Israeli Democracy on the Brink

Netanyahu’s blatant power grab
Israelis walk in front of a picture of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2021 (CNS photo/Corinna Kern, Reuters).

Another week, another raid by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in the West Bank. The most recent took place in late February in the city of Nablus and lasted four hours. The battle left at least ten Palestinians dead (four were allegedly noncombatants, with video footage confirming that at least two unarmed Palestinians were gunned down while fleeing) and more than one hundred wounded. Much of the blame for the past year’s unprecedented uptick in violence—Palestinian deaths are at their highest levels in nearly two decades—belongs to the IDF’s “Breaking the Wave” operation, which has been carrying out near-daily actions since March 2022. Israel claims these raids are designed to neutralize terrorists and squelch armed Palestinian opposition, which has already taken the lives of eleven Israelis since the start of this year. Factor in the increase of violence committed by Israeli settlers and the growing despair felt by angry young Palestinians in the West Bank, and further mayhem is all but assured. Some analysts, including CIA Director William J. Burns, have predicted a large-scale uprising on par with the intifada of the early 2000s.

Making the situation even more volatile is the political crisis unfolding in Jerusalem. For weeks, massive demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of mostly centrist Israelis have been taking place throughout the country in response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to “reform” the Israeli judiciary. The proposed changes, already approved by a preliminary vote in the Knesset, would effectively eliminate judicial review in Israel: parliament would be able to veto Supreme Court decisions by simple majority vote and appoint judges directly, bypassing the independent judiciary council. The proposals also modify Israel’s Basic Laws, weakening LGBT protections, making it harder for foreign Jews to obtain Israeli citizenship, and conveniently shielding Netanyahu, who is under indictment for corruption and other charges, from prosecution.

The fact that so few Arab Israelis are protesting the Netanyahu government’s “reforms” is telling: for them, Israel has never been a real democracy.

Alarm at this blatant power grab has prompted comparisons to democratic backsliding in countries like Poland and Hungary. Israeli President Chaim Herzog, vested with symbolic authority but no actual power, used a prime-time address to declare Israel a “powder keg about to explode,” claiming that the country is “on the brink of a social and constitutional collapse.” Governor of the Bank of Israel Amir Yaron has warned that foreign investments, especially in Israel’s booming tech sector, could soon decline. Even the United States, Israel’s staunchest ally, has begun issuing subtle rebukes: President Biden recently noted the “strong institutions, checks and balances, and independent judiciary” that sustain both American and Israeli democracy, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has urged Netanyahu to “build consensus” before implementing any dramatic changes.

It is often argued that Israel’s claim to American support has historically rested less on shared political interests than on shared democratic values. Certainly, Israel presents itself as the sole democracy in a sea of autocratic regimes. But in reality, it is a strange kind of democracy—one without clearly defined borders recognized by the international community, and one that groups its citizens into two tiers according to their ethnicity, with foreign-born Jews enjoying more rights and privileges than Arab Israelis who grew up in Israel and whose families have lived and worked there for generations (and who account for about 20 percent of Israel’s population). Writing in the New York Times, Peter Beinart argues that the liberal Zionist vision of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” is “in reality a contradiction”: “Democracy means government by the people. Jewish statehood means government by Jews. In a country where Jews comprise only half of the people between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the second imperative devours the first.” The fact that so few Arab Israelis are protesting the Netanyahu government’s “reforms” is telling: for them and for their occupied brethren in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel has never been a real democracy.

Two years ago, we argued in these pages that Israel too often gets a “blank check” from the United States: “Every year the United States gives Israel almost $4 billion in aid with no strings attached, despite the illegal settlements in the West Bank, the inhuman blockade of Gaza, and the ongoing expulsion of Palestinians from East Jerusalem.” Since last November, it’s gotten much worse. Netanyahu’s power-sharing arrangement with right-wing extremists, including Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich and Jewish Power’s Itamar Ben-Gvir, has led to an acceleration of both illegal evictions of Arab Israelis in East Jerusalem and new settlement construction in the West Bank.

The U.S. government still holds considerable leverage over Israel, which it has mostly declined to use. That must change. American support for Israel should be contingent not only on Israel’s preservation of democratic institutions like an independent judiciary, but also on its commitment to ending the construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank and to protecting the human rights of Palestinians. Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed legislation that would make Israel accountable in this way. We shouldn’t let past American accession to Israeli demands—like the Trump administration’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem—prevent us from recognizing that Israel is now well on its way to becoming a right-wing ethnocracy. If the United States cares as much about promoting democracy as we say we do, then we need to show Netanyahu and the other dubious characters in his coalition that our support cannot be taken for granted.

—February 23

 

Published in the March 2023 issue: 
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