JERUSALEM—Israel’s parliament, now with a majority of legislators promising to back incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is on a radical right-wing “legislative blitz” ahead of his anticipated installation on Thursday.
The House has effectively been commandeered to enable Netanyahu’s sixth government by passing laws required to tie up coalition deals with his radical new partners.
Without a series of laws fundamentally transforming Israel’s judicial landscape, Netanyahu has no way of forming a governing coalition, and Israel would be launched towards new elections.
A law passed in the early hours of Tuesday permits the reinstatement of Aryeh Deri, a former interior minister, who resigned from the Knesset last year as part of a plea deal in which he admitted to defrauding the state of $152,365 in taxes, and agreed to leave public life.
That was Deri’s second entanglement with the law: in 2000 he was convicted of accepting bribes and was sentenced to three years in jail, of which he served two.
Netanyahu—don’t forget—is himself on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and does not have the parliamentary votes to form a coalition government without Deri’s Shas party. Ergo, the law which allows Deri to become a minister in the Netanyau’s latest coalition.
Baruch Kra, legal analyst for Israel’s Channel 13 television, tweeted that “this morning, December 27, 2022, with the passage of the Deri Law, will be remembered as the most corrupt in the history of the Israeli parliament.”
Another law passed under cover of night will benefit Bezalel Smotrich, a nationalist theocrat who hopes to impose “Torah law” on Israel, and a self-described “proud homophobe” slated to become Israel’s finance minister in the new coalition. The law will allow him to take a huge amount of control over the occupied West Bank, which was previously under the sole purview of Israel’s army. It even explicitly limits Netanyahu’s ability to direct policy over the occupied territory.
These changes will also position Smotrich to clash with the Israeli army. On Tuesday, Smotirch attacked Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff General Aviv Kochavi and accused him of “blatant politicization” after Kochavi—in a very rare move—warned Netanyahu on Monday that “electoral deals will break the chain of command” and are “harming the army.”
The appointment of Itamar Ben Gvir, another extremist coalition partner, to a newly created Ministry of National Security, required the late-night passage of another special law, also granting him powers over the West Bank previously held by the Israeli army.
Netanyahu also committed to passing a death penalty law for “terrorists,” ironically demanded by Ben Gvir–the only Israeli lawmaker ever convicted of terror associations.
Under its newly clipped powers, the Israeli army will not even be able to appoint its own chaplains—a responsibility handed to the Sephardic Chief Rabbi as part of Netanyahu’s coalition deals.
Despite numerous appearances in U.S. media outlets, in which Netanyahu scoffed at the possibility that gay rights could be negatively impacted under his watch, his party signed a coalition agreement promising Smotrich’s party support for a “discrimination law” that makes no pretense of respecting 70-years of anti-bias jurisprudence. Smotrich’s bills will legalize inequity in the Israeli public sphere such as hotels and commercial businesses, and allow doctors to deny treatment to any patient who defies the physician’s personal values, including their sexuality.
Another coalition deal, will grant Jewish religious courts the power to rule on civil and economic matters.
However, critics say the greatest shock about to hit Israel will transform its judiciary from an independent branch of government to a vestigial limb, and is likely to plunge Israel into the area of partial, or authoritarian, democracies such as Hungary and Poland.
A rare 11-member panel of Israel’s supreme court is already scheduled to convene next week to hear petitions against Deri’s return to power. Appeals against Smotrich’s and Ben Gvir’s takeover of military prerogatives have already been filed.
The supreme court may allow these aberrations to slide based on their passage by a parliamentary majority, but to avoid the specter of legal entanglements in the future, Netanyahu’s new government plans an “override clause” allowing any simple majority of legislators—61 out of 120 Knesset members—to override, or, in effect, annul, Supreme Court rulings.
In addition, the incoming government is expected to neuter the role of government counsel, so that if parliamentary or ministerial legal advisers rule that the government is acting unlawfully, their advice will carry no weight.
The country’s top judicial cadre is sounding the alarm. In a previously scheduled speech, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who is expected to refuse to defend some of the incoming government’s laws in court, warned that Netanyahu’s legislative onslaught will turn Israel into “a democracy in name only.”Politicization of the law enforcement system will lead to a serious blow to the most basic principles of the rule of law—equality, the absence of arbitrariness and the absence of bias,” she said. “It will be a fatal blow to its ability to function and a serious injury to public trust. In a democratic country, it is inappropriate to change the relationship between the political echelon and the law enforcement system in a blitz of legislation.”In an unrelated appearance, former Supreme Court Justice Ayala Procaccia described Netanyahu’s “judicial reforms” as “a danger both domestic and to Israel’s international standing,” and warned, “we must not remain silent, we must act with full force and with every legitimate means against the process of the disintegration of our system of values.”
Israel has undergone five successive elections since 2019. Netanyahu won the Nov. 1 elections with his party the largest in the Knesset with 32 seats only a year and a half after he was removed from power. The coalition agreements signed in order to secure his majority of 61 have stretched Israeli state structures into forms resembling animal balloons.
A swelling tide of influential voices has begun issuing distress signals, starting with top education ministry officials, decrying the “dismantling” of the country’s infrastructure to satisfy demands from Netanyahu’s extremist coalition partners. More than a thousand former air force officers joined titans of Israel’s tech sector to warn of damage being done to the state.
The Israeli Medical Association issued a statement declaring that physicians would continue to abide by the Hippocratic oath, which demands that doctors attend all patients, “no matter which law is passed,” and the Israeli Hotel Association said its hotels would continue to welcome all guests without regard to personal characteristics. On Monday, Israel Discount Bank, one of Israel’s largest banks, announced it would not extend credit to any business or organization that discriminates on the basis or race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
Ben Gvir demanded and got from Netanyahu the cancelation of an Israeli law that disqualified any Knesset candidate convicted of “incitement to racism.”
The legislative tsunami has come at a cost for Netanyahu, who appears unable to deny even the most far-fetched demands made by his new and hungry coalition partners. In a period of just twenty-four hours, Netanyahu was forced to issue four statements disavowing the coalition agreements he had just signed.
Notably, Netanyahu offered a gentle equivocation from his son Yair’s suggestion that state prosecutors handling Netanyahu’s trial should be executed.
In a Friday radio program on which Yair, 31, an influential right-wing troll with no known employment, is a regular guest, he said the law enforcement officers and state prosecutors who investigated and indicted his father in 2019 were “traitors,” adding, “everyone is welcome to look up Israel’s law books laws & see the punishment for treason: it’s not prison.”
After three days of silence, Netanyahu Sr. issued a statement stating he “didn’t agree with what he said.”
“Netanyahu lies down with dogs and acts surprised when he wakes up with fleas,” wrote the political analyst for Haaretz, a liberal daily newspaper. “What exactly was he thinking when he joined up with parties who proclaim messianism, racism, exclusion, homophobia and hatred of the other?”
The answer is clear: what he was thinking was how to save his political skin.