By Boaz Atzili
Democracy is not just about holding elections. It is a set of institutions, ideas and practices that allow citizens a continuous, decisive voice in shaping their government and its policies.
The new Israeli government, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu and sworn in on Dec. 29, 2022, is a coalition of the most extreme right-wing and religious parties in the history of the state. This government presents a major threat to Israeli democracy, and it does so on multiple fronts.
Here are the four ways that Israel’s democratic institutions, customs and practices are endangered by the new government, based on policies and legislation that might be enacted or that are already in process.
1. Hostility to freedom of speech and dissent
Prime Minister Netanyahu has been working for years to consolidate his grip on Israeli media. The new government plans to accelerate the privatization of media in the hands of friendly interests and brand as anti-Israeli and treasonous media outlets its leaders deem hostile. The signs of this delegitimization are already here.
Even before the newly appointed minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, took office, the police briefly arrested and interrogated journalist Israel Frey after he posted a controversial tweet hinting that the Israeli military may be a legitimate target of Palestinian attacks. The police claimed the tweet incited terrorism, and the arrest showed journalists who favor an open and free press that they might face retaliation.
Ben-Gvir, the head of the Jewish Power party and now overseer of the police, was convicted in the past for supporting Jewish terrorism and for racist incitement against Israel’s Arab minority. In his inauguration speech on Jan. 1, the new minister branded “Jewish anarchists” – a code he often uses for leftists and human rights organizations – as threats that “needed to be dealt with.”
2. Diminishing equal rights
The Netanyahu government appears poised to allow discrimination against the LGBTQ community and women, thus undermining equality before the law, an important democratic principle.
Incoming National Missions Minister Orit Strock said in an interview in late December, “If a doctor is asked to give any type of treatment to someone that violates his religious faith, if there is another doctor who can do it, then you can’t force them to provide treatment.”
Netanyahu condemned Strock and other coalition members who stated that gay people could be denied service by businesses if serving them contradicts the business owner’s religious beliefs. Yet, journalists report that Likud and other coalition partners agreed in writing to amend the law against discrimination to allow exactly such a policy.
During early coalition negotiations, ultra-Orthodox parties demanded new legislation that would allow gender-based segregation in public spaces and events. Netanyahu has reportedly agreed, which means these laws are expected to pass the Knesset. Segregation in educational spheres, public transportation and public events is often translated into exclusion of women and weakening of women’s voices, and hence contradicts basic democratic principles such as freedom and equality.
3. West Bank annexation and apartheid
The new government’s intention to de facto annex the West Bank will turn hollow Israel’s claims of being the only democracy in the Middle East.
In a Dec. 28 tweet, Netanyahu announced that his government’s guidelines will include the principle that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel,” including the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967 and populated by a Palestinian majority.
These guidelines, combined with new nominations of far right politician Bezalel Smotrich as the minister responsible for Jewish settlements and Ben-Gvir as the minister in charge of the border police, could provide justification for annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories.
Based on much of the rhetoric of right-wing leaders such as Smotrich, Palestinian residents of these lands will have neither equal rights nor voting rights. This means apartheid, not democracy.
4. Erasing the separation of powers
In the Israeli system, the executive and legislative branches are always controlled by the same coalition. The courts are the only institution that can check the power of the ruling parties and uphold the country’s Basic Laws, which provide rights in the absence of a formal constitution.
But the new government wants to erase this separation of power and explicitly aims at weakening the courts. On Jan. 4, after less than a week in his role, new Minister of Justice Yariv Levin announced the government’s plan for a radical judicial reform, which will include the “override clause.” That clause will allow a simple majority in the Knesset to re-enact any law struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
This would, in effect, remove all barriers placed upon the power of the majority. The coalition could legislate policies that are not only unconstitutional, but which clearly contradict ideas of human rights and equality that are enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
The government’s plan also includes reforms that would allow the coalition to control nomination of judges. In a small country that does not have a strong constitution and in which there is no separation of power between the executive and legislature, this move, again, would weaken the authority of the court and make judges beholden to politicians.
These so-called reforms “threaten to destroy the entire constitutional structure of the State of Israel,” said Yair Lapid, head of the opposition and former prime minister.
The danger of Netanyahu’s woes
All of these threats to Israeli democracy are more likely to materialize because of Netanyahu’s current personal problems.
Netanyahu is an experienced politician who in the past managed to quell the most extreme elements of his coalition partners, and his own Likud party, by paying them lip service while being more cautious on actual policies.
Many analysts do not believe this time will be the same.
The prime minister is facing corruption and fraud trials in three separate cases and is focused on protecting himself through whatever legislative and executive power he can muster. Netanyahu is beholden to his coalition for this task, which makes him vulnerable to their ultra-Orthodox agenda and demands for laws to perpetuate Jewish supremacy.
Any one of these changes present a serious democratic erosion. Together, they pose a clear danger to the existence of Israeli democracy.
Israel will continue to have elections in the future, but it’s an open question whether these will still be free and fair. With no judicial oversight, with constant disregard of human rights, with annexation of Palestinian lands and the disenfranchising of their people, and with a media that normalizes all of these processes, the answer is probably no.
As in Turkey, Hungary or even Russia, Israel could become a democracy in form only, devoid of all the ideas and institutions that underpin a government that is actually of the people and by the people.
Boaz Atzili is Associate Professor of International Relations at American University School of International Service.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
It’s ironic how the same people who are most responsible for the obstructionist failures and resulting fall of the Israel’s recently defeated Left-leaning coalition government are now the same ones weeping and wailing about Netanyahu’s return to power and Israel’s turn to the Right.
It’s almost as hypocritical as the way “Anti-Zionist” forces blame Israel for the lack of a two-state solution when it is the Palestinians–not Israel–who have rejected all the two state offers laid at the feet of the Palestinians since 1948. That includes the one made to them in 2000 at the Camp David/Taba summit that would have given them 95% of the “occupied” territories, control over parts of Jerusalem and millions of $$$ in reparations for “Palestinian refugees” who are, at best, barely distant relations to the orginal Arabs residing in the region who rejected their first and best statehood offer in favor of leaving their homes voluntarily and waging a “Great War Against the Jews” which they lost.
By the way, when the Israelis turned control of the Gaza Strip over to the Palestinians in the mid 2000’s, the Conservative Likud was in power. The Palestinians responded to that gigantic Olive Branch the same way they do to all concessions made to them by Israel–with incremental increases in threats, rocket fire and terror.
Israel is responsible for the policies and conduct of its governments but–SURPRISE–so are the Palestinians. Neither party is excused from accountability–not even in the fantastical (and all too biased) realm of pseudo-politics.
Netanyahu is channeling Kevin McCarthy!
Deborah Coffey says
Long past time to cut Israel loose. But, can we get all the weapons back that we gave them?
The majority of the asistance we give to Israel is contingent upon their using American companies to development advanced technologies and intelligence that they then share with us–to our MUTUAL benefit. The Israelis develop plenty of defnenive technologies that we then borrow from THEM–like the Iron Dome system. By comparison, the US asks for little or nothing in return for all the money we squander in other nations we render aid to throughout the world–especially in mjaority Muslim regions like the Palesitnian territories–which continues to use American aid $$$ to fund their terorrist stipend programs and underground terror tunnel building. Also, Israle has never asjed for, nor have they ever received, American boots on the gorund support in any of the wars they have been forced to fight for their cintinued existence. That is in contrast to the unfortunate amount of American blood that has been spilled in other parts of The Middle East and in other parts of the world.
Israel lends its support to us as an unofficial base of for American operations in The Middle East as well as being the only reliable ally we have in a part of the world that is nearly (if not sometimes fully) as hostile to America as it is to one sole sole majority Jewish nation on earth. Israel is also the only functioning democracy in that part of the globe.
The United States and other global democracies would not be any better off if Israel bit the dust and/or was subsumed by the Pakestinians or other Arab forces and their Russian and Cunese supporters. Quite the opposite would be true.
Pierre Tristam says
Deborah, ASF’s fabulism on Israel has no bounds. You’re better off sticking to evidence, like this CRS report on the–what is it now, $146 billion in US aid to our 51st state since 1946? not inflation adjusted, of course. If it were, well, you can imagine what that number would be. The figures don’t include such fiascos as loan guarantees and other indirect aid you and I have been paying for all these years. But the fabulism–and the use of U.S. dollars and weaponry to occupy, terrorize and massacre Palestinians–will of course continue. Oh, the joys of untouchables.
Well then, Pierre, why don’t you tell us how much of the ever-increasing amounts of aid that we give to Majority Muslim countries is conditioned upon anything at all, the way that our aid to Israel is conditioned upon their spending most of what we give to them on utilizing American companies to develop technologies and other productst that they then share with us?
For example, have the Palestinians complied with American demands that they stop using US aid dollars to pay terrorrist stipends? As I recall, the problem got so bad, Congress passed The Taylor Force Act. But we continue to give them money and that money continues to be used to finance those terrorist Stipend programs, do they not? Did Abbas not defiantly refuse to stop the practice and do we not keep supplying them with $$$ anyway?
Not offering “fabulism” there–I am asking you to respond to specific questions with facts of your own. That’s a fair request and would make an interesting exchange, I think.
Dividing Americans and pitting one against another isn’t enough for you now you have to divide Israelis?
You give us too much credit. Israelis don’t need help getting divided anymore than Americans do. They need information.
It seems to me that many need information that is a lot more accurate than that offered above. The threats that Israel and its people experience 24/7 from the Palestinians and their supporters is more considerable than those of us sitting in the “cheap seats” can imagine.
The truth is, “The Palestinian Cause” is too often pseudo-politically “window-dressed” as being more about “Human Rights” violations by outsiders than it is about being the result of the Palestinians’ own poor governance and decision making–as well as the Palestinians’ continuing to prioritize their Jew hatred and their own apartheid ambtions above everything else.
Too often, people have liked to characterize Palestinian terrorism and obstructionist behavior as being “heroic resistance” that is the understandble and inevitable result of Israel’s actions–even when in cases Israel’s actions are a defensive response to provocative Arab threats and violence. The bar for the Israelis, however, is much different. After being pushed into a “you are darned if you do and dead if you don’t” corner, Israel seemingly cannot be forgiven for taking a turn to the Right–even by countries like ours’ which have been known to very recently have taken some pretty hard turns to the Right with notably debatable results.. And nobody could ever characterize the Palestinian governments as being Liberal, tolerant, open-minded or peace-seeking in any way.
Prejudice is never pretty and depends on hypocrisy to thrive. We should all take care to avoid both.