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Democracy in Times of War

Amidst War, Netanyahu’s Coalition Is Engineering a Monumental Power Grab

May 2, 2024

Despite the ongoing war in Gaza and in northern Israel, and despite his vow to set aside the so-called “judicial reform”, Netanyahu’s coalition is constantly promoting the obliteration of Israel’s democratic structure. In the next months, Netanyahu and his ministers will have the opportunity to appoint key figures in the institutional structure of the public administration.


The government will have the opportunity to take control of the Police, the Civil Service Commission, and a series of power centers within the military. At the same time, the independence of national media and the judiciary is in grave danger. 

Relying on Minister Benny Gantz to stop the takeover may not be enough. When Gantz entered the unity government, he received veto power over appointments related to the judicial overhaul. However, it is unclear how useful this power is when essential positions need to be filled. 

Netanyahu's coalition is only a step away from what Netanyahu calls “absolute victory”, not in the war against Hamas, but rather in seizing key governmental strongholds.  The core of the judicial overhaul is now focused on filling senior positions with figures who are absolutely loyal to the government——and to hell with independence, professionalism, integrity, or the public interest.  

In places where Netanyahu's coalition fails to appoint loyalists, it adopts a blocking tactic—obstructing the system.

There are several key parameters for assessing the independence of office holders in the public service: who appoints the office holder—a professional committee or a minister; who can dismiss them; who determines their salary; and who controls the disciplinary procedures they are subject to.

There are many disadvantages to politicizing this process and appointing cronies. A 2012 American study examined over a thousand governmental authorities during the tenure of President George W. Bush. Using a government index to evaluate performance, researchers found that authorities led by a non-political professional appointee significantly outperformed those headed by someone close to the president, even if that person was a professional.

Even when political appointees are professionals in their field, they harm the system's functioning. They weaken the motivation of professionals who are not cronies to stay in public administration, because they understand that climbing the ladder depends on political connections. Thus, the public service is drained of quality personnel.

In Israel, where politicians primarily serve their political and sectoral "base," the disadvantages of political appointments are even more pronounced. Israelis felt it in the painful reality that followed October 7th, when public administration “disappeared” and failed to serve its purpose for those in need of state assistance.

Ben-Gvir is shaping the rule of law 

The Police Commissioner is a critical appointment in terms of impact on law enforcement and investigations. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir selected Major General Avshalom Peled, the Deputy Police Commissioner who is considered his confidant.  "Haaretz" revealed that Peled was previously investigated by the Police Internal Affairs division, which recommended not to promote him to a senior position due to a lack of credibility. If this appointment goes through, Peled will clearly know whom to thank. 

If Peled is appointed, a round of key appointments at the top of the police force is expected, and Ben-Gvir will have complete and absolute control over all these appointments.

Ben-Gvir’s influence within the police is evident, especially in the way anti-government protests are being handled by the police. Almost every protest is met with force and arrests, including forceful police reaction toward relatives of Israeli hostages held in Gaza as they demonstrate against the government's procrastination in bringing the hostages back home.

Key IDF Appointments 

Political conquest of the security services is a coveted and achievable goal of extreme right-wing parties.

Following the resignations of the head of Military Intelligence Major General Aharon Haliva, and Central Command Chief, Major General Yehuda Fuchs, it’s only a matter of time until the end of the tenures of Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and Shin Bet head Ronen Bar.

The right wing has a special interest in the head of the Central Command, who is responsible for law enforcement in the West Bank. This week Chief of Staff Halevi, backed by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, appointed Major General Avi Blut for the job.

The announcement was swift, and it is unclear yet what the reaction of Minister Bezalel Smotrich who is also a minister in the Ministry of Defense will be.

If the extreme right is not happy with Blut, they will never stop portraying him as favoring Palestinians and opposing settlers. Ben-Gvir will probably blame Smotrich for failing to take control of the appointment.

Indeed both of them attacked the chain of recent senior IDF appointments by Gallant and Halevi. Ben-Gvir called on the two to resign. Smotrich said they should not be appointing anyone and called the decision “scandalous”. 

The Senior Appointments Watchdog 

Appointing the most senior jobs in the Israeli public administration, including the Police Commissioner and the IDF Chief of Staff, requires the approval of the Advisory Committee for Senior Appointments.  

By law, this committee is to be chaired by a retired Supreme Court justice, appointed for an eight-year term. But for the past two years, this committee has been without a chair, hence no appointments could be made.

The Bennett-Lapid government tried to appoint retired justice Meni Mazuz, but the Supreme Court disqualified his appointment because it was made during an election period. Retired justice Elyakim Rubinstein agreed to serve temporarily to approve Herzi Halevi's appointment as Chief of Staff, but since then, the committee has been without a chair.

Recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to appoint retired Supreme Court justice Uri Shoham, who is finishing his tenure as the ombudsman for complaints against judges. 

Incidentally, Shoham vacates an important job. Minister of Justice Yariv Levin and Constitution Committee chairman MK Simcha Rothman intend to influence the appointment of a new Ombudsman. Their goal is to select a candidate who shares their vision for disciplining judges they perceive as overly liberal.

Shoham's appointment to the Advisory Committee for Senior Appointments faced unexpected opposition from the right wing. The Religious Zionism party accused Shoham of not thoroughly investigating complaints against retired Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and Supreme Court Justice Khaled Kabub.

Apparently, it escaped Religious Zionism that Shoham was not proposed as chairman due to his independence or integrity, but because Netanyahu saw him as the lesser evil. Those who proposed Shoham hoped he would show leniency towards flaws in the appointments of the Police Commissioner and Chief of Staff, just as he was lenient (in the right-wing view) in investigating complaints against Justices Hayut and Kabub.

With no alternative, retired Supreme Court President Asher Grunis, who is considered conservative, was recruited for the task. Grunis currently serves as chairman of the State Commission of Inquiry into the submarine and naval vessel affair.

In the past, Grunis chaired the committees that appointed Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara. In both cases, Grunis opposed the appointments, but ended up being in the minority vis-à-vis the political members of the committee he chaired. The coalition probably counts on him being in the minority in the Advisory Committee for Senior Appointments.

A stranglehold on judicial appointments

For seven months, there has been no permanent President of the Supreme Court, and two Justice seats remain vacant. Minister of Justice Levin has been fighting to block every appointment in the judicial system, especially over his demand to decide who the next President will be. 

In the future, a State Commission of Inquiry will be established for the events of October 7th. According to the law, the President of the Supreme Court selects the members of this Commission, it is clear why Levin wants to control this appointment. 

The Most Sensitive Appointment

The most sensitive and controversial appointment is coming up. In September,  Civil Service Commissioner Professor Daniel Hershkowitz will retire. The Civil Service Commission oversees appointments and enforces discipline over 70,000 state employees, and is supposed to ensure the independence and professionalism of the civil service. Controlling who becomes Commissioner paves the way for politicization and appointing cronies throughout the state service pyramid. The Commissioner is selected by the Prime Minister, in consultation with the "Appointments Committee at the Civil Service Commission." The Commissioner himself chairs this committee, but when it discusses the appointment of the Commissioner, the government appoints a substitute. The substitute must be a lawyer, and nothing else.  Therefore, the Commissioner's appointment process is one of the most prone to political bias. 

The Hungarian Role Model 

During the Passover holiday, several Likud ministers traveled to Budapest and were photographed sharing warm embraces and smiles with Hungary's authoritarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. While Israel depends on the United States for military and financial assistance, Netanyahu and his colleagues admire Orbán’s model of "illiberal democracy," where the independence and integrity of public institutions have been eroded to strengthen Orbán's control. Contrary to protecting Israeli democracy, Netanyahu’s coalition seems inspired to undermine it.


Dr. Ido Baum is the legal commentator of the daily newspaper TheMarker. He is an associate professor of law at the Haim Striks Law Faculty at the College of Management in Israel and heads the Louis Brandeis Institute for Society, Economy, and Democracy. He is also a contributor to USA for Israeli Democracy. 

Support the work of the Brandeis Institute in defending democracy in Israel here


April 28, 2024

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