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Netanyahu’s Cabinet Races to the Bottom of the Democratic Barrel

Democracy in Times of War

November 24, 2023


Waiting for the kidnapped, Tel Aviv Plaza. Photo By Nivi Yachieli

As this article is being written, Israel anxiously awaits the release of women and children kidnapped by Hamas in Gaza. The Israeli government’s decision to negotiate their release, though shrouded in uncertainty, achieved widespread consensus. However, the ministers from Otzma Yehudit, Itamar Ben Gvir’s party, opposed it, seemingly to serve their political interests, knowing their opposition would be symbolic.


Throughout the last year, there seems to have been an unspoken weekly contest among all of Netanyahu’s ministers to see who can earn the dubious distinction of being the most anti-democratic.


In the realm of controversial actions, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi stood out this week. With blatant disregard for freedom of the press, he called on the government to impose a financial boycott on the Haaretz newspaper, citing alleged “defeatist propaganda.”

However, Minister Ben Gvir and his party’s ministers consistently stand out with their stream of anti-democratic actions. In this article, we will focus on their conduct.


This week the investigative TV program “Uvda” uncovered that Ben Gvir ordered the police to refrain from addressing Jewish terrorism by extreme right-wing groups in the territories. This kind of political intervention in police work is outrageous, but not surprising.


Ben Gvir faces a longstanding petition challenging his appointment as Minister for National Security, arguing that his appointment was extremely unreasonable.


This case underscores the Supreme Court’s weakness in checking executive power. The petition was filed more than a year ago. In the meanwhile, Netanyahu’s coalition managed to abolish the unreasonableness standard. This would have been the end of this petition but the Supreme Court is still considering petitions to strike down judicial overhaul legislation and revive the unreasonableness standard. Hence, this week the court postponed a decision on Ben Gvir’s case, following Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara’s request. This delay may hint at the potential invalidation of Ben Gvir’s appointment.


Ben Gvir has also been provocative this week in supporting a redundant bill to impose the death penalty on terrorists. The bill is intended solely to seek attention, since existing laws in Israel already allow for death sentences.


Ben Gvir’s insensitivity was evident when he disregarded the pleas of a family member of kidnapped Israelis not to hug him during the hearing in the Knesset.


Ben Gvir’s disregard for democratic norms was further exhibited when he instructed his ministry’s representatives to leave a State Audit Committee hearing in the Knesset after an altercation involving his advisor. Ben Gvir’s response undermines the only effective parliamentary oversight of his actions.


Zvi Fogel, the chairman of the Knesset’s National Security Committee, which is responsible for overseeing Ben Gvir, is a member of Ben Gvir's own party. This alignment significantly diminishes the likelihood of any substantial criticism or scrutiny of Ben Gvir’s controversial policies, particularly since the onset of the war. This conflict of interest also highlights a critical gap in the system of checks and balances essential for a healthy democracy.


Other ministers from Ben Gvir’s party also draw concern. Minister Amichai Eliyahu’s statement that dropping an atomic bomb on Gaza “is a possibility” led to his suspension by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Meanwhile, Minister Yitzhak Wasserlauf, overseeing the Negev, the Galilee, and “National Strength” has been ineffective as thousands of Israelis have been evacuated and remain away from their homes.


Both ministers seem redundant.


In retrospect, the inclusion of all these ministers in the government reflects on Netanyahu’s judgment. One does not need a Supreme Court ruling to discern the devastating impact that Ben Gvir’s extreme and anti-democratic party has on Israel’s journey back to normalcy, democracy, and peace.


 

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.


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