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Israel is at a crucial crossroads: it can save itself or slide into despotism

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Israel’s right wing is no stranger to political victory. Rightwing parties have governed for the better part of more than four decades and each time Benjamin Netanyahu has won an election since 2009, euphoric supporters have cheered King Bibi, while losers have gloomily prophesied the end of democracy.

But Netanyahu’s sixth government, formed in the final days of 2022, is alarmingly different. Earlier rightwing governments merely wanted to expand settlements or annex parts of the West Bank, deepen the hold of Jewish religious law over Israeli public and private life, harangue and intimidate Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens. To do these things, populist illiberal governments of the last decade threatened to constrain the judiciary, but their vitriol didn’t yield significant reforms, other than judicial appointments of their choice. The new government is no longer testing the illiberal waters; it is going for the jugular in its assault on the institutions of democratic governance. Israel’s direction looks cataclysmic and challenges key alliances – western democracies, and even diaspora Jewry.

Within a week of being sworn in, Yariv Levin, the justice minister, from Netanyahu’s Likud party, proposed a radical set of reforms designed to end judicial independence. With the coalition’s firm parliamentary majority, the Knesset has already passed the first reading of a bill to give the coalition control over judicial appointments and ban judicial review of Israel’s Basic Laws (which serve as a type of constitution). The next steps are bills to gut judicial review of legislation and severely constrain such oversight of executive action, while turning ministerial advisers into political loyalists.

The government has offered bizarre justifications, such as fixing democracy and restoring the separation of powers, but legislative initiatives are far more telling. One bill would allow politicians convicted of corruption to take ministerial posts and another would entrench the prime minister’s power by barring his suspension for any non-health related reasons, unless approved by a fantastical majority in the Knesset. This will be useful for Netanyahu, after citizens petitioned the supreme court to suspend him due to conflict of interest, while on trial for three counts of corruption. It’s worth noting that even Israel’s core human rights legislation, the Basic Law– human dignity and freedom – is not entrenched and can be overturned, theoretically, by the simplest majority.

Beyond Netanyahu’s immediate interests, other coalition partners are pressing a tough ideological agenda to advance militant illiberal and anti-minority policies and annexation. Israel recently passed a law to strip citizenship from Arab Israelis convicted of terrorism (formulated so that it would not apply to Jewish terrorists) and is advancing a law establishing the death penalty for terrorists. The government has agreed to transfer powers over Israeli settlers in the West Bank to a new civilian minister within the defence ministry from governing occupied territory through the military, a move lawyers say is tantamount to annexation. The government is unsentimental about Israel’s role as a haven for world Jewry; coalition members hope to bar immigration to Israel for the grandchildren of Jews, apparently fearing for Jewish purity.

The efforts at political capture extend beyond the judiciary. The government has threatened to shut down Kan, the beloved public broadcast corporation (too independent minded); install a political director at the National Library; and appoint Yossi Shelley, a Netanyahu loyalist, as chief statistician (on hold for now). As for certain non-governmental human rights groups, the government plans to tax them to extinction.

Israel’s leaders proclaim with supreme confidence that they are enacting the voters’ will. But something went wrong. Up to 100,000 Israeli citizens have piled into the streets in a series of demonstrations that have drawn a remarkable array of social and professional communities: economists, hi-tech entrepreneurs, medics, environmental groups, women and LGBTQ+ groups and anti-occupation activists were unlikely allies even before David Barnea, the Mossad chief, allowed the agency’s staff to demonstrate. Actors are offering “democracy story hour” readings for children and constitutional law scholars have acquired star status, their micro-videos on democracy going viral.

Last Wednesday, after eight weeks of almost flawlessly peaceful protests, protesters tried to block the main highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – on a work day, rather than the usual weekend protest – and the scene turned ugly. Police employed water cannon and stun grenades, wounding nearly a dozen demonstrators. Last Sunday night, the Palestinian town of Hawara went up in flames, as extremist vigilante Jews rampaged through the town, burning buildings and cars and killing a Palestinian, following a Palestinian attack that killed two Jewish Israeli brothers earlier in the day. Numerous Israelis are referring to the Hawara attacks as a pogrom, for lack of any better description. The following day, a Palestinian killed a Jewish Israeli-American near the city of Jericho. These followed an Israeli raid in February that killed 11 Palestinians in Nablus and prompted US concern, in a cycle that began well before the government was formed but which has only worsened.

Economic damage looms: financial institutions are warning that the judicial reforms could scare off investors and lower Israel’s credit rating; hi-tech firms are pulling out funds; and the shekel’s value has dropped sharply.

What will happen? Netanyahu once prided himself on being Mr Security and Mr Economy, the guardian of the special, bipartisan relationship with the US, but none of that seems to be holding him back. In contrast to nearly all other democracies, Israel has no clear constraints on executive power with a parliamentary majority, beyond the judiciary. Despite its citizens’ visceral defence of democracy, there’s no legal requirement for the government to listen.

The two sides are locked in a stand-off. About two years ago, a popular satirical show joked that Israel needed a civil war to settle its divisions, but no one is laughing now. Many are scared. Beyond that extreme scenario, Israel has two paths: in one version, the pro-democratic, moderate right, centre and leftwing elements make newfound common cause and win the next elections; they may not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but they can preserve Israel’s institutions and international positioning.

In the second, this government will dispense with even those democratic institutions it has, centralise its power and complete its pivot towards Netanyahu’s famous friends, from Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to new authoritarian allies in the Middle East. At least then Israel will be free of pesky demands such as maintaining human rights and freeing the Palestinians. Freedom won’t enter into the picture, for anyone.

Dahlia Scheindlin is a political analyst, a policy fellow at Century International and a columnist at Haaretz. She lives in Tel Aviv

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Article source: The Guardian | Dahlia Scheindlin | 5 Mar 2023

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000