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Naomi Chazan
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Celebrating freedom from abusive overrule is relevant in every generation

Liberty means safeguards for human dignity, nurturing of the human spirit, and unleashing the human imagination
Police deploy a water cannon on Israelis occupying a main highway to protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, April 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Police deploy a water cannon on Israelis occupying a main highway to protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, April 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

This is the most turbulent Passover season in Israel’s history. The diverse, fractious, and ideologically divergent strands of Israeli society survived and thrived over the years by consolidating around a broadly democratic framework. No longer. On the eve of the country’s 75th anniversary, this bond has been deliberately unraveled by the current government, which — however disparate — is united in its effort to use democratic means to achieve its ultra-nationalist and religiously-defined ethnocentric objectives. It has met growing resistance from increasingly broad segments of the Israeli public who see Israel’s fundamental democratic scaffolding — within which political disagreements can be aired and resolved — as the key to their survival and progress.

There is consensus across the board on only one matter: that Israel is in the midst of a profound national crisis — arguably the most severe since its inception. The new Netanyahu-led government’s efforts to accumulate unbridled power has been met by a growing popular backlash, now encompassing large numbers of Israelis concerned with the implications of these moves for their lives and well-being. The bare majority the government boasts in the Knesset can now lay claim to the support of a constantly dwindling minority of the Israeli population.

This confrontation has been compounded during the legislative “pause,” announced scarcely a week ago by the prime minister to allow for the achievement of understandings on proposed coalition measures to circumscribe the independence of the judiciary and substantially alter the already fragile set of checks and balances in the system. It was never meant — as the immediate tabling of the main changes to the basic laws demonstrates — to be anything other than a holding exercise. Statements by key government ministers and by members of Netanyahu’s intimate circle have made this abundantly clear.

The pro-democratic pushback has been quicker and more emphatic than anticipated. Opposition participants in the discussions held under the auspices of President Herzog claim that the negotiation process essentially died before it took on any concrete form. More citizens — some from the very heart of the Likud — have joined what are now almost daily protests. Violence between government-backed supporters and dissenters has escalated. Distrust is the order of the day. And foreign allies have expressed growing displeasure with unfolding events in the country. The attendant dysfunctionality both domestically and externally is everywhere apparent.

The key question facing both sides is how to successfully pursue their objectives within the present context without unraveling Israel’s very foundations. Regardless of competing aspirations, worldviews, policy differences, and sources of support, this requires the formulation and implementation of a clear political strategy.

Here the coalition has a dual advantage: it holds the reins of power, and its declared goal is to change the regime to realize its aims. Its leaders are using the pause they created to mobilize the government’s heretofore quiescent base, to suppress civil resistance, to deride its opponents (both formal and informal), to discredit their intentions, to promote parts of the coalition’s already-defined agenda (including the creation of a national guard, the authorization of further settlement construction, the passage of religious constraints prior to the holidays), to prepare for the swift passage of the main elements of its political project when the Knesset reconvenes — containing close to 150 pieces of legislation (not to mention dozens of governmental decrees and decisions), and to gain that most precious of political commodities: time. Its leaders, legislators, activists, sympathizers, advisers, and funders are working at full steam. Their success in the months ahead will assure their overall victory, irrevocably changing the character and the essence of Israel.

The situation of Israeli democrats — now more engaged and committed than ever before — is more complicated strategically and practically. They face a double challenge: they must simultaneously devise ways to thwart government plans while laying the groundwork for a comprehensive review, update, and overhaul of the institutional, structural, behavioral, and normative components of Israel’s foundational principles as ensconced in its Declaration of Independence. These immediate and long-term undertakings cannot be carried out in stages as many have suggested — although failure in the first task inevitably would delay progress towards the second. They need to be put in place now with limited political capital, relying heavily on an increasingly diverse array of human resources.

Almost all parts of the protest movement have rejected government efforts to strike a compromise on the details of its judicial proposals, arguing that such a give and take is in fact a capitulation to changes that would effectively centralize power, remove remaining checks and balances, and reduce accountability. They have been more comfortable in suggesting reforms, ranging from the entrenchment of judicial autonomy, achieving greater diversity and balance in the judicial selection process, and developing a detailed bill of rights, to actively advocating the drafting of a constitution now. Many of these suggestions, however intriguing, are not practicable at this juncture. Their codification in a constitution with wide popular agreement has not happened in 75 years and it is doubtful that even a rudimentary mechanism for its formulation can be put in place in the next few months.

What can be done is to agree on the components of such a framework, including a variety of methods to restrain executive power (such as diffusing a series of institutional checks on governmental authority, reducing centralization, providing for a measure of structural decentralization, introducing a measure of judicial reforms, and even adjusting the electoral system to offer more regional and social representation) and, yes, setting down the principles underlying a contemporary democratic ethos for Israel. This means understanding that democracy, as Yuval Noah Harari so elegantly explains, cannot be reduced to majority rule. Rather, it refers to the rule of the people, whose individual and collective rights are safeguarded from abuse by the majority through carefully spelled-out human and civil rights that constitute the basis for personal and minority freedoms. It is this set of agreements, this renewed social pact, that supplies the balances needed to equitably conduct political life and broker disagreements. It provides the basis for the voluntary interaction between diverse citizens, interests, and the state. Its elaboration is an ongoing process which requires patience and creativity.

Progress in this direction depends on the ability to quell the present government’s anti-democratic program. The starting point is insistence on a complete halt of the coalition’s proposed package, using a variety of tools involving litigation, legislative initiatives, parliamentary brakes, ongoing protests, and the cultivation of independent media, along with the broadening of democratic spaces locally and nationally.

These activities on their own are not enough. They become effective only when they are channeled towards a defined political goal. This could be the resignation of the prime minister, the reshuffling of the composition of the government, its replacement, or a call for new elections. Failure on the part of those in power to respond to these demands invites further resistance and magnifies the crisis. Should the government nevertheless proceed to fundamentally alter the regime, more chaos will ensue. Comparative studies show that of 32 recent cases involving citizen mobilization to oust long-serving incumbents, to block power grabs by elected leaders, or to set in motion a leadership succession, the process of re-democratization is at best tricky and unpredictable. What is not in question is that progress towards a new democratic pact involves recognition of the limits of raw power and a willingness to convene an inclusive constituent assembly dedicated to the equitable restructuring of power relations.

Passover is a celebration of the liberation from abusive overrule, maintaining its relevance for centuries. It also provides a timely reminder that the preservation of freedom entails the consolidation of rules that safeguard human dignity, nurture the human spirit, and unleash the human imagination. This Passover season offers the opportunity to restart this wondrous journey.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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