Domestic, regional, and global eyes are on the Knesset’s every step these days, as the Likud-led coalition seeks to pass a significant change to the function and authority of Israel’s judiciary by removing their capacity to intervene in legislative and political decisions based on “reasonability which has historically allowed the courts to act as a check and balance on legislation due to Israel’s lack of a constitution or guaranteed equality.
Israel, as of the publication of this article, remains a vibrant democracy that allows agency to diverse voices in and out of government. As a result, some with extreme and outright undemocratic views always had a voice, even if it was at the fringes of government. Unfortunately, Israel’s current coalition contains not just extremists in its corners but also front and center. Since the formation of the current government, we have not just seen unprecedented Israeli civilian-led violence against Palestinians in the form of large-scale rampages through Palestinian towns, but also repeated calls to violence from senior coalition members.
With so many statements of this kind and expressions favoring outright discrimination against both Palestinians and Israeli Arabs emanating from this current coalition, it is not hard to imagine what their next steps will be if they successfully neuter the Supreme Court from reviewing legislative decisions based on “reasonability.”
This article does not address the many merits and general limitations of judicial reform in and of itself. Rather it hopes to systematically highlight why racist and inciteful policy pushes after the weakening of Israel’s Supreme Court should be expected. This article demonstrates this by documenting the public statements made by senior coalition members made only since the formation of the government, while not looking back on any of their past statements and action which includes for some even indictments on terrorism and incitement. While these statements may not represent the views of all members of the government, or even official coalition positions now, many of these voices are the same leading proponents of judicial reform which has brought Israeli society to the brink of fracture. Thus, these speakers and statements cannot be dismissed as unimportant.
Some of these statements were made in the Knesset, at public events, to the press, or posted on social media directly by the members of the government. The list does not include alleged statements said to have taken place behind closed doors. While some individuals have later retracted comments, the repeated volley of such ideas makes clear the underlying view and aspirations of some who today wield power over Israeli decision-making.
- January 27, 2023: MK Almog Cohen (Otzma Yehudit) tweeted during an IDF raid in Jenin: “Good and professional work by the (Israeli) fighters in Jenin, keep killing them.”
- February 14, 2023: National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (Otzma Yehudit) tweets support for IDF soldier jailed for beating a pro-Palestinian activist: “Disgrace! The anarchist Issa Amro who frequently bothers the IDF soldiers in Hebron from doing their job, is doing it again, only this time it was with a camera crew of an American media organization. I support with all my might the soldier who did not keep silent. Soldiers should receive backing, not prison.”
- February, 24 2023: MK Almog Cohen (Otzma Yehudit) filmed himself making clicking and hissing noises directly towards members of Arab Israeli political parties and said. “Shut your trap!” he calls out, before calling out the Arabic word “Uskut!” (“Be silent”) and making animal sounds. “When you talk to them in their language (implying the animal sounds), they understand you. You need to talk to him like a sheep.”
- February 27, 2023: National Security Committee Chairman Zvika Fogel (Otzma Yehudit) said to Galey Israel Radio following settler rampages through the Palestinian village Huwara, “We stop using the word ‘proportionality.’ We stop with our objection to collective punishment [just] because it doesn’t fly with all sorts of courts. … A closed, burnt Huwara — that’s what I want to see. That’s the only way to achieve deterrence. After a murder like yesterday’s, we need burning villages when the IDF doesn’t act.”
- February 28, 2023: Chairwoman of the Special Committee for Oversight of the Israeli Citizens’ Fund Limor Son Har Melech (Otzma Yehudit) tweeted regarding settler rampages in the Palestinian village of Huwara: “The ‘settler violence’ campaign, which has been underway with full force, aims to remove the responsibility of the security forces for the unbearable situation and divert the discourse from the severe attacks we have experienced. [This is a] false and despicable campaign, one that confuses brothers for enemies and turns victims into attackers.”
- March 1, 2023: Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism) spoke to Israeli media relating to settler rampages in the Palestinian village of Huwara: “The village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think that the State of Israel needs to do that – not, God forbid, private individuals.”
- March 19, 2023: Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism) said at a memorial in Paris: “There’s no such thing as Palestinians because there’s no such thing as a Palestinian people…Do you know who are the Palestinians? I’m Palestinian. …The Palestinian people is an invention that is less than 100 years old.” This was said behind a podium with a map of Israeli that included Jordan not just the West Bank as part of Israel.
- June 12, 2023: Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism) backed Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s bill to allow the Minister of National Security to apply administrative detention in criminal cases mostly pertaining to violence in Arab Israeli communities. Smotrich stated at a faction meeting that “We need to enable administrative detention”.
- June 23, 2023: After a mass shooting that killed four Israelis, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (Otzma Yehudit) said, “There needs to be a full settlement here [at Evyatar]. Not just here but on all the hilltops around us. We have to settle the land of Israel and at the same time need to launch a military campaign, blow up buildings, assassinate terrorists. Not one, or two, but dozens, hundreds, or if needed, thousands.” It is important to note that the Israeli military has not operated in the West Bank even during the height of the intifada with kill counts as an objective, but has always operated in a targeted manner.
- June 24, 2023: Chairwoman of the Special Committee for Oversight of the Israeli Citizens’ Fund Limor Son Har Melech (Otzma Yehudit) tweeted that “safely eating hummus and refueling the car is a basic right for every citizen. If the security establishment is unable to provide this basic protection, then we will see the phenomena of citizens choosing to take charge of protecting their lives.” These comments refer to a mass shooting that killed four Israelis at a hummus restaurant and gas station.
- June 25, 2023: Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism) writes on Twitter, “The attempt to create an equivalency between murderous Arab terror and [Israeli] civilian counter-actions, however serious they may be, is morally wrong and dangerous on a practical level.” These remarks are a response to condemnations of settler violence following a mass shooting that killed four Israelis.
- June 25, 2023: After the Shin Bet and IDF condemned Jewish terrorism towards Palestinians, Energy Minister Israel Katz (Likud) said that “there can be no comparisons; terrorism is the terror that Palestinians are perpetrating against Jews, soldiers, and innocents.” These remarks are a response to condemnations of settler violence following a mass shooting that killed four Israelis.
- June 26, 2023: After the Shin Bet and IDF condemned Jewish terrorism towards Palestinians, Minister of Settlements and National Missions Orit Struck (Religious Zionism) compares Shin Bet head and police chief’s response to settler rampages in the West Bank to the Wagner group during an interview with Kol Barama Radio.
- June 27, 2023: After receiving criticism from Israel’s security establishment and PM Netanyahu for defending settler violence, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (Otzma Yehudit) stated, “Most of them are sweet boys. Administrative arrests turn people into heroes. I was the subject of an administrative arrest when I was 18. You’re turning snot-nosed boys into heroes.” Comments refer to rioting settlers from the week prior. This was said while he is trying to advance legislation to allow him to impose administrative detention on Israeli Arab citizens.
- June 27, 2023: National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (Otzma Yehudit) stated: “In this Government, we’ve killed 120 Palestinians in the last six months, and there will be more to come. The public expects us to do more and we have the capacity to meet those expectations.”
What the above comments demonstrate is there are senior coalition officials who aspire to inspire Jewish violence against Palestinians and encourage the IDF to kill on mass, all while seeking to apply a double standard of punishment and incarceration differentiating between Arab and Jewish perpetrators. Without a strong Supreme Court to intervene, it will be no surprise that such policies and others like them slowly begin to trickle into political discourse and perhaps even legislative agendas beyond the means they do today. The author of this piece does not believe Israel will implement wide-scale changes to its attitude towards Palestinians but does believe we will see attempts to do so and even attempts are damaging, domestically, regionally, and internationally.
No doubt such views expressed in the above quotes will make more regional and global headlines as they are pushed by the same emboldened politicians riding on the success of a potentially passing judicial reform. The world and indeed the MENA region in particular is watching closely to see if the Israeli government will systematically erode the very values of tolerance that have helped foster ties in the first place. If substantial changes to the court authority are to be made, they must include strong legal protection of minorities, a guarantee of equality, and a commitment to tolerance. Without such a legal addition a weakened court will leave much operational leeway for those who seek to legislate or promote violence and discrimination, ideals that have already been expressed publicly as documented above.
With the longtime gatekeepers of tolerance and equality neutered the reasonable members of Israel’s coalition may find it even harder to balance the historical democratic values as well as the expectation of her allies against the extremist desires of their own coalition partners.