Editor’s Note: Dan Perry was The Associated Press’ top editor in the Middle East, based in Cairo between 2012 and 2018, and before that he led the AP in Europe and Africa from London. He is a former chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem and author of two books about Israel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
So bewildering is the rush of news around the world today, and so radical is the discourse, that sober-minded observers are often inclined to take a step back and assume all angers will subside. But it would be a mistake to be sanguine about what’s happening in Israel.
Those who care about the country, a technological and military power far beyond what its close to 10 million population suggests, should understand how dire this moment is. Israel’s existence is in peril — certainly as a democracy and, in the longer term, as a viable economy and Jewish state.
The context: The new far-right government of third-time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which came to power after elections in November, is attempting to overhaul the system of checks and balances that has maintained political stability in the country. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, began debating the legislation Monday amid protests both in the chamber from opposition lawmakers and from tens of thousands outside.
The self-inflicted damage would be breathtaking. The proposed reforms would subordinate the judicial system to the executive and to the leader of the executive branch, Netanyahu, who has a conflict of interest due to his ongoing corruption trial.
(Netanyahu has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence and labeled the court proceedings against him a “witch hunt.” Notably, he insisted throughout the 2022 campaign that no hasty and extreme assault on the judicial system, nor any machinations to end his trial, would take place.)
The main issue is a proposed “override clause” enabling the Knesset, which because of Israel’s electoral system is an extension of the executive, to veto court decisions. Also planned is legislation enabling the government to appoint the judiciary directly and politicize the civil service.
In a country without a real constitution (instead, a series of “basic laws” that are easy to enact and alter) and with a unicameral parliament, this could easily mean the end of civil rights and minority guarantees. In other words, if a future government is not implementing dangerous abuses of power without judicial review — say, banning Palestinian or Arab citizens of Israel from voting — it would only be because it chooses not to do so.
Netanyahu and his allies argue the Israeli people have spoken. But the ruling coalition won just a thin majority (64 seats out of 120) in the Knesset, resting largely on the fact that two opposition parties — which unwisely splintered — barely missed the 3.25% threshold for getting into parliament.
Polls show only about a quarter of people want the reforms implemented. Hundreds of thousands have joined demonstrations opposing them. Opponents include not only top judicial figures but also almost all the ex-heads of the security establishment — the military, the Mossad intelligence agency, the Shin Bet domestic security service and the police. A public letter signed by 400 of these officials warned of “damage for generations.”
The plans, as revealed, could go as far as to turn Israel into a Jewish version of Turkey or Hungary, authoritarian regimes led by fervent populists. After cowed courts, one could expect a muzzled media, attacks on liberal nongovernmental organizations and efforts to disenfranchise the 20% of Israeli citizens who identify as Palestinians or Arabs.
Moreover, the court system has also been the main protector from total subjugation of some 3 million West Bank and East Jerusalem Palestinians — who have been in effect ruled by Israel for 55 years and lack the right to vote. Given this, plus separate but related plans to increase Jewish settlement activity and hand most dealings with the Palestinians to the country’s top nationalists, the military warns a third Palestinian uprising is imminent.
Prominent doomsayers include leading figures of the stunning technology sector, which accounts for a sixth of Israel’s economy, a quarter of income tax revenue and half of exports. Hundreds of major multinationals have research centers in Israel, many of which are Fortune 500 companies. These companies — from Meta and Google to Intel and Apple — are a top driver of the economy.
S&P says the legislative reforms will negatively affect Israel’s credit rating, while the former head of the Bank of Israel, a top JPMorgan Chase official, warns the country is in “danger of losing everything.” Money has already begun flowing out of the country amid fears a collapse of rule of law would undermine contractual law and property rights.
Netanyahu’s propaganda claims the courts have over the years overstepped their authority by preventing governability — a supposed plot by elites to impose leftism.
The truth is that over 75 years of Israeli statehood, the Supreme Court has intervened with laws just 22 times, mostly involving uncontroversial civil rights. Only three cases involved security issues.
Netanyahu’s propaganda also claims Supreme Court judges currently “self-select themselves.” But judges are appointed by Israel’s President, from shortlists drawn up by three members of the nine-member Judicial Selection Committee, which includes three of the Court’s justices alongside four politicians and two members of the Bar Association. Under the proposed system, however, the government would appoint them all, likely yielding toadies.
Opponents of the plan speak of fleeing the country en masse should it succeed. Considering West Bank Palestinians’ outrage over their disenfranchisement, some of Israel’s remaining Arab enemies ready to pounce and the security establishment in uproar, the collective threat is clear.
Across social media and on the streets, other frenzied opponents of the plan are speaking seriously of civil war. Benny Gantz, the ex-military chief and former defense minister, has warned of such a devastating possibility; former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett cautioned in a recent radio interview that a constitutional crisis looms. Should the government pass its reforms and then ignore a Supreme Court decision striking them down, key institutions like the Israeli military would not know where legitimacy lies, Bennett hypothesized. “I am afraid we will reach bloodshed,” he added, “an internal rift that cannot be repaired.”
Bennett — a nationalist, but a responsible one — is right. Israel’s friends worldwide, and anyone interested in the stability of a nuclear power, would be wise to take note and speak up.
This is a rare moment in history — fascinating and horrifying in equal measure — when an important country in an unstable region is on the cusp of undoing itself.