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How Netanyahu’s Push for Dictatorship Can Be Arrested

Bibi is on his way to killing Israeli democracy. But he hasn’t won yet.

Bibi Netanyahu
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The vote to cancel the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to rule on the “reasonability” of a law passed 64–0, with only the members of the governing coalition voting in favor on the last week of the Knesset summer session. Members from all nongovernmental parties absented themselves from the hall. The court’s practice (taken from British common law) of ruling for or against a minister or government decision based on the concept of the broader public good will be scrapped. Now the government will have nearly dictatorial power.

The key question now, the question burning through the minds of everyone I speak to here in Jerusalem, is: How can the broad opposition—a  network of activists and civil society folks, along with a string of political parties that reach from the center-right to the center-left—beat back the Netanyahu governmental agenda? 

One of the most visible opposition politicians is Labor member of the Knesset Rabbi Gilad Kariv. Kariv, a lawyer and Reform rabbi, was chair of the pivotal Law and Justice Committee before the current ultra-right-winger Simcha Rothman. Throughout this process, he was Rothman’s nemesis precisely because he knows process and the law. When I spoke to him on his morning drive to the Knesset the day after the vote, his voice was hoarse, but his thinking was cogent. “First, opposition parties need to align together in our attitude towards any future negotiations with the government, to be very clear that Netanyahu’s offer to negotiate with the timeline of the end of November is not legitimate.”

He continued: “Second, we have a very important role—together with the leadership of the protests—to maintain the high level of energy in the streets. Until now the formal political opposition played, I don’t want to say a minor role, but not a central role in the protests. There will be a growing expectation among our circles to see the political opposition and to hear us more in the streets. This is a time to have a serious discussion between the leadership of the opposition and the leadership of the protests of how we join hands.”

Third, Kariv told me he wants to deepen the democracy agenda for the protests, until now focused on one piece of legislation, because “the judiciary coup is deeply connected to other moves of the government—for example, the informal annexation [of the occupied territories] and other elements. This is the time of the opposition to grow the attention of the public to those other fronts of government efforts, to carefully widen the perspective of the protest.”

Rami Hod, executive director of the Berl Katznelson Center, a progressive think tank central to the political and protest opposition, warns democracy activists not to be lulled by governmental gestures. He remembers a fateful moment in 1995, when, after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing fanatic (under the influence of then-activist Ben Gvir), “the right wing called for reconciliation. Now, the same actors are already calling for dialogue. The religious right, the ones who led the incitement against Rabin and lead the coup today, built power and established political, ideological, and educational institutions, and the liberals retreated from power and sought to contain instead of struggle. No more,” he insists. “We will build, and we will win.”

Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, returned to power eight months ago precisely to neuter the judiciary. That’s because he’s presently on trial in four different criminal cases. Controlling the courts is his only guarantee to stay out of prison.

His nationalist, far-right, ultrareligious government also has a special needs agenda where a strong high court is a nuisance. The wish list includes preferential funding and lax oversight for ultra-Orthodox schools, permanent ultra-Orthodox military exemption, restricting women’s freedom, media control, prejudicial actions against Israel’s Arab minority, and expanded settlement in the occupied territories.

The other Israel fueled seven months of protests—all volunteer—by military special unit reservists, high-tech entrepreneurs, university students, big business owners, and more. Most are secular Jews or lightly religious. Almost none live in Jewish West Bank settlements. These are the people who pay the bulk of the taxes, fuel Israel’s economy, and fight Israel’s wars. Some may have even voted for Netanyahu in the past. Several former Likud leaders and ministers are prominent among the protesters—including Benny Begin, the son of another Likud leader revered by Netanyahu. 

Protests broke out across Israel as soon as the law passed. Thousands more volunteer reserve soldiers announced their refusal to serve this government. Doctors went on strike until the anti-worker government forced them back through court order. Morgan Stanley cut Israel’s sovereign credit to “dislike stance,” while tech companies banded together to buy out the covers of four daily newspapers (including the Sheldon Adelson–financed freebie) with a black page mourning democracy. “Netanyahu’s unilateral regime change will soon meet the tenacity, perseverance, intelligence, and courage of the pro-democracy resistance,” Gilead Sher told me, hours after the vote. He is co-founder of the Central Headquarters of the 2023 Protest Struggle and was a chief of staff and peace negotiator for former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

“We have entered a new phase in the most severe, multifaceted crisis in the history of Israel: political, societal, and constitutional.… In the long run the liberal-democratic freedom camp will emerge politically. It should comprise all those who subscribe to the 1948 quasi-constitutional Declaration of Independence. I aspire to have there the center, the moderate right, the left, moderate national-religious, and Israeli Arabs.” Until now, few of Israel’s Arab citizens, who comprise more than 20 percent of the population, have participated or felt welcomed in Israeli politics, seeing it as a fight between two camps of Jewish Israelis. It’s critical that the protest movement embrace this population, for moral and political reasons. The center-left can’t govern again without Arab parties and their voters.

Immediately after the vote, one of the most extreme members of the government—Homeland Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, settler leader and a convicted terrorist forbidden by the army to serve—called the opposition “brothers,” offering dialogue. Netanyahu gave a prime-time speech where he said he would slow the process of judicial change.

Meanwhile, opponents have already begun their fight in the courts. Multiple appeals have been filed to the Supreme Court. The president of the court, Esther Hayut, a pure professional and not known as an ideologue, who was at a conference in Germany, rushed back in response to the crisis. The day after the vote, Netanyahu challenged the court not to interfere. But honestly, what the court does now is anyone’s guess. If the court decides to take one or more of these newly filed appeals to overturn the new law, it can expedite an emergency appeal in days, or it can take weeks or months. Meanwhile, activists are considering ways to try cases outside of the reasonable doctrine, basically throwing as many legal darts at the court as they can to see which one hit the bull’s-eye. Clearly, a quick ruling will offer a pathway for activists (and for the government) to take their next shot. Legal activists predict at least a dozen appeals will be filed by nonprofits, straddled in timing and with different issues to see if they can break through for an appeal. It would be extraordinary for the court to nullify a law that was passed as part of Israeli “basic law,” which stands in lieu of a constitution. It’s never happened. But these are extraordinary times.

Netanyahu has become a captive of the hard-right members in his own party and the truly fanatical smaller parties that surround him, as well as his own corruption that resulted in the charges now pending against him that backed him against this wall. As if the drama in the Knesset and the fire on the streets weren’t enough, Netanyahu actually arrived at the Knesset plenum directly from a cardiac care unit. He had lied to the public about his health, saying that he had fainted from dehydration, but it was revealed a few days ago that in fact, he had a serious heart problem, and this past weekend a pacemaker was implanted.

To say that Israeli democracy is now on life support may be too obvious a metaphor, but for the moment it is truly the case. The first polls that came out the day after the vote showed centrist opposition politician Benny Gantz leading Netanyahu’s party, able to form a ruling bloc. But elections are three years away. Meanwhile, an exhausted but energized array of pro-democracy citizens is digging in for the long haul.