The coming Days of Awe, between the Jewish New Year and the holy Day of Atonement, are indeed likely to become “terrible days,” as the original Hebrew phrase has it, and part of a fatal month for Israeli democracy. Some of the major players on the government side, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Minister of Justice Yariv Levin, may have to face their maker’s judgment, or at least enormous public wrath, as they continue to unravel both the separation of powers and the last remaining bonds holding Israeli society together.
The country is breathlessly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decisions this month on no less than four hypersensitive issues, all endangering the court’s own future autonomy. Currently, the government is pumping smoke onto the scene, in the hope that Israel’s wide-awake civil society will somehow overlook the impending peril. Netanyahu’s purpose—”Never call him Bibi,” my late father used to beseech us, “he is not your friend”—remains crystal clear: to unravel the pro-democracy protest, continue his coalition’s onslaught against judicial independence and minority rights, and walk free from his own three corruption trials that have been dragging on for the last four years.
I have some bad news from firsthand sources: Some of Israel’s Supreme Court justices are terrified of the situation. They may not be able to stand up to Netanyahu and his foul-mouthed cohorts, ministers and Knesset members, who now regularly accuse the Supreme Court (as well as the IDF) of no less than anti-Jewish treason. The court’s enemies in Netanyahu’s vicinity are eager to suppress both its freedom and its courage. Most immediately, they want to prevent it from striking down the new law that killed off the age-old doctrine allowing judges to declare government decisions grossly unreasonable. This law, passed on July 24, has already allowed Netanyahu’s government to fire competent officials (most recently the chair of the national postal service) and hire unsuitable candidates who happen to be Likud cronies and local party bosses.
Other court decisions due in September include answering appeals, for instance an appeal to convene the Judicial Selection Committee. This body has been paralyzed for more than a year, as Justice Minister Yariv Levin refuses to convene it, and the coalition hopes to keep it inactive until its composition is altered to allow a politicized, coalition-controlled majority. There are also appeals pending against the law defending Netanyahu from legal incapacitation and an enforced temporary resignation as well as appeals targeting Netanyahu’s conflict of interest in dealing hands-on with the so-called judicial reform as a criminally accused person himself.
Worse is yet to come: When Supreme Court President Esther Hayut retires in October, her supposed successor is the highly regarded justice Yitchak Amit, next in line according to the time-honored “seniority” arrangement. While not entrenched in legislation, the seniority criterion has been a custom followed since Israel’s first Supreme Court, and it has served very well to hinder partisanship and cabals within the court. Now another justice has stepped forward, Josef Elron, a more recent appointee (backed by a previous Netanyahu government) and far less impressive in his juridical skills and accomplishments. It is hard to believe that Elron’s surprising bid for the presidency has not been backed, or at least encouraged, directly by the coalition, which shuns the judicial independence and rule-of-law commitment that Justice Amit represents.
For the time being, experimental balloons are sent flying, only to explode in midair: A new “compromise”—postponing the political majority’s takeover of the Judges’ Appointment committee rather than halting it—has been rejected by the pro-democracy movement as well as by the coalition’s extreme-right partners. Come Yom Kippur, Israel will be as torn as ever, with seculars and liberals feeling increasingly beleaguered by an autocratic, openly hostile regime. This is not the Israel we know and love, and the Day of Atonement is not likely to bring mutual forgiveness. The good news: We, the pro-democracy activists, at least three million of us, are not going anywhere; the struggle will continue over the High Holidays and into the Knesset’s autumn session. We will also back the Supreme Court in its decisions, hoping for its enduring independence and courage. We have no alternative but to win. Only if democracy is preserved can Israel’s real arguments be resumed and, hopefully, resolved through honest and broad-based agreements. Even the staunchest of secular Israelis would pray for this.
Fania Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli essayist, professor emerita of history at the University of Haifa and regular contributor to Moment.