Gershom Gorenberg

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Israel’s Fragile Democratic Future

In normal times, thousands of people would have poured into the streets to celebrate the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a central piece of the Netanyahu government’s plan to cripple democracy. The so called reform had triggered immense, constant protests for months.

Alas, since the horrific Hamas attack on Oct. 7 and the ensuing war in Gaza, celebration would have felt grotesque. But the all-consuming conflict should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the struggle for democracy in Israel continues.

In a single decision handed down on Jan. 1, the court ruled on two issues. The first concerned an overarching principle: The court affirmed that it could overrule even constitutional measures if they violated core democratic principles.…  Seguir leyendo »

Netanyahu Led Us to Catastrophe. He Must Go.

“How could this happen?” we asked one another, neighbors in pajamas suddenly gathered in the not quite safety of the stairwell of our Jerusalem apartment building. Our first air-raid siren of the new war had just sounded. It was early on a holiday morning; I’d heard no news. In a jittery loud voice, a man from across the hall told us about the Hamas invasion of Israel that had just begun.

That moment repeats on a loop in my mind — when I wake up at night and when the sirens repeat. A century has passed since then and no time at all.…  Seguir leyendo »

Protesters in Jerusalem on Saturday, July 22, 2023. Ohad Zwigenberg/Associated Press

It was Saturday night — protest night in Israel, as it’s been every week since January, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government revealed its plan for “judicial reform”, a gaslighter’s name for regime change. But on this night in mid-July, the sense of crisis was growing: The Israeli Knesset was gearing up to pass the first law in the planned overhaul, crippling the Supreme Court’s ability to prevent abuses of government power. In central Jerusalem, thousands of people marched the short distance from the president’s residence to the prime minister’s house. So many blue and white Israeli flags waved in the hot breeze it seemed a bright stripe of daytime had been painted on the dark heaven.…  Seguir leyendo »

A Palestinian youth takes photos of an explosion from an Israeli airstrike targeting a nearby building, which Israel says belonged to a Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, on May 13. (Mohammed Al Masri/AP)

Time is measured in seconds, from when a news feed announces a “red alert” — incoming missiles from Gaza aimed at Tel Aviv — to the bleat of a message in the family WhatsApp group from one of my children, “I’m OK”.

Time is also measured in hours of held breath: from a Palestinian hunger striker dying in an Israeli prison, to the barrage of Palestinian rockets from Gaza, to the Israeli air attack that kills three Islamic Jihad leaders and 10 civilians. Then there is the next thunderstorm of rockets from Gaza and the next Israeli air raids, and then another brittle cease-fire.…  Seguir leyendo »

Israeli President Isaac Herzog leaves the White House after meeting with President Biden on Oct. 26. (Tom Brenner for The Washington Post)

“Haste is from the devil”, says an Arabic proverb commonly used in Hebrew. It correctly describes the campaign by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his henchmen to undo liberal democracy in Israel. Alas, it’s also an accurate critique of Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s proposed compromise, which he unveiled last week.

Netanyahu returned to office less than three months ago. He has treated his reelection as a mandate to change Israel’s political system fundamentally. In the Knesset, his coalition is rushing through a package of bills that would essentially transform the country into an elected autocracy.

Among the measures are ones that would put the appointment of judges and Supreme Court justices entirely in the hands of the ruling party, while restricting judicial review of laws and government actions — and allowing parliament to overrule court decisions.…  Seguir leyendo »

People gather at a demonstration against the Israeli government's controversial justice reform bill outside the Knesset on March 2. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

Yariv Levin, Israel’s justice minister, was recently railing against the country’s Supreme Court on TV. Referring to rulings that overturned draconian laws against asylum seekers who entered Israel, Levin said the decisions were made “in the name of some overreaching progressive thinking” — and here he dismissively waved his hand. “That’s the mind-set on the court”.

Levin, a Likud party member, and Simcha Rothman of the far-right Religious Zionism party are the point men in the Netanyahu government’s legislative offensive to render the courts powerless. Their program, which has triggered major protests for months and drawn sharp criticism worldwide, would drastically reduce judicial oversight of laws, as well as allow the Knesset to override court decisions to overturn a law.…  Seguir leyendo »

New Knesset speaker Amir Ohana, left, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, talks about his partner and children at a news conference on Dec. 29 in Jerusalem. (Amir Cohen/AFP/Getty Images)

Just before Israel’s new government was sworn in on Dec. 29, parliament elected a new speaker handpicked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Amir Ohana. The first openly gay person to hold that position, Ohana gave a speech in which he praised his partner of 18 years, “my anchor, the wise and the good”, and their two children.

Ripped from context, that moment could suggest that Netanyahu has returned to power as the leader of a relatively liberal government. This would be a grave mistake.

Netanyahu heads the most extreme, dangerous coalition in Israel’s history. Parties of the far right control the police and the administration of the West Bank.…  Seguir leyendo »

Israeli far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir inspects the site of an explosion at a bus stop near an entrance to Jerusalem on Nov. 23. (Atef Safadi/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

It was Friday, Nov. 25, in Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. A group of Israeli Jews, from a left-wing, Orthodox group called Children of Abraham, had come to show solidarity with local Palestinian families who had borne the brunt of violence by Israeli settlers and their supporters a week earlier. On the way back to their bus, as one activist recounted to me, they happened on some Israeli soldiers dancing in the street with a group of pro-settler visitors.

One of the left-wing activists criticized the soldiers for the political display. An argument escalated. Then, as someone pulled out a phone and began to film, a soldier grabbed an activist, hurled him to the ground, and slammed a fist into his cheek, hard enough to break a bone.…  Seguir leyendo »

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right Israeli lawmaker and the head of Jewish Power party, gestures after receiving exit poll results at the party's headquarters in Jerusalem on Wednesday. (Oren Ziv/AP)

The great Israeli deadlock is over; nearly a year and a half of low-key government is past. Unless the post-election coalition-wrangling produces another stunning surprise, Benjamin Netanyahu will soon return as prime minister.

I already miss deadlock.

It would be easy both to overstate and understate the meaning of Tuesday’s elections. Most of all, it would be easy to despair of democracy’s future in Israel — and that, too, would be a mistake.

Netanyahu’s Likud party and its three expected coalition partners won 64 seats out of 120 in parliament. The temptation of overstatement lies in the journalistic shorthand of describing the electorate as though it were a single individual: “Israel ends indecision, chooses the right”.…  Seguir leyendo »

A roadside campaign banner for Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism party near Nablus, West Bank, on Monday. (Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg News)

The leader of Israel’s surging far-right party has a plan for what he calls judicial reform. More accurately, it’s a plan to bulldoze judicial oversight, the rule of law and protection of human rights.

Here’s the context: Next Tuesday, we here in Israel will be going to the polls yet again. This is the fifth time since spring 2019, so you might think that repetition alone would lessen the anxiety, the sense that everything — not just who will be elected, but the very future of democratic government — depends on the final count.

Instead, speaking for myself — and possibly about half the nation — the sense of election dread is greater than ever.…  Seguir leyendo »

Our movie’s antihero, an Israeli citizen, wakes at 6 a.m. to the buzz of an alarm clock and groggily slaps it off. By force of habit, he — or she, perhaps, in this remake — grabs a cellphone and checks the news. Headlines refer to elections and polls, to Yair Lapid and Benjamin Netanyahu. One is prime minister, the other the challenger. Which is which? Our antihero tries to remember. Is this the third or the fifth recent election in which they’ve faced off?

She, or he, scrolls down. More headlines: a warning to Iran from the prime minister (which one is he again?);…  Seguir leyendo »

An Israeli soldier stands guard during a demonstration by Palestinian and Israeli peace activists against settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank on July 27. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP via Getty Images)

When I read the headline about the Israeli Supreme Court’s latest decision on West Bank settlement, I was angry — at the court and at myself. The anger at the court was straightforward. A 4-3 majority allowed a settlement to stay on land privately owned by Palestinians, thereby giving judicial approval to theft.

As for being vexed with myself, I realized I had been holding onto a shard of hope that it was possible to fight the settlement enterprise, the core of the occupation, by bringing evidence and reasoning to the nation’s highest court. I’d been naive.

I learned this hope — I’ll say in my defense — from history, and from activists and commentators I respect.…  Seguir leyendo »

Oops, the Israeli government fell. It just slipped out of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s hands and broke apart.

For just over a year, an abnormal, unexpected normalcy pervaded Israeli politics. After last year’s election, a government was actually formed. It passed a budget. The prime minister did not constantly attack the media or try to control it. He was not under criminal investigation or indictment. He did not trumpet his relations with a Republican leader in the United States or fight publicly with the Democratic president.

This is the way things are supposed to work, and often did in the past.…  Seguir leyendo »

The reason intelligence agencies keep getting it wrong

Intelligence agencies have a poor record of crucial predictions lately, at least of those that have become public knowledge.

Until the last minute, the grimmest forecasts of U.S. intelligence agencies last summer said Afghanistan’s government could hold out against the Taliban for three to six months after American forces left. No one expected near-instant collapse.

Then, in mid-February this year, “U.S. officials” — in the usual anonymous style — expected Russia to take Kyiv in several days and all of Ukraine in about a week. Russia’s own strategy assumed no resistance, believing Ukrainians would greet the invaders with flowers as liberators.…  Seguir leyendo »

More than a week after Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow in a bid to end Russia’s war against Ukraine, only this much can be known for sure: Bennett had some reason to believe that he had enough chance of success that waiting — even till that evening — might cost lives.

We know this because he flew on Saturday. Bennett is an Orthodox Jew, for whom the one justification for traveling on the Sabbath is possibly saving human life. With him as his interpreter was Kharkhiv-born Housing Minister Zeev Elkin, also Orthodox. I have many doubts about both men, but I’m certain they wouldn’t have flown on Shabbat without that hope.…  Seguir leyendo »

A man stands with an Israeli flag before another person, holding up a Palestinian flag, in East Jerusalem on Feb. 25. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

If all the plans for how Israelis and Palestinians can peacefully divide or share their homeland were printed and shelved, they could overflow the vast Library of Alexandria. And yet, the latest one deserves attention, and not just for what it states explicitly.

While the world is watching the war in Ukraine, it’s worth remembering those persistently working to make peace elsewhere. The Holy Land Confederation plan comes from Hiba Husseini, former legal adviser to Palestinian negotiators; Yossi Beilin, one of the Israeli architects of the Oslo process; and a team of other Palestinian and Israeli experts.

The key word in the title is “confederation.”…  Seguir leyendo »

Naftali Bennett, Israel's prime minister, speaks at the United Nations General Assembly via live stream on Sept. 27. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

Naftali Bennett is boring. A hundred days and a bit more into his term, this is the Israeli prime minister’s most attractive quality — and also his most dangerous.

Watch his recent speech to the U.N. General Assembly, for as long as you can stay awake. He showed he can speak fluent American as well as Israel’s former guy, Benjamin Netanyahu. Attempting informality, Bennett tossed in the occasional Netanyahu-esque “my friends”. Like his predecessor, he devoted a large chunk of his time to Iran. He did not, however, hold up visual aids such as a cartoon of a bomb.

Bennett’s delivery was plodding.…  Seguir leyendo »

Workers unload a batch of 700,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine sent by Israel, part of a vaccine swap between the two countries with Seoul to return the same number in coming months, at Incheon International Airport on July 7. (-/AFP/Getty Images)

The photo showed a chartered Israeli airplane on a South Korean runway and the freight it had just brought from the far end of Asia: crates containing 700,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine against coronavirus. South Korea, facing a new surge of cases, needed more vaccines quickly. It will pay Israel back with the same number of doses, which it’s due to receive from Pfizer in the fall. Israel expects to need more by then — possibly to give third shots as boosters.

Think of this as a no interest loan, denominated in small, lifesaving vials. The cooperation in fighting the pandemic is reason to celebrate.…  Seguir leyendo »

This picture taken from Sderot in southern Israel, shows rockets fired from Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system, on Thursday. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

We could go on forever this way, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cheering squad wanted us to think. The intifada was long past. We were secure.

We were supposed to believe Gaza could suffer quietly under blockade. The conflict, if not over, was under control. We would make peace with far-off oil kingdoms, without giving anything up or seeing the people living next to us.

The police could crush protests angrily, as if protesting were primarily a rude insult to the police themselves. They could neglect the daily violence of despair in Arab towns in Israel, and yet turn violent at protests against their neglect.…  Seguir leyendo »

A man walks past an election campaign billboard of the Blue and White party, the opposition party led by Benny Gantz, shown at right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, of the Likud party, in Tel Aviv on March 11. (Oded Balilty/AP)

Two pivotal events are scheduled to take place in Jerusalem next Monday. At the Jerusalem District Court, prosecutors will at last begin presenting evidence in the corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, across town, President Reuven Rivlin will start meeting representatives of Israel’s political parties to hear who they want to lead Israel’s next coalition and government — Netanyahu or one of his challengers — in the wake of last week’s general election.

That the two events are happening at the same time is an accident, but one laden with meaning. It sharpens the question of whether the era of Netanyahu is finally over.…  Seguir leyendo »