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JERUSALEM — Ask Israelis what has taken hold of their country — which has been paralyzed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “legislative blitz” and the massive protests it has triggered — and they’re more likely to reply with a sound than with an actual word. A grunt, or a long, drifting whistle. Very often, a deep sigh. A nervous titter accompanied by a shrug.
For most Israelis, there are no words to describe the consuming fear that, as former Mossad director Tamir Pardo puts it, the country is “on the verge of collapse.” He says his fellow citizens stand at the very precipice of “the total destruction of the state of Israel.”
He is not alone. Former PM Ehud Barak calls Netanyahu’s project “the assassination of the Declaration of Independence, which will turn Israel into a dictatorship.” If a government uses the tools of democratic rule to “destroy it from within,” Barak says, Israelis must prepare to resist. “It is not just the right of citizens; it is, in my judgment, the obligation of citizens to turn unfortunately toward civil disobedience.”
Israelis voted in a fairly placid election on Nov. 1, the fifth successive vote since 2019, when a then-recently indicted Netanyahu lost his last functional coalition. The campaign focused on inflation and post-pandemic cost-of-living issues. Now, stunned and scared, they’re making a run on foreign passports “in case Israel is no longer a viable place to live,” an Israeli television channel explained.
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, and for decades its most dominant political figure, came back into office on Dec. 29, 2022, and has spent the ensuing 10 weeks attempting to ram through parliament what he calls a “judicial reform,” a package of some 130 laws which would, de facto, remove the judiciary as one of the three powers of state.
Netanyahu is, coincidentally, on trial for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust in three complex cases relating to his efforts to control Israeli media. He’s already lost his interior minister, Aryeh Deri, a convicted tax evader, who the Supreme Court ruled unfit to serve. In order to dodge a similar fate, Netanyahu has advanced a bill that revokes the courts’ ability to rule on his fitness to serve. Colloquially, it’s being called “the fortification law,” and it is one vote away from becoming law. Another bill would reinstate Deri.
Unlike the British parliamentary system, on which it is partially based, Israel’s form of government includes only one legislative assembly — the Knesset — which, by definition, is composed of a majority that supports the coalition government.
Netanyahu’s party, Likud, holds 32 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats. His extremist coalition, including far-right theocrats, segregationists, and even a minister for internal security who was previously convicted of terror crimes, represents 64 seats.
He has interpreted this slim majority as “a mandate to rule” which, by neutering the judicial system, would transform Israel’s imperfect democracy into an autocracy led by a unitary strongman: Benjamin Netanyahu.
“It won’t be the country we know and want to be here,” David Grossman, the renowned Israeli author, told Rolling Stone. “It won’t be the country our founders wanted to see here. For years we’ve had the sense that Israel had managed against all odds to do something almost miraculous — to create a place the Jewish people yearned for so profoundly.” Not a miracle in the religious sense, he adds. Israel’s founders foresaw a secular state. “A secular miracle, a place where the people who’d never felt at home anywhere on Earth could feel at home.”
Now, he says, “there is a sense of impending disaster.” Grossman is the closest thing liberal Israel has to an oracle. He is a stalwart Zionist who believes in the Jewish state, and a vocal opponent of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. In 2006, his son, Uri, a 21-year-old conscript serving in an armored unit on Israel’s border with Lebanon, was one of 24 Israelis killed in combat with the Iranian-backed militia group Hezbollah.
Part of “the wonder of Israel,” he says, is that “despite the vast differences in worldviews and values, and perhaps also because of threats from outside, we were, in the words of Abraham, anashim akhim — a brotherly people, kinsmen.”
For all of Israel’s difficulties and challenges, its social cohesiveness, the basic solidarity of its citizens has never before been in doubt. Israel, the old joke went, was the country where a crazy driver could run you over but the entire highway would stop to give you first aid. “But somewhere in the depths of our hearts, we knew that we were not really brothers,” Grossman says. “We knew that there are vast gaps, and variant yearnings of the heart, with religious people wanting a halachic [religious] state, whereas for me, it is an aberration to think of stoning someone over LGBTQ rights or that a non-Jew has a lesser value. All these things hovered in the background, but we thought we’d overcome it.”
What Grossman fears most is a humpty-dumpty test for Israel, in which all the constituent parts that are being torn asunder by the current crisis underway cannot be reassembled. “These are not just words. Suddenly, we see that what we thought we could always subsume, the lack of similarity between us … [is] staring us in the face.”
Modern Israel is 74 years old. A sense of panic grips many Israelis when asked about its 75th Independence Day, which looms on April 25th.
“This is a plan to crush the system of justice,” Chief Justice Esther Hayut said in a fiery, unprecedented speech two weeks in to Netanyahu’s raucous term. “It is designed to deal a fatal blow to the independence of the judiciary and silence it. [If implemented,] the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence will be remembered as the year in which the country’s democratic identity was dealt a fatal blow.”
Israel as we know it may not make it that far. Netanyahu’s government has committed to passing several of its most ambitious bills, including a Supreme Court Override Law, which would relegate Israel’s high court rulings to social commentary, and a law to stuff the Judicial Appointments Committee with politicians, by Passover, which begins on April 5.
That’s triggered a tangible sense of doom and outrage. The February 2023, Israeli Voice Index, a nonpartisan survey, shows that half of Israelis believe the country’s general situation has worsened under the new government, and 72 percent think that tensions between various sectors of society have heightened during the same time.
Almost 20 percent of Israelis have participated in demonstrations against the legislative coup. Netanyahu calls them “anarchists” and darkly warns that they are sustained by “foreign donors who want to topple the right-wing government and bring new elections” and by “biased, left-wing, enlisted media” that wants to stir up the public.
His son, Yair, 31, an ultra-right-wing troll, compares the protesters to terrorists and to Nazis and accuses the Israel Police and Israel’s security agency Shin Bet of participating in a coup d’état against his father.
Meanwhile, Israelis warily see mounting violence within their country and in the occupied West Bank, and are transfixed by daily warnings from international credit companies cautioning Netanyahu that his project will tank Israel’s viability as an investment destination. In fact, tech companies are pulling their money out ahead of losing legal protections.
Meanwhile, top officials are treated like pariahs. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — who called for “wiping out” the Palestinian village of Huwara after a terror attack perpetrated by a resident, espouses “the law of the Torah” to replace Israeli civil law, and defines himself as a “fascist homophobe” — was persona non grata during a quick visit to Washington, D.C., this week, where, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, he was shunned by all U.S. officials.
Israeli army reservists have taken on a prominent role in the protest movement, what they call the resistance to Netanyahu’s plan. Reservists form the backbone of Israel’s active service personnel. Some, like fighter pilots, are required to give up to 60 days a year for training. Technically, they are volunteers, and thus not subject to military discipline. Their protests begin with a basic premise: We signed up to fight for a Jewish, democratic state — not a dictatorship; Netanyahu is ripping up the contract that binds us.
Royi Elcabets is the most senior of the protesting reservists, who serves as chief of staff for Israel’s Southern Command, estimated in an interview that he is currently devoting 70 percent of his time to the opposition to Netanyahu.
“I think we are at a critical moment in our national story, and there is real concern that we could lose Israel’s identity as a Jewish, democratic state,” Elcabets told Rolling Stone.
He administers a group of some 2,000 reservists, including more than 40 generals, who “want to raise a red flag — no, a black flag. If this country does not remain democratic with an independent judiciary, and they succeed in changing the regime, it will critically harm the reserves.”
On Sunday, facing a growing mutiny of democracy-loving servicepeople, Israeli Army Chief of Staff General Herzi Halevi admitted to an auditorium full of reservists at Tel Aviv University that the Israel Defense Forces “cannot operate without the volunteer spirit of the reservists.”
Elcabets attributes the existential fears of Israelis to “a sort of in-built Jewish pessimism” but he is, himself, something of an optimist — or as near as you can get during these dark times. “I am convinced it won’t be the end of the country.”
He views the moment Israel is traversing as the “birth pangs” and the “growing pains” of a young country still defining its complex identity, “like the United States, and the Civil War,” he says.
It is an allusion with profound resonance. At exactly the age of 74 the United States enacted the Compromise of 1850, a package of five bills aimed at diffusing tensions then raging between free states and slaveholding states, in the hope of staving off an internal conflict. It didn’t work, and an estimated three-quarters of a million people died in the war that ensued.
The American compromise failed. But United States history is only one of numerous foreign examples mustered by Israelis on all sides of the fulminating national debate, with demonstrators often comparing Netanyahu to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Argentina’s Juan Perón.
But Netanyahu’s path is also anathema within his own country, even within in his own political camp. “It is the complete contrary of what we grew up on, in the Likud,” says Limor Livnat, a former minister of education for the premier’s party, and the daughter of two founders of the Likud.
“The independence and supremacy of the rule of law, as Menachem Begin described it,” she added in an interview, alluding to the conservative former prime minister, “those are the values I — we, the Likud — grew up on.”
“Today the Likud is something else,” she said, leaving unsaid the fact that the Likud, once a wide-tent conservative movement, has become a one-man show. Livnat publicly denounced Netanyahu and left the party after 51 years of membership, in February 2021, to protest Netanyahu’s growing alliance with Smotrich’s explicitly racist Religious Zionism party.
She sees Netanyahu leading “a very dangerous process that could bring us to very, very bad places Israel has never before even imagined.”
Grossman, who spoke at the first rally opposing Netanyahu’s measures, takes this thought a step further than Livnat. Possibly the most important part of Israel’s current puzzle, says, “is the fact of occupation” of Palestinian territory.
“We’re crying out that this new legislation will hurt Israeli democracy, but for 55 years we’ve ignored the occupation completely.” he says. “An occupying land cannot call itself democratic.”
The past few months, he said, have been brutal. “Suddenly all the differences between us and all the hostility has surfaced, and suddenly Israel, this very strong country, with the strongest army in the Middle East, with the strongest air force and the Mossad — in one fell swoop it feels as if they’re all falling and crashing down.”