Tuesday, 28 March 2023 15:20

Netanyahu finally went too far

A scene from a protest in Tel Aviv on Monday.

Throughout the day on Monday, Israel was consumed by protest.

Massive crowds gathered outside the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, and in the streets of its major cities. The economy ground to a halt amid a general strike; everything from airports to Israeli embassies abroad to the country’s 226 McDonald’s franchises shut down. It is the largest protest movement in the entirety of Israeli history, one that has been taking to the streets for the past several months but reached new heights after Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday.

The aim was to stop what Gallant and many other Israelis saw as a mortal threat to its democracy: a judicial overhaul bill that would wreck the country’s separation of powers and allow incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to impose its will on the country with little opposition.

Later in the day, there came signs that the upheaval had an impact: Netanyahu officially announced that he would delay the judicial overhaul until the next legislative session, calling for a “timeout” that could “give a real opportunity for real dialogue.”

How to think about this extraordinary series of events? Is this a sign of Israeli democracy’s strength — or its weakness?

The answer to that question is that it’s both.

Netanyahu’s judicial bill was indeed an existential threat to Israeli democracy. That the country’s people mobilized in extraordinary numbers to block it is a sign of deep support for democracy inside the Israeli population, and a willingness to fight to preserve it.

But at the same time, the fact that they needed to do this at all shows that Israeli democracy truly has been brought to the brink — and that defeat of the judicial overhaul is not the end of the fight.

Netanyahu convinced his extremist minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, to stay on his side and agree to the delay — and it is just a delay, about a month — on a dangerous condition: that the government pass a bill that would create a National Guard under his command. Putting a new paramilitary unit under the control of a convicted terrorist supporter who used to hang a picture of a mass murderer in his home is not exactly a sign that Israel is out of the authoritarian woods.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu remains in office while facing corruption charges and has shown a willingness to bend the state’s institutions to his will to stay in power.

Israeli democracy is ailing, but the events of these last few weeks suggest it’s at least capable of fighting for its life. Think about the situation a bit like an infection and the protests as the democratic polity’s immune response. When you get sick, your body temperature spikes in order to create a less hospitable atmosphere for the disease. A fever is a sign that your immune system is working as intended.

The general strike and protests are Israeli democracy’s fever, but just because a fever spikes doesn’t mean the illness goes away. It’s now clear that Israeli democracy still has a robust immune system; the question is whether it’s strong enough to defeat a very deeply rooted infection — one that goes well beyond this single bill.

Democratic antibodies, in Israel and abroad

Israel is not the only democracy facing a serious challenge from within.

In the past several decades, there has been a striking rise in authoritarian political movements winning power in democratic societies. Countries as diverse as the United States, Hungary, Brazil, India, the Philippines, Turkey, El Salvador, and Israel have all elected leaders with authoritarian tendencies — and all of them have, once in office, worked to change the system to undermine the country’s democratic system.

Unlike classic fascists, this new breed of right-wing authoritarian argued that they were the true defenders of democracy and that it was their opponents who were its enemies. Legislation putting the electoral system under their control is framed as an effort to fight voter fraud; attempts to bring the independent judiciary to heel are described as a blow to liberal legal authoritarianism.

This innovation came in response to political context where most people in these countries, per polling, still broadly support the idea of democratic politics. Majorities might be illiberal, in the sense of being willing to restrict the rights of racial and religious minorities, but still wanted to be able to vote for who ruled them.

Pursuing an authoritarian agenda in such a contest requires a tricky balancing act: concentrating power in your hands without the public coming to see you as an authoritarian. In the new authoritarianism’s most successful case, Hungary, the changes to the legal system were often so veiled in technicality that most people were entirely in the dark about what was happening — until it was too late.

But when authoritarians go too far, they can galvanize a democratic immune response. Think about the 2022 US elections, where swing state candidates for governor and state secretary of state who supported Trump’s election lies about 2020 lost. There is real evidence that these candidates suffered at the ballot box because voters didn’t trust them to administer elections fairly.

Crisis Over Judicial Overhaul Reaches Fever Pitch
A protest in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023.

What’s happening in Israel right now is much the same thing, on a much bigger scale. Previous Netanyahu-led governments have pursued bills weakening Israeli democracy, including attacks on critics of the military and an amendment to the Basic Law (the Israeli equivalent of a constitutional amendment) that functionally slotted non-Jews into a kind of symbolic second-class citizenship. These bills have faced public resistance but never the kind of mass uprising that we’ve seen in the past several months.

That’s because the proposed changes to Israel’s constitutional system were so sweeping — including allowing a bare majority in the Knesset to overturn supreme court rulings — that few credible observers could see it as anything less than Netanyahu centralizing power in his own hands.

The proposals would make Israel “an extreme outlier from a comparative [international] perspective,” Gur Bligh, the legal adviser to the Knesset Judiciary Committee, wrote in an analysis of the bill. “The arrangement would severely damage the principle of separation of powers ... which is a core element of a democratic system.”

Netanyahu, in other words, made the same mistake as the Big Lie’s champions in 2022: He was too brazen. The result is a massive uprising that could threaten his hold on power.

The crisis of Israeli democracy is far from over

I’ve been to Israel many times, covering its domestic politics and conflict with the Palestinians. After one of these trips, in 2019, I warned that Israel would soon be heading down the same road already trod by Hungary — a prediction that the judicial overhaul bill has sadly vindicated.

There are many reasons the Israeli far right has tried to bring the courts to heel in such dramatic fashion today, including Netanyahu’s indictment on corruption charges. But the underlying structural factors that have rendered Israel vulnerable to such authoritarian politics — that Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir could win power in the first place — are deep and long-running.

Fundamentally, Israel is riven by a series of dangerous dichotomies.

It has always seen itself as a Jewish and democratic state, but what happens when those two objectives are in tension — when privileging the state’s Jewish identity means weakening the civil rights of Arabs and more secular Jews?

Similarly, Israel operates as a democracy for people living inside its international borders but operates an authoritarian military regime in the West Bank. How long can a nominally democratic system operate side by side, very literally, with an authoritarian one administered by the same state?

Israeli soldiers stand guard near the site of a shooting...
Israeli soldiers stand guard near the site of a shooting attack on a Jewish settler’s car in the town of Hawara, south of Nablus, on March 19.

The judicial takeover is motivated in large part by an effort to resolve these tensions in an authoritarian direction. The ultra-Orthodox right has long seen the court system as a bastion of secularism, a principal obstacle in their effort to impose religiously inspired rules on Israeli government and society. The national-religious right, which aims to keep the West Bank forever, sees the judiciary as the last barrier standing in the way of ensuring permanent Israeli control over Palestinian land.

The protest movement against the judicial overhaul does not have a unified position on these issues. While its bastion is the secular left-leaning community in Tel Aviv, Israel’s cultural capital, it has drawn citizens from all walks of life who stand united on the question of democracy — but may have very different opinions on synagogue-state issues or the Palestinians.

Even if this judicial overhaul proposal is defeated and that very much remains an if these tensions will not be resolved. They will continue pushing powerful and influential segments of Israeli society to attack democratic rights and principles because those rights and principles stand in the way of their vision for what Israel should look like. And the rest of the country is deeply divided about what the alternative vision should be.

Netanyahu had exploited those fissures for years, but it seems he’s gone too far, too quickly. The response from Israelis has been a resounding rejection of his authoritarianism.

But the infection that threatens the country, however, remains uncured — and may test the country’s democratic immune system again soon. And the next flare-up may yield a different result.