met Benjamin Netanyahu some 40 years ago at a small dinner at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. I saw him again at a larger event, an impassioned speech on terrorism. It was just after he founded an anti-terrorism institute named for his brother, killed in Operation Antebbe. He was handsome, suave, articulate and charismatic. A graduate of MIT, he was probably in his thirties and clearly a new and exciting face on the international stage, a promise of good things to come.
Today, that promise has been betrayed, his legacy besmirched. Declaring that police, prosecution and left-wing journalists have conspired to “fabricate delusional cases against me,” he is under indictment for corruption in three separate scandals. The charges are for fraud, breach of trust, and accepting bribes involving powerful media moguls and wealthy associates. He has become an increasingly authoritarian politician, turning Israel, long touted as the only democracy in the Middle East, into a right-wing theocracy mired in virulent factionalism and destabilized by chaos.
For 30 weeks, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have been gathering around the country to protest Netanyahu’s dismantling of the nation’s judiciary. Smaller protests occurred in 2017 when investigations of his alleged criminality were interfered with, but these are the largest demonstrations in the country’s 75-year’s of statehood. Some of the protesters have left and many others are leaving the country, certain to get jobs elsewhere, especially in high technology fields, in which the country has excelled. Today there are thousands of army reservists are refusing their voluntary service because of the attack on the judiciary and their unwillingness to serve in expropriated Palestinian territory.
What is most offensive to me are Netanyahu’s slithery attempts to persuade world opinion – especially gullible U.S. journalists – that his four-part judicial overhaul is merely a move to protect Israeli democracy, by restoring reasonable checks and balances. He has already engineered a reduction of the power of the Israeli Supreme Court, eliminating its authority to reject unreasonable actions by the nation’s unicameral legislative body, the Knesset. After all, he claims, the high court of Israel is only made up of political appointees, and the Knesset is, like the Congress of the United States, elected by the people. But he’s wrong about the comparison.
In a parliamentary form of government, Knesset members are determined by the parties to which they belong. They are not directly elected by the population. The Israeli body politic is fragmented, and the largest vote getter, among the myriad minority parties, is given the opportunity to patch together smaller splinter groups to get threshold majority support. That’s what Netanyahu has done.
Not fancying a stay in prison and eager for his corruption trials to be put on hold , the prime minister has sold his soul to small ultra-right factions, both religious right and ultra nationalist. To stay out of jail, he must continue to appease them, and started with naming radicals to top positions in the various ministries.
Key examples: finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, who wants to annex the West Bank and obliterate Palestinian history and culture. Netanyahu’s Minister of Justice Yariv Levin has been a leader in the fight to emasculate the court, the only check on Netanyahu and the extremists in his coalition. It is the court that has defended the rights of Palestinians and curbed government efforts to seize their homes and declare them state land. Then there’s national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who is a proponent of the violent vigilante settler movement. It was only the court that kept Netanyahu from appointing as health minister Aryeh Makhlouf Deri, of the extremist Shas Party, who had been convicted of bribery and fraud.
Knesset is on vacation, but the floodgates will soon be open for more miscreants and once-unlawful behavior. It’s not just the settlements where Netanyahu and his coalition are wielding their authoritarian sledge hammer. Without the checks provided by the court, fears are mounting among women (already barred by all-male rabbinic authorities from using public transportation with men) and LGBTQ individuals, (targeted by the radical right religious Noam Party for being a threat to the family).
Israel has no official constitution, but it has a set of core basic-law principles that, until Netanyahu’s misnamed “judicial reform,” set a standard for what actions by the Prime Minister and Knesset are to be considered “reasonable.” Waiting in the wing is a slew of hard right policies increasingly likely to be passed now that authoritarian Netanyahu has curbed the check-and-balance function of Israel’s high court.
Does this remind you of anyone? Donald Trump has promised that, if he returns to office, he will severely restrict constraints on his executive power, attacking or eliminating people and functions within that branch of government that are the core of our own system of checks and balances. He has already opined on Truth Social he’d like to do away with our Constitution. That may be a fantasy, but it shows what’s in the minds of corrupt leaders like Trump and Netanyahu. Netanyahu has refused to say whether he would abide by any potential supreme court decision should the Israeli high court rule against Knesset action gutting the reasonableness standards and other draconian laws passed by his wafer-thin Knesset majority, including one law specifically prohibiting prosecuting him for his alleged crimes.
We live in frightening times, and the fragility of democracy must not be underestimated.