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Israeli society facing flare-up over Netanyahu’s judicial shakeup

The two camps supporting the Netanyahu government’s judicial shake-up and those opposing it have resorted to aggressive words and threats.
Israeli protesters attend a rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new hard-right government, Tel Aviv, Israel, Feb. 4, 2023.

Dozens of Israeli high-tech people are demonstrating in Tel Aviv on Tuesday against the judicial overhaul advanced by the Netanyahu government. Reports say that the demonstrators are blocking roads, ignoring instructions by police to go back to the sidewalk.

The chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Simcha Rothman, this week announced a timetable for voting on the government’s judicial overhaul, bringing closer the specter of violence between its opponents and advocates. Prospects of such a clash, which appeared unlikely just weeks ago, now assume greater likelihood as the government coalition barrels ahead with a legislative blitz that critics fear will irrevocably damage Israeli democracy.

Its authors — Rothman and Justice Minister Yariv Levin — plan to bring two of the measures to a preliminary plenum vote within a week to 10 days, handing politicians control of judicial appointments and depriving the Supreme Court of its power to overturn quasi-constitutional basic laws.

Backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and assured of a Knesset majority, Rothman and Levin are forging ahead toward authoritarian rule, ignoring the intense public opposition, the grave warnings, the weakening shekel and the threats by investors and bankers.

Netanyahu would have been alarmed by such warnings in the past, and would have moved to block the controversial measures. But not now. He desperately needs these amendments to existing law to keep him from being convicted of corruption and perhaps serving jailtime. Each of the partners in the extremist nationalistic and religious coalition he has drawn together supports the bills for different reasons, and he shows no intention of easing up. But opponents appear equally determined, setting the stage for escalation.

In addition to the protests, marches and petitions of recent weeks, leaders of the opposition to what they describe as a regime coup have announced a general strike for Feb. 13. Dubbing it the “people’s strike,” they are calling on every worker, service provider and business owner to “shut down the country” in order to save democracy, on parents to avoid sending their children to schools and on shop owners to shutter their stores.

The organizations leading the public protest have so far been successful in getting tens of thousands of Israelis to march and rally throughout the country, even in rainy weather. The opponents’ rhetoric also mirrors these escalating protests.

A decorated former combat pilot, Col. (Res.) Zeev Raz, who led Israel’s daring 1981 bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq, made headlines with a post last Friday suggesting that a prime minister “who assumed dictatorial power” deserves to die in accordance with the halachic Jewish “din rodef” dictate that justifies assassination of those seeking to harm Jews. The dictate was used in the 1990s by extremist rabbis against then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for promoting territorial concessions in return for peace with the Palestinians, fueling the incitement that resulted in Rabin’s November 1995 assassination by a Jewish zealot, Yigal Amir.

Raz was questioned at length by police about his post, which he erased and for which he apologized, claiming he had been citing comments by Israeli physicist and philosopher professor Avshalom Elitzur. Realizing the stir he created, Raz went back on his words, saying he did not mean them.

That being said, Raz’s inflammatory post came on the heels of last week’s warning by a prominent white-collar attorney, also a decorated war hero, David Hodek, who told the annual Israel Bar Association conference that he would take up arms against those turning Israel into a dictatorship. He, too, was questioned by police and retracted his comment.

The widely publicized comments, erasures and apologies cannot blur the sense of many Israelis that they are mounting a second war of independence, 75 years after the one that brought about Jewish statehood. Social media is awash with such feelings, some couched in violent terms, eliciting a rare statement on Saturday by the Shin Bet domestic security agency.

“(Agency Chief) Ronan Bar spoke with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai about the increase in violent and inciting discourse against elected officials in general and the prime minister in particular,” the statement read. “They agreed on a zero tolerance policy toward those who incite violence or call for harm to individuals and elected officials, as well as for those who call for harm to demonstrators.”

The eyes are now on President Isaac Herzog, who has been trying to mediate between the government and its opponents and has proposed suspending the accelerated legislation drive for two weeks and forming a committee representing a broad range of views to discuss legal reforms.

Netanyahu rejected the request and referred Herzog to Levin, on the pretext that his own intervention would amount to a conflict of interest given his ongoing corruption trial. This is evasion. Herzog is now under heavy pressure to express his explicit opinion of the reform issue. He is undecided, likely recalling the angry reactions when his predecessor President Reuven Rivlin dared to criticize Netanyahu and was all but declared a traitor by Netanyahu’s followers.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut has made her strong objections to the planned overhaul very clear, and on Sunday boycotted a traditional annual conference marking the Knesset’s founding. She also rejected a proposal to address the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, arguing that she had submitted the High Court’s position in writing and would not get involved in wrangling with committee members.

Can a coalition be formed between Hayut, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara and Herzog to try to block Netanyahu's drive toward dictatorship? That is unclear. Right now, the main concern is to avoid a flare-up of unprecedented violence that will tear apart what remains of social cohesion in Israel, after which Israel will no longer be the same.

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