In Netanyahu’s Israel, concern for a democracy pushed to its limits

Ronen Zvulun/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem June 2.

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Dan Meridor, a former justice minister who once worked closely with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is among those warning of a threat to Israel’s democracy.

Mr. Netanyahu, who has three corruption cases pending against him, was attempting to gain immunity from prosecution while in office and also give lawmakers power to override the Israeli Supreme Court. His 11th-hour maneuvers raised alarm bells among many in Israel – from the left and right – who saw in them an attempt to override democracy itself.

Why We Wrote This

Are elected leaders above the law? How crucial is an independent judiciary? These questions, which resonate in any democracy, are at the center of many Israelis’ concerns over Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to stay in power.

The so-called immunity bill he sought is now on ice because the Knesset, led by Mr. Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, voted to dissolve and head to new elections rather than give opposition parties an opportunity to form a government – an audacious move without precedent in Israeli history.

These developments have many in Israel worrying it is headed toward a diminished form of democracy. Pointedly, Israeli observers see what is happening here as very much part of the broader backlash against the post-World War II norms of liberal democracies around the globe.

“The courts by definition have a role in democracy,” says Mr. Meridor. “Limitless government is not democratic.”

Israeli lawmaker Ayman Odeh, an Arab citizen, looked out from the podium of Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem and tried to keep a straight face as he made an “announcement.”

“Seven minutes ago,” he said, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to me, and he said he is willing to withdraw from the occupied territories and also to cancel the nation-state law, and that he supports not only civil equality but also national equality, and that he's willing to recognize the Nakba and fix the historical wrong – in return for the immunity law.”

Almost instantly it was recognized as a spoof, offering one of the only moments of comic relief on a night of political crisis as Mr. Netanyahu scrambled last Wednesday in a failed bid to meet the deadline for forming a new coalition government.

Why We Wrote This

Are elected leaders above the law? How crucial is an independent judiciary? These questions, which resonate in any democracy, are at the center of many Israelis’ concerns over Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to stay in power.

Bursts of laughter filled the Knesset floor at the laundry list of purportedly and improbably redressed Palestinian political grievances. But the joke offered sad commentary on the state of democracy in Israel.

The immunity law Mr. Odeh was referring to was a bid by Mr. Netanyahu, who has three corruption cases pending against him, to ensure support for a bill that would grant him immunity from prosecution while in office.

Mr. Netanyahu denies the charges and says the cases were manufactured by those bent on ousting him from power. But to secure that immunity he also had been working to curb the powers of the Israeli judiciary, pushing for yet another law that would give lawmakers the authority to uphold laws the Israeli Supreme Court strikes down.

Mr. Netanyahu’s 11th-hour maneuvers raised alarm bells among many in Israel – from the left and right – who saw in them an attempt to override democracy itself.

But in the speed-of-light pace that drives Israeli politics, the so-called immunity bill is now on ice because the Knesset, led by Mr. Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, voted to dissolve and head to new elections rather than cede the opportunity to the opposition parties who were next in line to try to form a government. The audacious move, without precedent in Israeli history, came just seven weeks after the most recent elections were held.

Combined with trends over the last decade, these developments have many in Israel worrying it is headed toward a diminished form of democracy – one that enables a longtime leader like Mr. Netanyahu to create something of a cult of personality, solidify power, limit the rights of the Arab minority, and crack down on dissent.

Pointedly, Israeli observers see what is happening here as very much part of the broader backlash against the post-World War II norms of liberal democracies around the world.

Likud ‘Old Guard’ strikes back

Dan Meridor, a former justice minister who once worked closely with Mr. Netanyahu, is among a handful of veteran Likud members who are warning of a threat to Israel’s democracy.

Historically, the Likud party advocated strongly for the rights of the political minority, drawing on its founding movement in early 20th-century Europe, where Jews advocated for themselves as national minorities. Informed by that ethos, Likud founder Menachem Begin, a longtime opposition leader before becoming prime minister, continued to advocate for a strong judiciary.

Mr. Meridor, whose father was also a lawmaker and was close with Mr. Begin, points out that the party was established with the name Likud-National Liberal Movement because liberal democracy and Jewish nationalism were its twin causes.

“These two values are why Likud was what it was – not extreme right nor extreme left – and why a main defender of the Supreme Court, Begin, wanted the right of judicial review of the Knesset,” says Mr. Meridor.

“As a Jew I can say we have been part of a minority for 2,000 years in the Diaspora,” he says. “When you are a minority it is very simple to be for human rights, but the real test is when you are a majority. There is a moral test that is basic to my idea to what Zionism is all about – not (the notion) that we are a majority and who cares about the rest?”

This shift in conceptions of democracy, he posits, is connected to modern technology that allows leaders to send inciting messages directly to the people: “You speak directly, tweet simple, negative, strongly emotional signals, and you win elections. But can you run a country? I am not sure.”

Mr. Meridor rejects accusations from Mr. Netanyahu and others on the right that the judiciary is the enemy of the people, noting that “attacks on the (judicial) system and the values of the system is part of what we see in the world today.”

“It’s totally baseless and the opposite of truth. The courts by definition have a role in democracy,” even when people don’t agree with their rulings, the former justice minister says. “Limitless government is not democratic,” he warns.

According to Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, the judiciary has increasingly become a target of two key interest groups: Jewish settlers and the ultra-Orthodox. The settlers see the courts as restraining their expansion in the West Bank, and the ultra-Orthodox fear the courts’ power to enforce equality for women.

Despite what Mr. Plessner calls “anti-judiciary” propaganda, however, he says surveys show 60% of Israelis trust the Supreme Court and don’t want it undermined, compared with 15% of the public who say they trust politicians more.

Annexation connection?

Most commentary in Israel around the erosion of Israeli democracy tends to focus on Mr. Netanyahu’s real-time political maneuvers. But Dahlia Scheindlin, an analyst and pollster, argues in a report for The Century Foundation, a progressive New York-based think tank, that the assault on democratic values should be viewed with a broader lens: as part of government designs on the annexation of at least portions of the West Bank.

“What has not been made clear enough is that it is fundamentally linked to annexation, laying the groundwork for one-state,” says Ms. Scheindlin.

“For a decade, the Israeli government has targeted and intimidated civil society, passed legislation to discriminate against minorities, and targeted the tools used for protest or protection – the media, the judiciary – while relentlessly redefining democracy in public rhetoric as unconstrained majority rule,” she writes in the report. “Israel’s slide into illiberal democracy can only be understood as part of an attempt to go beyond military or physical control and establish a political and legal foundation for permanent annexation of both land and people.”

Israel’s right-wing, Scheindlin argues, has been trying to redefine democracy in order to do this. And central to that plan has been, she says, “making the argument that Israel has been captured by the dictatorship of the judiciary and that is a minority oppressing the true voice of the people and that these unelected jurists are forcing values on an oppressed majority.”

An Arab-Jewish alliance

For decades, Israel’s advocates have described it as the most vibrant democracy in the Middle East. But in the run-up to April elections, Mr. Netanyahu made a comment directly at odds with that notion. Israel, he said, was not the state of all its citizens, but rather “only of the Jewish people.”

When his maneuvers around immunity and constraining the judiciary were at their peak, almost 100,000 Israelis flooded a Tel Aviv park to rally in “defense of democracy.” Protesters wore Turkish fez hats to symbolize that they did not want to go the way of their increasingly autocratic neighbor to the north.

Signs read: “Bibi (Netanyahu) you are not a King, This is a Democracy.”

But the speaker who drew the most applause was Mr. Odeh, the Arab lawmaker whose sarcastic comments about Mr. Netanyahu’s “offer” went viral here. He called for an Arab-Jewish alliance to save Israeli democracy. Historically, Arab parties have never been included in a government coalition, but a vocal minority is now calling for that to change.

Sigal, a protester who wanted to be identified only by her first name, surveyed the crowd, saying, “I am not the only one who is worried. This is beyond politics.”

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