid, the election was a tie by the number of votes, which should have kept him in power by a thread. The right’s Knesset majority results from splits in the left and in the Joint Arab List that ended up keeping two key lists under the threshhold and throwing away 6% of the vote.
You can say that these are the rules and that’s the way it goes. But you cannot just burn down a person’s house. The delicate edifice of Israel’s Jewish democratic state is about to be torched to the ground, and the pushback will be furious.
In the immortal lyrics of the British rocker Chris Rea: On our journey across the wilderness from the desert to the well, we have strayed upon the motorway to hell.
(A version of this article appeared originally in the Jerusalem Post)