By Mel Gurtov
Israel has always been touted as America’s most reliable friend in the Middle East, a bastion of democracy in a region dominated by autocracies. Now that picture is fraying as the far-right coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes power.
Beholden to the bloc called Religious Zionism, Netanyahu is pursuing a far-right agenda on two fronts: further chipping away at the Palestinians’ fundamental rights of citizenship and property, and pushing for so-called judicial reform. Let’s look more closely at the latter issue, the most dangerous threat today to Israel as a democracy.
Arguing that Israel’s Supreme Court is “the most activist court on the planet,” Netanyahu is targeting the judiciary in a way that promises an end to Israel’s democratic experiment, not to mention dismissing plausible charges against him of corruption that are before the high court. His agenda would essentially put the Supreme Court at the mercy of the executive branch.
While Netanyahu argues that the reforms would mean more “balance” between the prime minister, the Knesset (parliament), and the courts, in fact they would remove most checks on Netanyahu’s power. This is because a bare majority of the Knesset — 61 out of 120 seats, which Netanyahu’s coalition has — would be able to override any Supreme Court decision and thereby legislate whatever the far right wants without fear of judicial oversight.
That essential check on the prime minister’s power would be eliminated because Netanyahu would be able to appoint justices and judicial watchdogs—appointments that have traditionally been made by independent bodies.
This descent into authoritarianism has contributed to a new round of violence in the West Bank between Israeli settlers and Palestinians. It’s the usual story: a killing by one group is used to justify a killing by the other.
This latest cycle has led to a vigilante-style “pogrom,” as some are calling it, by settlers, who torched a Palestinian town as revenge for the shooting of two Israelis, which was in revenge for . . . and so on. I have to think that this escalation of violence is linked to the widespread despair among Palestinians and Israelis alike over Netanyahu’s embrace of absolutism.
Isaac Herzog, Israel’s president—a largely ceremonial post, but one that does carry moral weight—issued a grave warning January 24. He declared:
“The democratic foundations of Israel, including the justice system, and human rights and freedoms, are sacred, and we must protect them and the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence. The dramatic [judicial] reform, when done quickly without negotiation, rouses opposition and deep concerns among the public.”
He added, “The absence of dialogue is tearing us apart from within, and I’m telling you loud and clear: This powder keg is about to explode. This is an emergency.” Herzog is conferring with all sides, desperately seeking a pause in submission of legislation to the Knesset.
Indeed, it is an emergency. In a biting op-ed in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman quotes Netanyahu’s former attorney general, the man who brought charges of fraud and bribery against Netanyahu, as saying: “If there is no independent judiciary, it’s over. It’s a different system of government.” The ruler will “have prosecutors of his own, legal counsels of his own, judges of his own. And if these people have personal loyalty to him, there is no supremacy of the law. This is a sinkhole. We’ll all be swallowed up by this.”
Ehud Barak, the former prime minister, and army chief of staff, has warned of a “constitutional crisis.” He urged a response in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King—nonviolent protest, a “duty” when government “breaks the rules of the game and stands contrary to the country’s own fundamental norms and value system.”
The far-right’s false reform effort amounts to a coup, and about 60 percent of the Israeli public has come to that conclusion. So have former leaders of Mossad, the military, and business.
Massive rallies against the proposed changes have already occurred as the legislation makes its way through the Knesset. This is a big deal: Israel’s position as a democracy in the midst of Middle East autocracies will be gravely undermined, and once again US ties to Israel—already plagued by Israeli repression of the Palestinians over many decades—will be tested.
Friedman asked President Biden for a comment on the coming judicial changes in Israel and got this response:
“The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary. Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”
Very diplomatic intervention, but hardly a stirring cry for resistance. No US administration has ever gone beyond verbal chastisement of Israel for violations of human rights or undemocratic practices.
As of today, the Israeli opposition is fighting an uphill battle, as the ruling coalition is determined to steamroller the judicial legislation through parliament. The Labor Party leader expressed the opposition’s anger, saying:
“dialogue is only possible with a complete freezing of legislation accepted by all parts of the coalition, and preserving the red lines of an independent legal system in Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis didn’t take to the streets to end up as a stamp of kosher certification for [the far right’s] principles. This is the time to escalate the protest, until democracy prevails.”
The global context for Netanyahu’s Israel is the rise of illiberal democracies elsewhere—in Erdogan’s Turkey and Orban’s Hungary, for example, and in Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Trump’s America.
These regimes, with democratic facades that hide assaults on courts, the press, and free elections, reflect aggrandizing political power at the expense of civil liberties, independent institutions, and civil society.
That is what Israelis who are taking to the streets are really fighting for. They should have not only our personal support but the support of liberals and progressives in Congress.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.