The international community joined in the celebrations for the 50th, 60th and 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. This year the more significant 75th anniversary passed almost without notice.
In part that is because the founding generation and those who survived the Holocaust are no longer with us. Officialdom must make efforts now to keep the memory of twentieth century history alive – as with the plans in Westminster for the Holocaust memorial.
World attention has turned away in spite of existential crisis coming to a head in the only democracy in the Middle East.
Israel is losing friends – around the world, not least in the Jewish diaspora – and internally, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets this week. It was the culmination of 29 continuous weeks of rolling protest against the latest government of Prime Minister Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who has been in power in Israel for 16 of the last 27 years.
In the words of another former prime minister, Ehud Barak, Netanyahu, who himself faces corruption charges, is “determined to degrade Israel into a corrupt and racist dictatorship that will crumble society”.
The situation in Israel is unique, of course. None the less many have observed a slide from “democracy to autarchy” under Netanyahu similar to that in other countries with autocratically inclined leaders such as Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey, and Orban in Hungary.
According to the American Brookings Institution: “Each of these leaders has made similar efforts to co-opt judicial institutions and exploit or change the rules of the game for their own private advantage, which have catalysed their country’s degeneration from a democracy to an authoritarian or mixed regime.”
There are also parallels to recent self-serving policies attempted by prime minister Boris Johnson in the UK and by president Donald Trump in the US.
In Israel’s case, as elsewhere, the autocratic power grab goes hand in hand with “majoritarianism” – exploiting a simple, often very narrow, parliamentary majority to override permanently the rights and freedoms of all in society including those who never voted for any such thing.
Constructing a sufficient majority may mean satisfying the demands of extremists – who are certainly in a minority as far as public opinion is concerned. Examples might be the US Republican Party’s alliance with the religious right and anti-abortionists, or the disproportionate influence of the European Research Group as Theresa May and then Boris Johnson attempted to deliver Brexit.
Israel has a proportional electoral voting system in which multiple political parties come and go. After a short period in opposition Netanyahu’s Likud was the biggest party after the 2022 general election with 32 seats of the total 120 in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
Left-wing and Arab parties fared badly, failing to pass the minimum threshold for seats. Netanyahu became prime minister for the sixth time by building a 64-seat coalition with right wing religious parties including Shas, Religious Zionism, United Torah Judaism, Otzmah Yehudit and Noam.
‘Convenient for Netanyahu’
These partners made heavy demands of Netanyahu, headed by a proposal to upset the balance of power by removing the Israeli supreme court’s effective veto on unreasonable actions by government ministers. This would mean that they would be able to dictate policy without the possibility of check from the courts. The religious right would be able to impose its views on Israel’s secular society.
The change would also be convenient for Netanyahu, freeing him from his legal difficulties with corruption trials. Under Israeli law, high-ranking public officials under criminal investigation can be suspended temporarily or permanently. The coalition is proposing that such a decision should be taken by the government, rather than the attorney general, with no right of review by the courts.
Israel has always been an argumentative society. The state does not have a written constitution because its founders could not agree on such crucial matters as the role of both Palestinians and the Jewish religion in the new nation.
Britain does not have a written constitution either but we do have a legislative revising chamber in the Lords, a de facto bill of rights backed by the European Convention on Human Rights, and a body of independent law overseen by the Supreme Court.
Israel has none of these checks on government. Instead, since 1980 its supreme court has interpreted the quasi-constitutional “basic laws” so that it can nullify a government decision on grounds of “reasonableness”. This was the power which the Knesset voted to take away last week by 64-0, with none of the opposition parties taking part in protest.
In the past the court has used the “reasonableness” standard to strike down attempts to establish property rights for Israeli settlers on land which the courts judged to be illegally occupied. It has forced the authorities to take action against members of the military accused of abusing prisoners and against alleged financial criminals.
Aryeh Deri, the ultra-orthodox leader of Shas – the second largest party in the coalition, has also repeatedly fallen foul of the law. It removed his block on building Jerusalem’s football stadium. It forced him out of government after corruption charges which led to his imprisonment. This year, citing the “reasonableness” standard, it prevented him joining the cabinet because of a tax fraud conviction.
Threat to women’s rights
There are already moves to change the law to allow Deri to join the government. Meanwhile there are plans to undermine the independence of the judiciary by reducing the role played in selection of judges by the non-partisan Israeli Bar Council. Rights of women to child support will be eroded if, as planned, the rabbinical courts are given a statutory role in divorces.
Donald Trump and the US Republican Party also used Congressional majoritarianism to force their appointments to the US supreme court. If re-elected Trump has already announced plans to undermine further the independence of the Department of Justice and the US attorney general.
Netanyahu’s plans sparked mass protests in Israel from the moment the current government was formed at the very end of last year. Defence minister Yoav Gallant was sacked for urging a halt in the legislative changes “for the sake of Israel’s security”. After a wave of demonstrations he was re-instated and remains in office.
The demonstrators have gone home for now. The Knesset is going into recess until October, when protests are expected to flare again as the supreme court considers the law which has been passed to clip its wings. Israeli society is being torn apart.
Emotions boiled over in an interview on a state broadcaster when Tamir Pardo, the former head of Israel’s Mossad security agency, likened far-right ministers in the coalition to “taking the Ku Klux Klan and putting them into government”.
The stock exchanged plunged 5% last week and leading CEOs and innovators are talking about moving some business activity abroad. More than 11,000 reservists on which the Israel Defence Force (IDF) depend have threatened not to turn up for duty in protest at the new law. These include 200 pilots and their support crews vital to Israel’s day-to-day security.
Israel’s enemies are jubilant. In a speech Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah told his followers Israel is “on the path of collapse, fragmentation and disappearance”.
That seems premature. The country would mobilise were it to come under attack. And, as yet, there is no threat to the massive $2.8bn of military aid which the US gives annually.
In an open letter to the president, the New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas L Friedman warned that he sees the neutering of the supreme court as the precursor to the annexation by Israel of the West Bank. Such a move would plunge the Middle East and its key allies into political, and potentially military, crisis.
Like his predecessors, President Biden has a difficult relationship with Netanyahu. The US administration described the Knesset vote as “unfortunate”.
Biden has repeatedly put off a visit to his White House by the Israeli prime minister. Instead a full official welcome was extended to President Herzog who tried and failed to broker a compromise, whereby the courts could only be pushed aside by a decision taken formally by the whole cabinet rather than on the whim of a single minister.
Netanyahu returned to parliament for the Knesset vote against doctor’s advice the day after heart surgery to fit a pace maker. It is reported that his wish to delay the vote was ignored by his coalition allies.
Challenging the common boundaries set for acceptable political behaviour is bad for democracy, for nations and national reputations. Those who seek to ride a majoritarian wave usually come to grief in the end.