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Israel’s Democracy Has Stood the Test, but the Fight Is Far From Over

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to reporters in Tel Aviv earlier this month.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to reporters in Tel Aviv earlier this month. Credit: Moti Milrod

An old joke from the Cold War recounts the tale of an American diplomat who tried to convince his Soviet counterpart of the advantages of the Western political system. “We have freedom of expression,” the American boasted. “I can stand in front of the White House and shout that President Truman is an idiot.”

The Soviet diplomat wasn’t impressed. “It’s the same with us,” he replied. “I can stand in front of the Kremlin and shout that President Truman is an idiot.”

Maybe this story never really happened, but it contains a grain of truth: Freedom to oppose the government forms the basis of democracy. It’s the difference between democracies, where citizens may curse the ruler, and all sorts of tyrannical regimes.

A dictatorship can run a sound public administration, an effective regulatory system and even a reasonable judiciary. Even in the most totalitarian states, people can own property and get rich.

In China, for example, there are enormous investments in infrastructure and development, and no shortage of billionaires with private jets, yachts and Ferraris, but anyone who holds up a protest sign in Tiananmen Square and calls for Xi Jinping’s ouster will be in a jail cell by the end of the day. In the United States, which is incapable of managing a public health system and struggles to build airports and highways, you can say the most atrocious things about Joe Biden, finish the protest, go home and watch football.

Israeli democracy has withstood complicated tests this past year given the political crisis that prevents the forming of a stable government and the fight against the coronavirus, which imposed unprecedented restrictions on people’s freedom of movement and employment. But freedom to oppose the government, the main pillar of democracy, has been preserved despite the blows it suffered.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who was jealous of his colleagues from Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Brazil and the Philippines – would have gladly quashed the independent judicial system, preventing demonstrations against him and recruiting a political majority to answer to his whims. He has failed so far in his mission. His corruption trial continues at the Jerusalem District Court. The protests outside his residence on Balfour Street and his private home in Caesarea, and at countless intersections and bridges across Israel, continued this year and led to the downfall of his government.

A demonstration outside the Knesset at the inauguration earlier this month.Credit: Oren Ben Hakoon

No despair

Even his political partner, Benny Gantz, who defrauded his constituents and formed a government with Netanyahu, and who suffered unending bullying and humiliation, turned out to be an obstacle for some of the ruler’s plans. The High Court of Justice let the suspect Netanyahu serve as prime minister but limited the damage to civil rights that would have hid behind pretexts of curbing the pandemic.

The do-over elections have challenged political stability and governance. Israel has had no approved state budget for two years. Important decisions are made in the dead of night without proper oversight. Key appointments have been postponed. The police are used as a tool for enforcing the ruler’s desires, and turn a blind eye to his supporters’ offenses.

But the public hasn’t despaired or cowered. It saw the election as a chance to express an opinion and make a difference. The election didn’t solve the crisis or provide a political victory, because Israeli society is divided along national, religious and economic lines that proved much stronger than the crises of the moment. Netanyahu may not have won a majority, but he enjoys support from a stable minority that keeps him in power. Time after time, his rivals win a majority of the vote but fail to replace the prime minister because they fail to link up with the Arab parties and Netanyahu’s right-wing opponents.

And so Israel is left with a weakened leader who enjoys an extended term under the shadow of a criminal trial. He heads a paralyzed, crumbling government. Yet despite this grim backstory, Israel under Netanyahu vaccinated the population against the coronavirus as no other country did, signed peace agreements with four Arab states, ran a war of attrition against Iran and its supporters in Syria, and prevented the collapse of the economy and the health system.

Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben-Gvir, a member of forces that promote racists and spread homophobic and theocratic views. Credit: Emil Salman

Dangers lurk

Still, these achievements don’t promise that Israeli democracy will survive as is, because the threats against it, even if they were halted, haven’t disappeared.

First, there’s the occupation, which disappeared from the public debate thanks to the relative quiet on the Palestinian front. But the problem remains like a black hole, an elephant in the room, a giant sinkhole or whichever cliché you prefer about the millions of Palestinians without civil rights or the ability to influence the Israeli regime that dictates the conditions of their lives and whether they'll enjoy freedom of movement and employment.

The memos that Israel occasionally gets on the problem – sometimes in the form of the peace process, and recently in the form of the International Criminal Court’s probe into possible war crimes – aren’t enough to significantly change the situation. Netanyahu succeeded in disconnecting the lives of most Israelis from the Palestinians, but the moral burden of the occupation remains unchanged, as does the danger of a flare-up and violence. The coronavirus only postponed the reckoning, it didn’t cancel it.

The second danger to Israeli democracy stems from the strengthening of political and social forces that oppose the liberal state, promote racists, spread homophobic and theocratic views, and preach for the turning of the judicial system into a department of the Prime Minister’s Office. The ultra-Orthodox demonstrated effective opposition to the government when they shunned some of the coronavirus restrictions and leveraged their political power and Netanyahu’s dependence on them to stymie law enforcement in their neighborhoods.

However, their goal was not to support freedom of expression but to strengthen the rule of the rabbis and Orthodox Judaism, which touts discrimination against women and minorities. That’s also the platform of the Islamic Movement, the rising power in Arab society, which preaches homophobia and social conservatism while promising economic gain and a reduction of crime. The religious right, which brought Kahanism back to the Knesset, advocates something similar. All these groups are flourishing under Netanyahu, who isn’t choosy about his partners as long as they’re willing to keep him in power and support, at least theoretically, his rescue from the law.

Israeli democracy survived COVID-19 and the political chaos, and though it remains intact, the fight will only get tougher as Netanyahu’s trial proceeds, and amid the prime minister’s dependence on his partners. And even if a surprise happens at the last minute and the bloc for change overcomes its divisions to replace the prime minister, fundamental problems threaten Israeli democracy. The anti-liberal religion on this side of the Green Line and the occupation will keep posing existential threats.

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