Be prepared for the end of Israel as we know it

If you call yourself pro-Israel, then defend it from those who are bent on burning it down

January 26, 2023 09:52

Maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s the history, but discussion of Israel often tends towards the hyperbolic. It’s a light unto the nations to its most devout supporters, an apartheid state and epicentre of global wickedness to its most fevered detractors. So you could be forgiven for taking the current warnings of an “existential threat” to the country with more than a grain of salt.

Even so, I would hesitate before dismissing the estimated 130,000 people who gathered on the streets of Tel Aviv last weekend, along with several thousand more in Jerusalem, Be’ersheva, Haifa and Herzliya. They were protesting against what the new Israeli government — the sixth led by Benjamin Netanyahu — calls its “judicial reform” plan, but what the demonstrators regard as an assault on the Supreme Court, if not a coup against the rule of law itself. They filled Tel Aviv, making this the largest protest in Israel for more than a decade.

Responding to an aerial photograph of the rally, one that showed its immense scale, the American journalist Amy Wilentz tweeted: “They know what’s at stake. Everything.”

That may sound hyperbolic, but I agree with it. For years, an argument has been building on the Israeli right depicting the Supreme Court as a closed liberal cabal, steadily grabbing more power for itself, extending its reach since the 1990s into areas that should be the province of elected politicians alone. In this view, the court is an overmighty usurper of authority, making the laws rather than enforcing them, and it needs to be cut down to size. This is not some abstract matter of constitutional theory, a quest for the correct separation of powers. Raw politics is involved. The ultra-nationalist hard right despises the Court, not least because of its tendency to insist on the rights of the one fifth of Israeli citizens who are Arabs.

Netanyahu has long called for “reform” of the Supreme Court, but only now has he had both the means and the motive to go this far. The means: a robust parliamentary majority including parties as hostile to the judiciary as he is. The motive: his ongoing corruption trial and determination to do whatever it takes to stop the courts barring him from holding public office or even throwing him into jail. If he gets his way, the Supreme Court will be diminished.

It would not be able to tell politicians they had acted unreasonably and order them to change course; its members would, in effect, be appointed by politicians; and its decisions could be overturned by a simple, one-vote majority of the Knesset.

In the seminar room, you’d call this the removal of the only part of the Israeli system capable of acting as a check or balance on the government. Remember, Israel has no second chamber and no written constitution. As things stand, if an Israeli government, which by definition dominates the Knesset, wants to do something, the only body that can stand in its way is the Supreme Court. And now Bibi wants to gut it.

In practice, it means that Netanyahu or any future PM would rule Israel with unrestrained power. It would be the tyranny of the majority, as expressed by 61 seats in a 120-member Knesset, with no institution able to hold them back to protect the rights of the minority. Sometimes the minority will be the obvious one, Israel’s Arab citizens, but sometimes it will mean those on the losing side of a contested question. In a democracy, everybody is in the minority sometime. The court’s job has been to protect it. That’s why those tens of thousands were on the streets. Because they understand that, if this plan goes through, Israel will no longer be a real democracy. Sure, there’ll be elections — but if the government decides, say, that ruling parties deserve more airtime than opposition ones, there will be no court that could stop it.

If it decides that newspapers or pressure groups that refuse to applaud the leader are guilty of, I don’t know, supporting terror and should therefore be shut down, there will be no court with the power to object. The judges will be political appointees, cronies and pals of government ministers, whose salaries will depend on keeping their bosses sweet.

Picturing such a situation requires no imagination. Look at Viktor Orban’s Hungary, or even Vladimir Putin’s Russia, places where elections still happen but where none of the supporting structures of democracy — a free press or independent judiciary — are in place. That’s the Israel Netanyahu wants: one where he is in charge for ever and no judges can ever call him to account.

For decades, those who opposed the post-1967 occupation warned that it would inevitably corrode the occupier, that Israel could not disregard democracy on one side of the Green Line and expect to maintain it indefinitely on the other. Eventually, the malignancy would spread across that ever-fading boundary. That moment has now come. Which is why Israel’s finest living novelist, David Grossman, was right to tell those Tel Aviv protesters that they are in an “existential fight… a fateful struggle for [Israel’s] character, for its democracy and for the rule of law”.

Those of us who feel bound up with Israel cannot watch this from afar and do nothing. If you’re a pro-Israel activist, you might decide you have to act simply to preserve your own credibility: for years, you’ve been repeating the line that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East” and Netanyahu is about to make a liar of you.

Or you might decide there is something larger at stake. If you’re pro-Israel, you want Israel to be a thriving, successful society. It can never be that if Netanyahu gets his way and turns the country into an Orbanist “illiberal democracy”. If you call yourself pro-Israel, then defend it from those who are bent on burning it down. If you call yourself pro-Israel, your place is with those thousands on the streets of Tel Aviv desperate to save it.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for The Guardian

January 26, 2023 09:52

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