Eugene Korn

The end of the beginning

Your ministers are rogues and cronies of thieves;

Every one is avid for bribes and greedy for gifts;
They do not judge the case of the orphan,

and the widow’s cause never reaches them. (Isaiah 1:23)

Israel is in severe political crisis, her democracy in existential peril. Since the coalition began its onslaught for judicial reform, every essential sector of our society—high-tech, banking, defense, security, “bithonistim”, the legal community including the attorney general, the Histadrut, jurists, academics, and economists—have registered their opposition to the overhaul. Israeli doctors are looking to relocate out of Israel. More than 10,000 IDF reservists have pledged not to serve, and now hundreds of high-school graduates threaten to refuse being drafted.

According to the police, over 7 million protesters have taken to the streets over the last 35 weeks, with no end in sight. Literally every day we hear of the murder of one or two more Israeli Arabs, and more than 30 Israelis have been murdered by terrorists this year—the highest since the 2nd intifada. Running out of excuses, government ministers are attacking Israel’s most hallowed institution, the army, blaming it for their own failure to provide security. In addition, since the advent of the reform the shekel has depreciated by 13%, foreign investment in Israel has dropped by 60%, Israel’s international credit rating is in jeopardy, and Israel has become the OECD’s most expensive country, increasing the hardship of poor Israelis.

And amid all this national turmoil, the prime minister and his wife live shamefully in opulence at the Waldorf Astoria on the taxpayers’ dime.

D-day for the reform will come on September 12, when the high court begins hearing appeals against the first installment of judicial reform: the law severely restricting the court from using extreme reasonableness as justification for striking down laws it deems illegal. The court’s last use of this reasoning was its refusal to allow thrice convicted felon Aryeh Deri to become interior and then finance minister. Deri managed to avoid jail time for his third conviction in 2022 by pledging in a plea bargain to retire from public life. His appointment now would not only be unreasonable, it would be an outrage and a stain on Israel’s moral character. It makes a mockery of truth and justice.

In all likelihood the court will find a way to strike down the new law, or at least prevent it from being implemented soon. Even the attorney general has argued for the court to do so.

If so, there are three likely outcomes: Either the government will hold and drop its crusade of judicial reform, recognizing that it will not and cannot happen, or the Justice Minister and his reform zealots will quit the government, causing the collapse of the coalition, or the coalition will refuse to obey the order of the high court, causing a constitutional crisis. In the last case, the police chief has stated that he will do this duty and “obey the law”, that is, follow the court and not the coalition. No doubt the army will follow suit. At that point the coalition will be left naked and toothless. (The options of a compromise or a new unity government now led by Bibi is highly improbable given the deep distrust of Bibi and the passions and determination of both sides.)

Yet even if this judicial reform dies, Israel will be left radically split, its social fabric ruptured, and its resilience undermined.

But a crisis is a terrible thing to waste and there are reasons for optimism in this dark picture. Numerous polls indicate that a clear consensus—around 70%–of Israelis understand and want some moderate judicial reform. This crisis has made clear to all of us that something must change, that laws need to be put in place to ensure that another assault on democracy never happens.

There is a way out: the existing basic laws and the structure of the high court should be frozen in place and the president should convene a committee of experienced, centrist experts with no political party affiliation to begin working deliberately on expanding Israel’s basic laws, foremost of which include norms detailing the procedures of government such as elections and ministerial appointments, as well as mechanisms for legal review and protocols for passing future basic laws. Unlike the present negotiations, no person on this committee will be a politician, since our politicians are hopelessly partisan and zealously against compromise.

While MKs on the extreme right and left will balk at this committee’s centrist recommendations, they would have the backing of a wide majority of the Israelis, who crave stability, democracy, and moderation. The initial recommendations of this committee should be presented to Israeli voters as a plebiscite. Its acceptance by the populace would then pressure the MK’s to pass it into law. Yes, this procedure is irregular for Israeli politics, but we are not in normal times. When our politicians are incapable of solving our national crisis, it is time for the people to show us the path forward. This would be real democracy, with the voice of the people being determinative.

Over time, more basic laws could gradually be added until they comprise a near-comprehensive constitution.

If September 12 is not the beginning of the end of our crisis, at least it can be the end of the beginning—the date for Israel to start healing herself, regain her integrity, and reform herself morally. Again, our prophets could show us the way for Israel to free herself from her present torment:

Wash yourselves clean, and put your evil doings away from My sight.
Cease to do evil, learn to do good, and devote yourselves to justice. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn is an ethicist living in Jerusalem. His most recent book is Israel and the Nations: The Bible, the Rabbis, and Jewish-Gentile Relations (Academic Studies Press)