By Juan Cole / Informed Comment
Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – On the eve of Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s controversial visit to the United States, which several members of Congress say they will boycott, Israeli society is coming apart at the seams. The presidency in Israel is a purely symbolic post. Power resides with the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu and his extremist cabinet, which comprises open racists and fascists. His government’s expansion of Israeli squatter-settlements in the occupied Palestinian West Bank has drawn a rebuke from President Joe Biden, who says he’s never seen such a far-right government in Israel in all his years in office (which is a lot of years).
Last Thursday, Israelis demonstrated in front of the US Embassy in Israel, demanding that the United States pressure Netanyahu to back off his plan to gut the country’s supreme court. They said they feared the change would harm US-Israeli relations.
On Saturday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Democratic Progressive Caucus, denounced Israel as a racist state. She clarified on Sunday that she only meant that the current Netanyahu government is racist, not that the idea of Israel is. I don’t think that remark will mollify the Israel lobbies, but the episode shows how alienated some corners of the American political scene have become from the horror show in Tel Aviv.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Tel Aviv and other cities for the 28th week in a row to demonstrate against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s planned legislation to gut the powers of the country’s Supreme Court. They also announced that they would devote the coming week to disruptions, including of the rails.
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These massive protests, in which fully a fourth of the country has taken part personally, and which are supported by a majority, have demonstrated the polarization of the country.
On Sunday, Netanyahu was constrained to expel from his far right Likud Party the activist Itzik Zarqa. Zarqa had gotten into an argument with protesters, who are generally coded as Ashkenazi or European Jews, while the current coalition draws a great deal of support from the Jews of the Middle East, called Mizrahim.
Zarqa was caught on video shouting, “It’s not for nothing that six million were killed. I’m proud that six million of you were burned!”
He quickly backtracked, but that moment of intense political hatred that turned into an ethnic slur and a glorification of the horrific Nazi genocide of six million European Jews crystallized the rhetorical civil war that has gripped Israel.
Netanyahu has pledged to hold a vote on Tuesday on an article in the bill that takes away from the Supreme Court its power of judicial review of acts of parliament on grounds that the latter are “unreasonable.” The Court can overrule laws it finds contradict the basic principles of reasonableness set out in Israel’s organic law, which jurists have maintained have the force of a constitution.
If the article passes, as it likely will, the Supreme Court will no longer be able to overrule acts of parliament on these grounds, setting the stage for a tyranny of the parliamentary majority. The court would also not be any longer able to strike down appointments of politicians to high office on the grounds that they have shown a pattern of corruption. Women, gays, Muslims, Christians and other groups fear that the Jewish fundamentalists in the cabinet will then pass laws depriving them of their rights, and that the Supreme Court will not be able to counteract such measures. Others fear that Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, will use the provision to ensure he cannot be found guilty and go to jail.
Historian Yuval Noah Harari points out that Israel has only a unicameral legislature from which the prime minister is elected, and therefore has no other checks and balances on government power save for the Supreme Court. Remove the latter, he says, and you have a dictatorship.
The popularity of the leading parties in the current government has plummeted according to opinion polls. The polling suggests that if elections were held today, the opposition would get well over the 61 seats needed to form a government in the 120-member Knesset.
Ironically, the public changed its mind too slowly. Netanyahu’s current majority is firmly ensconced, and despite the enormous weekly demonstrations, the parliament can certainly pass the bill gutting the judiciary if it so desires. It almost certainly will.
The extremist, fascist parties in Netanyahu’s cabinet intend to use the gutting of the Supreme Court as a way to accelerate illegal squatter-settlements on Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank, and to ensure that there can be no judicial backlash against their plans to colonize Palestinian land intensively with Israeli migrants into the territory, and then to annex it, while keeping the Palestinians stateless and without rights.
Juan Cole, a TomDispatch regular, is the Richard P. Mitchell collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A New Translation From the Persian and Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. His latest book is Peace Movements in Islam. His award-winning blog is Informed Comment. He is also a non-resident Fellow of the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies in Doha and of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).