With the judicial overhaul, Netanyahu has broken something deeper than Israel’s democracy
For 30 weeks continuously, hundreds of thousands of people in Israel have been in the streets protesting the government’s plan to overhaul the judicial system. They are deeply angry with the government — the most extremist in the history of Israel as even President Joe Biden described it — and scared of what to expect in a less democratic Israel, governed by a coalition that ignores the will of the people and relies on the most extreme elements of Israeli society.
The dynamics of the past few months have left a scar in Israel that will change the country forever. In particular, the unspoken “social contract” that has kept the country thriving for over 75 years has been shattered, I’m afraid.
An unspoken agreement
This tacit agreement is the one that allowed very diverse sectors of Israeli society to cohabit and decide they want to share a future together, with all the sacrifices that implies. It was in the little things everyone who has experienced Israel knows and loves: How it is not unusual to be invited for Shabbat dinner by a stranger, or how deep and warm a conversation with a cab driver or with a vendor in any shouk (market) can become after a few minutes.
The fact that different Israelis from different backgrounds, upbringings, beliefs or political inclinations find it easy to get along doesn’t erase the many challenges that have triggered severe disagreements between sectors of its society. But for the most part, those disagreements have never translated into massive civil resistance. The current moment reflects a break in this social contract for the first time.
The clearest example of this, one that is central to the existence of Israel, is service in the Israel Defense Forces. Since the creation of the state, soldiers and reservists alike have shown up to service at a moment’s notice, trusting their lives to decision-makers at the highest levels of government. This works because there is an understanding that decisions by the defense establishment (which ultimately risk the lives of the soldiers and reservists) are made after serious considerations.
Some of this service is not mandatory, as many reservists volunteer to serve more days per year than what the law requires. But when “reason” is out of the equation — as the recently passed law made so — and the character of the state of Israel as it was founded has been drastically changed, over 10,000 reservists have publicly announced they will stop volunteering.
This might be only the beginning.
High-tech firms have been debating for months whether to relocate their ventures abroad. This directly impacts the social fabric of the country, as about a quarter of the tax revenues in Israel come from the high-tech sector. After the law passed on July 23, international financial institutions warned against investing in Israel, and Israel risks downgrades in its credit rating. This move would translate into Israel paying more interest on its debt, to an amount that — according to the Israeli Economics Association — would be the equivalent of the entire welfare ministry’s budget.
When the social contract begins to shatter, other things might rise to the surface sooner than later. For instance, while the status of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men not serving in the army has been dealt with at the polls in every election, that could change with the massive protests. Israelis who feel that their taxes are subsidizing a sector of society that does not serve to protect their fellow citizens, and additionally has had historically low participation rates in the labor force, might decide as an act of civil disobedience to find ways to pay less taxes.
Us vs. them
More broadly, these events have accelerated the decline of tolerance among the different groups that constitute the population of Israel. The polarization of views that have emerged will continue to empower politicians to be more extremist, which will lead to politicians consistently putting party above country. This, alongside an overall erosion of trust in government and its institutions, mean that the people will also be less willing to compromise, less willing to sacrifice their livelihoods to help others.
President Isaac Herzog warned of the possibility of civil war, something that sounded like science fiction only a year ago.
It is inevitable to think that part of the motivation behind this plan is for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a way out of his ongoing trials and possible charges for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The intended weakening of Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara and, more generally, a less independent judicial system, all but ensures Netanyahu will find a way out of his trial with a very convenient plea deal. With the passing of the judicial overhaul, Netanyahu has proven that his personal ambition is more important than the social cohesion of the country that his legislation has broken.
Israel needs a government that will secure what Israel is and was meant to be — the democratic homeland of the Jewish people. At 75 years old, Israel is still young enough to withstand that challenge. But it will have to wait for a different government, with the hope that some of the damage can be undone. Unfortunately, this episode has left a deep scar on the country and its society forever.
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