Nick Cohen

Israel’s citizen army has made history

It’s heartening to see Israelis refusing to allow populism to trample their democracy


Israelis protest against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside PM Netanyahu's house in Jerusalem, July 10, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90 *** Local Caption *** שמאל משטרה ירושלים הפגנה בלפור

April 04, 2023 16:11

Liberal democracy is a thin idea. It doesn’t usually stir the soul or inspire towering passions. It is about means not ends; about striking a balance rather than pursuing a goal.

The first concern of a liberal constitution is to protect citizens against the power of an overmighty state. But what if citizens want an overmighty state to achieve their political objectives?

Democracy is just a system that allows citizens to vote. That’s it. Since ancient Greece, democracies have produced illiberal laws and demagogic leaders. An Athenian citizen jury chosen by lot ordered the death of Socrates for being a typical, out-of-touch, metropolitan elitist, who scoffed at the gods of the city. No one could call the jurors liberals, but they were thorough-going democrats.

When he launched his assault on the independence of the judiciary, Benjamin Netanyahu was asking the same question illiberal democrats have been asking with great success throughout the 21st century. By what right do unelected judges and journalists, or opposition parties who failed to win an election, dare to limit the power of a government whose mandate comes from the people?

He must have thought he could secure an easy victory. Starting with Vladimir Putin in Russia in 1999, via Viktor Orban in Hungary, the Law and Justice party in Poland, Donald Trump in the US, and Narendra Modi in India, authoritarians and demagogues have succeeded or come close to succeeding in destroying restraints on their power.

Their arguments are everywhere the same, and were run again in Israel. “We go to the polls, vote, and time after time, people we did not elect decide for us,” the Israeli Justice minister Yariv Levin said, as he introduced plans to give his government the power to select judges and to override Supreme Court decisions. “This is not democracy.”

I could point out that, contrary to the claims of the Netanyahu government and the Bibi boosters in the UK Jewish community, the Israeli Supreme Court is not a stronghold of leftism. It does not take decisions “in the name of some overreaching progressive thinking”, to quote Levin again. According to the independent Israel Democracy Institute, the court has overturned a mere 22 laws or pieces of laws since the late 1990s. Most of its interventions have not been radical. The court has done next to nothing to defend the rights of Palestinians, but instead has concentrated on such minor matters as cutting a discriminatory line in a law that barred welfare payments to someone who owned a car.

To emphasise the extravagance of the Israeli right’s charges, however, is to duck a hard truth. Any check by an unelected body can be framed as “not democracy” and it is dishonest to pretend otherwise.

Authoritarian rulers have not just counted on arguments about democratic legitimacy. They have also counted on citizens not caring about constitutional changes.

Allow me to run a test to prove my point. I guess that among the readers of the JC are people who have voted Conservative since 2010 but will not vote Conservative next year. I guess, too, that your main reason for abandoning the government is its economic failure. I have never heard its former supporters say that, obviously, they can never vote Tory again because the party unlawfully suspended Parliament, lied to, or at any rate, misled the late Queen, attempted to undermine the independence of the judiciary, the BBC and any other institution that questioned it, packed the House of Lords, placed limits of the independence of the Electoral Commission, and, most ominously in my view, attempted voter suppression demanding state-approved ID at polling booths.

The explosion of anger in Israel that has destroyed Netanyahu’s credibility is thus inspiring and highly unusual. Obviously, there are local factors. The sight of a compromised prime minister trying to subvert the judiciary when he faces bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges is first among them. As is the fact that Israel has a citizen army rather than a professional military. The warning from the defence minister that the government was threatening national security by provoking protests among reservists and inside the regular army would not happen in other first-world countries.

Whatever the details, the big truth remains that Bibi looks busted now. He said he had fired the defence minister for daring to outline dangers to national security, which is when you think about it exactly what a defence minister ought to do. But at the time of writing Yoav Galant is still in post.

Commentators explain the Israeli uprising by emphasising the thinness of its democracy. Israel does not have a written constitution or second legislative chamber. By attacking the judiciary, the right and far-right was attacking the only real check on their power.
But we ought to have learned that all checks and balances are vulnerable.

As we have seen so often in our time, elaborate constitutions can be rewritten and long-established norms violated, if an apathetic electorate allows the powerful to get their way. Netanyahu counted on exploiting apathy, as so many other strongmen leaders have done. Rather magnificently, hundreds of thousands of strong men and women in Israel have stood up and revealed his weakness.

April 04, 2023 16:11

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