Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly Cabinet meeting, Jan. 3, 2023. 


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It is no secret Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sold his soul to Israel’s most extreme elements to sate his appetite for power, stay out of prison and get immunity for future crimes. As a bonus, he’s likely to be getting all the Cohiba cigars he wants and his wife will have her Dom Perignon pink champagne, courtesy of a some “grateful” friends.

But at what price? And who will pay?

It is the nation’s birthright of democracy and the rule of law that he seems ready to sacrifice.

Some 80,000 Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv’s rainy Habina Square Jan. 21, and thousands more in Jerusalem, Haifa and other cities to protest Netanyahu’s plan to restructure the nation’s judiciary.

Like all politicians who win elections, Netanyahu claims he has a national mandate to do as he pleases and he insists these proposed changes are merely “a minor correction.”

The chief justice of the supreme court, Esther Hayut, disagrees. She said the plan was designed to “deal a mortal blow to the independence of the judiciary and silence it.”

The plan, led by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, would give the Knesset the power to override high court decisions and politicize the appointment of judges and legal advisers in the ministries.

Netanyahu is less worried about the rule of law than the court of law where he is on trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. His zeal for judicial reform apparently began in 2016 when police began investigating him for corruption, leading to today’s charges.

Levin insists his proposed changes are “essential to the existence of democracy and restoring the public’s faith.”

Not so, Tzipi Livni, a former justice minister, told The New York Times. “This is not a judicial reform but a hostile political takeover that, if implemented, would change the nature of Israel’s democracy.”

All of Israel’s former attorneys general and most former state prosecutors published a letter saying these legal proposals would “destroy” the country’s justice system, Israel’s iNews reported.

One thing the critics seem to overlook is that preserving democracy does not appear high on the agenda of Netanyahu’s ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist partners.

The nation is deeply polarized and as we saw in last year’s American midterm elections, the state of the nation’s democracy faces threats by fascistic elements of the far right.

Many observers see Israeli democracy weakening, following the examples of Hungary, Turkey, Poland and Brazil.

For some of the prime minister’s ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious partners, democracy is an inconvenience; they prefer an authoritarian or theocratic government in which they make the rules free of the inconvenience of dissent.

Some have compared this coalition to a criminal cabal where the prime minister is under indictment, the national security minister was convicted eight times for incitement to racism and the interior minister is an ex-con convicted of bribery, fraud and tax crimes. Then there’s a finance minister who wants to expel the Arabs and told one interviewer “I’m a fascist homophobe.” He has company, another minister calls himself a “proud homophobe.”

Some in this coalition, which is barely a month old, not only want to change the judicial system, but also have one law for Jews and another for Arabs, as in case of murder where one goes to prison and the other is executed.

A driving force behind the proposals is the Kohletet Policy Forum, a right-wing think tank known for its nationalist and libertarian views, reports Israeli newspaper Haaretz. It is largely funded by a pair of American-Jewish hedge fund billionaires, Jeffrey S. Yass and Arthur Dantchik, who are major contributors to the Club for Growth, an influential U.S. conservative group, reports Haaretz.

Arguably the most important underpinning of this coalition is an unspoken promise by some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners to change the laws under which he was indicted and currently in the docket and to provide him future immunity. That is a strong motivation for pushing through the judicial changes the ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox have been demanding.

The judicial proposals reflect the long-held grievances of some on the far right who feel the courts have been too independent and insufficiently sympathetic to their views. The supreme court has been called elitist and too concerned about minority rights, particularly for Arabs.

If Netanyahu can’t deliver the changes they demand, will his partners deliver what is nearest and dearest to him?

And if deliveries on major promises are made, will this coalition, like so many before it, disintegrate? Few expect this government to last the full four years considering that it came to power in the fifth election in nearly four years. Netanyahu is the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history, serving a total of more than 15 years, but never a full term.

His greatest threats do not come from the center or left opposition, but from the courtroom and his more extreme right partners. If he is not convicted before his scheme to drop charges reaches fruition, there will be a major battle for succession within his Likud Party.

There is speculation in Israeli media about which coalition partner will try to dump the other first.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the firebrand head of the Religious Zionist Party, the second largest party in the coalition, is said to have an eye on the prime minister’s job.

He is the national security minister, which makes him effectively the nation’s police chief and he shows no interest in stopping there. He brings to the job a rap sheet that includes convictions for supporting a terrorist group and for incitement to racism. He is a disciple of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was banned from Knesset for his racism.

The partnership will last as long as each faction feels it needs the other. Netanyahu is expected to visit Washington, D.C., next month and he has been assuring the Biden Administration and American Jewish groups that he will have “both hands on the wheel” of government and keep control out of the hands of the crazies.

That can’t sit well with his ambitious partners who have a more aggressive agenda.

The government is starting out with a dangerous overhaul of the judicial system. Street demonstrations have begun and opposition is growing beyond Israel’s borders.

Israel’s judiciary and particularly its high court have long enjoyed international esteem. It is “seen as one of the leading courts around the world, its decisions are cited by others,” Tom Ginsburg, director of the Comparative Constitutions Project of the University of Chicago, told Israel’s The Netanyahu-Levin reforms threaten to change that.

Douglas M. Bloomfield is a former Clevelander, syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant.