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Tova Herzl
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To counterbalance Netanyahu’s words: An open letter to Congress

The government was elected to serve the whole country, not to undermine its democracy with an agenda few knew of before voting
Benjamin Netanyahu holds his first cabinet meeting since returning as prime minister, hours after his coalition was sworn in, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 29, 2022. (Ohad Zwigenberg/ POOL)
Benjamin Netanyahu holds his first cabinet meeting since returning as prime minister, hours after his coalition was sworn in, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 29, 2022. (Ohad Zwigenberg/ POOL)

Honorable Senators and Members of the US House of Representatives,

We, the undersigned former Israeli ambassadors and senior career diplomats, are writing to you with heavy hearts to share our views on the judicial overhaul that our government is attempting to pass. Unfortunately, the prime minister seldom speaks directly to the Israeli public and prefers an intensive media blitz directed at the American public, primarily at American lawmakers. Therefore, we feel obliged to write and set the record straight regarding the situation and the prime minister’s credibility.

Many of the undersigned served in Israel’s missions in the United States and are personally aware that the special relationship between our countries is based on shared values. We are cognizant of the role that Congress has played and continues to play in maintaining and promoting this relationship, and we sincerely appreciate the support we have received from you in times of need, be it military, economic, diplomatic, or other. It is against this background that we write today.

After the elections in November 2022, Benjamin Netanyahu formed a coalition from 64 of 120 Knesset members. While the coalition won by 0.6% of the popular vote, it is unquestionably a lawfully elected government, expected both to promote its component parties’ agendas and to serve the entire populace.

However, since its inauguration in December, the government’s primary focus has been on enacting speedy legislation designed to control the judiciary and other gatekeepers, thus undermining the separation of powers, effectively overturning our political system, and threatening our democracy. This goal was hardly mentioned before the elections, and the Israeli public was largely unaware of it.

Israeli democracy took a blow last week when the Knesset voted on the Reasonableness Doctrine. This is despite promises made by the prime minister, including to President Biden and international credit agencies, that legislation of this sort would only pass with broad support. The vote took place in the face of dire warnings about the consequences of its passage from many who urged delay or attempted to broker a compromise. Please note that this is the first of more than 100 proposed laws. Some have already begun their passage toward approval. Were they all to pass, there would be severe restrictions on personal freedoms, the media, equality, and other such outcomes.

Unlike the United States, where separate ballots are cast for president, Senate, and House, Israel has a unicameral parliamentary system. We cast a single vote for lists, making up the government, or forming the opposition. Hence, while we formally have three powers, the executive branch and the parliamentary majority are virtually identical. Unlike you, we have no constitution, no federal system, and no term limits. As a result, the sole check on government and other official powers lies within the judicial system.

Imagine that a law in your country, even an Article of the Constitution, could be changed by a simple majority in one sitting, and you will understand why we are apprehensive about implications to our shared democratic values. We worry too about the practical outcomes, from discouraging investors, through facilitating unsuitable appointments and corruption, to holding legislation and judgment hostage to extremists. This could destroy any chance for peace and pose a real threat to all that was built here against all odds during these past 75 years.

We do not object to finessing the system — none is perfect. However, the prime minister reassures the international media that the recent vote was trivial, that it would strengthen Israeli democracy, and that it reflects the popular will. Formerly a staunch defender of an independent judiciary, he fails to acknowledge that he is an interested party, given his current trial for corruption and related charges. Throughout this time, he has not given any interviews to the mainstream Israeli media, which would undoubtedly call out his comments for what they are.

His misleading statements belittle the concerns of hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have taken to the streets since the introduction of what is being promoted as “reform,” but is really a thorough regime change. His positions ignore thousands of volunteer military reservists who have announced that they will refrain from serving in a dictatorship. They ignore warning signs surrounding hi-tech, Israel’s engine of growth, and so on. It is inconceivable but true: our government is placing the coalition’s survival ahead of the people’s security and well-being.

We urge you to look again at the prime minister’s words. We also urge you to look at what our public opinion polls are increasingly saying about ongoing attempts to abruptly and unilaterally force this extreme challenge to Israel’s democratic DNA. Please hear almost all past leaders of Israel’s defense establishment and former senior judges, former and current economists and business people, academics, doctors, lawyers, political scientists, historians, and many others, including us, who have devoted our lives to the service of our beloved country.

Thank you for your attention,

[Signed]

Dan Ashbel, Arie Avidor, Opher Aviran, Arthur Avnon, Gadi Baltianski, Eli Ben Tura, Barukh Binah, Ehud Moshe Eitam, Rafael Eldad, Erella Hadar, Eran Etzion, Raphael Gamzou, Avi Gil, Dori Goren, Tova Herzl, Jeremy Issacharoff, Arthur Koll, Alon Liel, Shmuel Meirom, Simon Roded, Mario Joel Salpak, Tamar Samash, Daniel Shek, Itzhak Shelef, Aviv Shir-On, Mark Sofer, Nadav Tamir, Shemi Tzur, David Walzer

About the Author
Tova Herzl served twice as congressional liaison in Washington DC, was Israel's first ambassador to the newly independent Baltic states, and took early retirement after a tumultuous ambassadorship in South Africa. She is the author of the book, Madame Ambassador; Behind The Scenes With A Candid Israeli Diplomat.
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