As I write, Israel is undergoing a carefully planned, well-financed, coup d’état.
Its leaders, members of Israel’s elite, including two former prime ministers, military officers, high tech entrepreneurs, media, judges and lawyers, supported by an army of useful idiots, will tell you that it is not a coup. They will say that it’s the government that is trying to effect a revolution, to destroy Israel’s democracy and install a dictatorship or even a theocracy.
They are either fools or lying. To begin with, Israel is not a true liberal democracy today, nor has she ever been one, except perhaps for brief periods. For the first 29 years of her existence, she was ruled by a single party, Mapai, the Labor Party. Her first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, was a virtual dictator. Later prime ministers were chosen from among the Labor apparatchiks, and some of them were incompetent enough to imperil the existence of the state. The opposition, led by Menachem Begin, was entirely shut out.
In 1977, thanks to public disgust over the Labor government’s failure to prepare for the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, and the demographic changes in Israel resulting from the immigration of almost a million Jews forced to flee Muslim countries, Begin’s Likud party received enough votes in an election to form a government, and make him prime minister.
But control of the Knesset didn’t translate into control of the country. The elites that controlled government-owned enterprises, the army, the media, the legal system, the labor unions, the educational establishment, and everything else, did not let go. The “new Israelis,” mostly Mizrachi Jews, but soon to include immigrants from the Soviet Union, Ethiopia and other places, were kept out. I remember a song popular around 1980 about a singer who wanted to appear on the (state-controlled) radio, but was turned down because of his Mizrachi accent.* It wasn’t a joke, even at that late date.
The elites saw the demographic bus coming, and they knew that they had to somehow control the “barbarians” who would soon begin to take over by sheer force of numbers. So in the early 1990s, led by Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak, they engineered a real judicial coup. What was called a “constitutional revolution” vastly increased the power and scope of the Supreme Court, gave quasi-constitutional status to vague laws passed by a small minority of Knesset members, and for the first time enabled the court to overthrow laws passed by the Knesset. A system of legal “advisors,” accountable only to the judicial system, was created, whose “advice” to every ministry and government department is binding. Now, although the “new Israelis” often elect a majority of the Knesset, the elected officials can be blocked from doing anything that the old elites don’t like.
The new system has worked well for them. The Knesset, the prime minister, and his cabinet, who derive their authority from the electorate, have been stripped of their power. For example, at least four times the Knesset has passed laws to enable the humane repatriation or resettlement of some 50,000+ migrants who entered the country illegally across the Egyptian border. In every case, they were blocked by the Supreme Court. Today the migrants have children whose native language is Hebrew, and they and their descendants are likely here to stay.
The issue of what to do about the migrants involved finding a balance between rights – the rights of the migrants vs. the rights of the residents of South Tel Aviv, whose neighborhoods were devastated by their influx, and the right of the state to control its demographic composition. This was the very paradigm of a political decision, one that should have been made according to the will of the citizens, expressed by their democratically elected representatives. Instead, an unelected court decided on the basis of the judges’ prejudices – which reflected their elite status and liberal worldview rather than the collective desire of the citizens of the state.
This is the “democracy” that the demonstrators who are blocking roads, burning tires in front of the homes of government ministers, shutting down airports, wish to “preserve.” This is what those reservists who refuse to report for duty are endangering our security in order to protect. This is why pundits are trying to damage Israel’s economy with self-fulfilling prophecies of disaster. And this is what the movement has – unethically if not treasonously – lobbied foreign leaders to pressure Israel over.
It’s important to understand that the specific proposals for judicial reform are not fundamental to the conflict. How do we know this? For one thing, even if all the reforms were enacted in their original form, they would do no more than return the balance between the Knesset and the Supreme Court to what it was before the “constitutional revolution” of 1994. In addition, the argument that rule by an unelected, self-selecting, elite legal establishment is somehow more democratic than that of an elected parliament is simply absurd.
So what is behind it? It needs to be understood in the context of the attempted prosecution of Binyamin Netanyahu for some very amorphous “crimes,” of years of anti-Netanyahu demonstrations, and especially as a consequence of the demographic shift in Israel, which is becoming more religious and more diverse. The secular Ashkenazi descendants of pre-WWII immigrants are feeling “their” country slip away; secular people in general are afraid that the balance between religion and state will tip towards greater intrusion of religion into their lives; and everyone below the top economic brackets is finding it harder and harder to afford the necessities of life in one of the world’s most expensive countries.
The leaders of the protest movement present it as a last-ditch effort (before open civil war, which they seem to enjoy predicting) to stop Netanyahu from abolishing democracy and establishing a religious dictatorship “like in Turkey.” They argue that only an all-powerful judicial establishment can protect minority rights – by which they mean the rights of minorities favored by the Left, such as the LGBT community, rather than those favored by the Right, such as religious people and residents of the periphery or Judea and Samaria. They play on secular fears of religious coercion and resentment against Haredim, whom they accuse of parasitism.
They argue – irresponsibly – that their concerns cannot be assuaged through normal political processes. The government, they say, has “gone off the rails” and therefore they themselves are justified in adopting any means necessary to stop the nation’s slide into dictatorship and theocracy. Normally it would not be justified to deliberately damage the economy, to lobby foreign nations against our government, or to imperil our security by refusing military service. But today, they say, the situation is not normal. Suppose you lived in Germany in the 1930s, they ask, would you have allowed Nazism to take hold without a fight?
The protests are becoming more and more punishing to ordinary people trying to get to work, to operate businesses, or to get medical care. They are increasingly pushing the limits of free expression, and often veering into harassment and sabotage. The police, in turn, are using more aggressive means to control the demonstrations. More demonstrators are being injured in confrontations with the police. But probably the most important is a growing movement among IDF reservists to shirk reserve duty. This trend, presently confined to units drawn from the upper classes in Israeli society such as the air force and the cyber and intelligence units, is extremely worrisome to IDF commanders. As I write (23 July) protest organizers claim that 10,000 air force reservists are prepared to join the protest by failing to volunteer or even refuse orders to report for duty. It would certainly impact IDF preparedness if they were to follow through on such a threat.
The immediate issue is a law that the government is trying to pass to limit the “reasonableness criterion,” one of the tools that the Supreme Court can use to block actions or appointments by the government. In fact, this law would have little or no effect on the Court’s power, since it has other equally vague criteria (such as “proportionality”) that it can use in a similar way. But it has become the focus of conflict. From the point of view of the government, if this law can be defeated by extra-legal means, then the democratic election that brought them to power will have been subverted. Power will have been transferred from the elected government to the rebels, who could use similar tactics to derail any government action. From the point of view of the protest, if the government is allowed to “get away” with passing this law, then there will be nothing to stop it from continuing its program to “end democracy and establish a dictatorship.”
There are various groups and individuals that are encouraging, controlling, and financing the protests. The parliamentary opposition, led by Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz is naturally happy to see Netanyahu’s coalition in trouble, but they are nervous about the increasingly bellicose attitude of the protestors, and especially about anything that can endanger the IDF’s ability to respond to threats. There are several non-governmental organizations that provide organizational and financial assistance to the protests. There are ad hoc groups of former security officials, etc. And there is Ehud Barak.
Barak, a former chief of staff and prime minister who presided over the debacle of the 2000 Camp David summit between Israel, the PLO, and the US, has been one of the driving forces, ideologically, and financially, of the protest movement. He served as Minister of Defense under Netanyahu in 2011-12, and together with him advocated for attacking the Iranian nuclear program before the Iranians entered a “zone of immunity” after which an attack would not be effective. The plan was not carried out due to opposition from elements in the army and the security forces, and the Obama Administration. Since then, Barak has reversed course, aligning himself with the anti-Netanyahu side. In 2020, he argued that PM Netanyahu was attempting to acquire dictatorial powers using the Covid pandemic as an excuse, and called for removing him from power, detailing the precise tactics that are being used today. He also said that he saw himself as the best choice to replace him.
The Biden Administration has pressured the Israeli government to stop the judicial reform legislation, despite the internal political nature of the debate. It has also denigrated PM Netanyahu, following the precedent set by the Obama administration, many of whose alumni now work for Biden. Although smoking guns are hard to come by, I would be surprised if the protest movement were not being assisted by the US State Department and intelligence agencies.
At this very moment, three days before the observance of Tisha b’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the two Temples, PM Netanyahu is in a hospital having a pacemaker implanted after episodes of transient heart block which led to losses of consciousness. At ten o’clock today the Knesset will begin debate on the bill to limit the reasonableness criterion, and the vote is expected to take place tomorrow. At the same time, there are warnings that Iran’s proxy Hezbollah is preparing for war. It is possible that the Iranians think that Israel is on the verge of implosion and wish to take advantage of it.
I don’t think there has been this degree of tension in Israel since the Yom Kippur War. Will the coup succeed? Will Netanyahu manage to reassert control? Are we on the verge of a multi-front war which will make all the political machinations moot? It’s been said that the existence of a Jewish state today is miraculous, but miracles these days require both divine and human action. Now we need such a miracle; may it happen, speedily in our day.
*Moti Giladi, Korim oti Beber