What Israeli Democracy Is For

Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz
Ilan Assayag

It would be hard to take it seriously if the opportunistic center would now join the ideological left in the hypocritical and sanctimonious clarion call to “save democracy” — from itself. The timing would certainly be perfect, coming right after the hot air balloon that had grown around Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz had burst.

We have nothing to be proud of for having momentarily let Gantz strike a silver-haired statesman’s pose — a show that was carefully managed by publicists and scrupulously sanitized of any actual political content. Aside from promising to entrench the rule of the bureaucrats, that is.

Kahol Lavan, which wiped Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party off the political map in just a week and a half, was born when an entire left-wing flank abandoned its parties — Meretz and Labor — and briefly fell in love with democracy. This same left, which on most days was busy waging a multipronged attack on Israel’s democracy (and disparaging Yesh Atid), suddenly decided that perhaps democracy might have some use after all.

And so it raced to assemble the scaffolding of a party to compete for the favor of voters whom it usually looks down on. They proceeded to decorate the scaffolding with hastily assembled campaign materials and warmed-over speeches, served up in a confident baritone, even when the curtain was already pulled back to reveal the Wizard of Oz at the controls, such as when Gantz confidently read his victory speech after the polls had indicated that he had lost. 

This pseudo-political party façade suited the pseudo-democratic excitement around it. The irony here is worth noting: These are the very same people who tell us day in and day out that an election is merely the “procedure” of democracy rather than its “substance.”

Apparently this sacred substance is to be kept away from lowbrow voters and preserved in secret viles in the halls of the Supreme Court. All of a sudden, those on the left now seemed willing to make do with this procedure, if only it could secure the removal of an incumbent prime minster.

It is surely far messier than a criminal or an administrative procedure. And what is worse, it involves the least desirable element in politics – the public – and at the worst possible moment too: When the public is drunk on power and believes it can take part in the decision-making process. But it’s even worth cooperating with actual voters if that is what works.

But it didn’t. And so the momentary affair with elections is now over, and those same people can now go back to subverting democracy, as is their habit: resuming the transfer of sovereignty from elected institutions to the courts; further empowering bureaucrats and redefining their role as restraining (rather than carrying out) policies that politicians were elected to implement; demonization of Israel in the international arena with the aim of forcing us to do what we rejected at the polls; supplying propaganda ammunition to the BDS movement; and bolstering NGOs that make use of the funds of foreign governments to meddle in local politics.

And then there is the grotesque constitutional theory, bequeathed to us by former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, which holds that an oligarchy of jurists is really the “essence” of democracy. All of this is to be supplemented by besmirching the democratic right to national self-determination as a type of “fascism”; by systematically blurring the distinction between nationalism and racism; by subordinating the law of the land to “international law” and by replacing civil rights anchored in the state structure with general human rights to be enforced by international bodies, which are less than friendly to Israel, to put it mildly.

But this time it might just be a little harder to go back to the old anti-democratic routine. Even the most prominent adherents of the rule of bureaucrats and even the most devout believers in judicial supremacy have displayed momentary weakness. They were ready to betray their principles to try to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by means of that despicable thing called an election. After all that, the hypocrisy in all their calls about “saving Israeli democracy” has become a tad more obvious.

So maybe those who won the election should stop taking these calls so seriously. They can, perhaps, begin to unapologetically restore the balance among the branches of government in Israel so as to make them resemble something like accepted democratic norms. After all, those who have derived their power from elections are at least entitled to insist that the election results have some meaning. They would do well to remind themselves that they are the ones who are supposed to govern — that they are in charge of the bureaucrats and not the other way around.