Democracy in Israel under assault from the top

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Amir Cohen - AFP)

The Guardian  /  January 11, 2023


Even some on the right are having second thoughts as a government of extremists attacks the country’s institutions.

Almost half of Israelis now believe that their country’s democracy is in grave danger. They are right. The assault upon its institutions is not merely the alarming result of a far-right government. It is to a large degree the raison d’être for this administration. Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister once more and still fighting the bribery and corruption case against him, is no great admirer of the judiciary. His extremist coalition partners were an expedient choice, given their desire to undermine the supreme court and scrap its rulings outlawing Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Settlement expansion and annexation are at the top of this government’s agenda.

The intentions are not new. But they have never been pressed so nakedly and aggressively. The plan announced by the justice minister, Yariv Levin, would allow even the slimmest Knesset majority to override supreme court decisions – which would mean that controversial new laws could be pushed through, targeting minorities, civil society and the right to protest against annexation. Politicians would also gain more power to pick the court’s members. The timing of Mr Levin’s announcement was pointed: the day before a high court of justice hearing on whether Aryeh Deri can serve as interior and health minister, given last year’s suspended sentence for tax offences. While reining in the supreme court would not directly affect Mr Netanyahu’s case, the body has previously had to rule on his eligibility for office after his indictment. The move would be a powerful blow to the judicial system.

The right claims that the public demand this change. They do not: 55% oppose it. Avi Himi, head of the Israeli Bar Association, says that the proposals would mean the destruction of Israeli democracy; the former prime minister Yair Lapid, now heading the opposition, describes them as “a unilateral coup”. In a country already lacking sufficient checks and balances – with a single parliamentary chamber and a weak constitution – they are particularly dangerous. Many will suffer from the encouragement of authoritarianism, but some far more so: the LGBTQ community, asylum seekers and Palestinians most of all.

The government is moving at speed. Mr Netanyahu has often promised the right more than he has delivered, but it is unclear whether he can and will control the extremist bedmates he brought into power. A coalition member has called for the arrest of opposition leaders for “treason”. Police have been ordered to turn water cannons on an anti-government demonstration. Itamar Ben-Gvir, once convicted of inciting racism and now national security minister, made a provocative visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, within days of taking office. He has ordered police to tear down Palestinian flags, and the government is punishing Palestinians by seizing Palestinian Authority funds in retaliation for it asking the international court of justice in The Hague for an advisory opinion on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. All this comes against a backdrop of intensifying IDF offensives and Palestinian terrorist attacks. Last year was the bloodiest in the West Bank and Jerusalem since 2005; victims included 44 young Palestinians and an Israeli child. There are fears that a third full-blown intifada is brewing.

Some in Israel have long warned that occupation was eroding its democracy, and that the effects felt first, and most deeply, by Palestinians would not end with them. Their words have rarely seemed more relevant, or urgent, than now.