‘Changed’ Netanyahu’s power grab has Israel at breaking point03/06/2023
Whatever trials and troubles Israel has experienced over the decades, it has long been one of its proudest boasts that it is an island of democracy amid a sea of autocracies.
Today, that status is under severe test. The new government led by Benjamin Netanyahu is proposing a law to allow the parliament by a simple majority to overturn decisions of the Supreme Court. This is such a blatant power grab, so direct an assault on the doctrine of the separation of powers, that it has brought enormous crowds onto the streets in resistance.
Hundreds of thouands of Israelis are taking to the streets daily to protest against the actions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit:AP
After two months of near-continuous protests, the government last week ordered the security forces to crack down and violence began.
Writes Jonathan Shamir in the Israeli daily Haaretz: “On last Wednesday’s unprecedented ‘day of disruption’, the police brought tools usually reserved for Palestinians – horses, stun grenades and water cannons – into the heart of Israel.”
On the same day, in another remarkable scene, Netanyahu’s wife Sara went to a hairdresser in a posh Tel Aviv neighbourhood and quickly found herself the centre of protester attention.
Hundreds of people amassed outside the salon and chanted “shame, shame” until police in their hundreds, some on horseback, broke a path through the crowd and escorted her to a limousine.
Tens of thousands of Israelis protest in Tel Aviv on Saturday against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system.Credit:AP
None of the protesters tried to force their way into the salon, according to reporters on the scene, but the prime minister described it as “anarchy” and another government MP called the crowd a “lynch mob”.
Veteran Channel Two political commentator Ehud Yaari says the protests are extraordinary: “The more productive sectors in Israeli society are in rebellion, and they are taking to the streets in their hundreds of thousands every day.
He said during a visit to Australia last week: “They are saying ‘no!’. These are the people who do their military service, the people who pay their taxes, the people who built Israel’s economy in such an amazing way.”
By contrast, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition allies “represent an extreme right-wing, messianic and, I would say, loony approach”.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog is alarmed by plans by the Netanyahu government.Credit:AP
It is not the people who are rising up against Netanyahu, nicknamed Bibi, says Yaari. In a recent article headlined “Bibi versus Israel”, Yaari wrote that he is “a leader who rose against his people”.
Israeli society and the economy increasingly are roiled by the protest movement as strikes are called, army reservists refuse to report for duty, Israeli entrepreneurs withdraw investments from the country. The shekel has fallen by 7 per cent since January to its lowest point against the US dollar in four years.
On Monday, the protest movement erupted in an elite squadron of the Israeli Air Force reserve. Thirty-seven of the 40 reserve pilots and navigators of the 69th fighter jet squadron said they would refuse to report for duty as ordered this week.
Two former governors of the central bank, the Bank of Israel, published a warning of a potential “severe blow to the economy” if the government’s proposal is legislated because it would harm economic confidence.
Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara pictured in November 2022. Credit:AP
Some have called the proposed law a “constitutional coup” and “the death of democracy” and President Isaac Herzog, occupying a usually ceremonial office as head of state, described the crisis as “burning ground under our feet”.
More biblically, some are describing it as the approaching destruction of the Third Temple – meaning Israel itself as a sovereign state. Among them is conservative former prime minister Naftali Bennett.
He told a Sydney audience last week that “a mega-crisis is going on in Israel”. He described it as “probably the biggest domestic crisis” Israel has ever experienced.
Bennett, prime minister until June last year, said: “It’s the third time in our history that we have a Jewish sovereign state in the land of Israel. The first time was King David and King Solomon. which went on for eight decades.”
With modern Israel in its 75th year, he expressed the fear that Israel would again fail to survive beyond 80 years, that bitter division would open it to foreign conquest. “We’re not going to get a fourth chance. We just have to work together.”
But for now, the two sides are only hardening their positions. Netanyahu is forging ahead; the protests are intensifying.
Israel’s Supreme Court holds unique powers. It is the only institution empowered to review and strike down laws, the only one with the power to overturn the electoral commission, and the only one able to defend the Basic Law, the closest thing Israel has to a constitution. So, for example, it could strike down a law that discriminated against women.
Exposing the nub of the issue, former Australian ambassador to Lebanon and now ANU Middle East scholar Ian Parmeter wrote for the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter: “The judiciary, which has shown itself to be independent of the political process, plays a vital role in the integrity of the [democratic] system. The courts have jailed a former Prime Minister (Ehud Olmert) for corruption, a former President (Moshe Katsav) for sexual offences, and has most recently indicted the current Prime Minister (Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu) on corruption charges.”
So for Netanyahu, this is more than politics. It is intensely personal. Says Yaari: “Bibi was so determined to get into power again and have the attorney-general withdraw or rewrite the indictment against him that he was willing to make unbelievable concessions” to the right-wing fringe parties with whom he formed a coalition government.
The respected journalist was close to Netanyahu for many years and says that he is a changed man, weakened and exhausted by the criminal trial that dogged his previous two terms as prime minister.
It was fully seven years ago that police investigations began into three separate charges against Netanyahu – for alleged bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Herzog has said he will intervene in the stand-off. Yaari says he thinks the most likely outcome is a compromise brokered by the president. Still, “it will take many more protests on the streets, and maybe some violence – I hope not”.
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