Is the US going to stand by while Israel becomes an autocracy ?

Jan-Werner Müller

The Guardian  /  February 14, 2023

There is shockingly little debate about the assaults on democracy happening in Israel right now.

Israeli democracy [that is: for Jews] is under unprecedented attack from within. Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government is following the playbook written by authoritarians in Hungary, Poland and other self-declared beacons of “illiberalism”: subordinate the judiciary and other independent bodies like public broadcasting to government control, all in the name of “the people”.

In the US, there is shockingly little debate about this brazen assault on what the US political class unfailingly celebrates as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. It is particularly disappointing that Democrats seem to be holding back. They have every reason – moral and political – to oppose Netanyahu’s autocracy-in-the-making. If recent history holds any lessons, they might want to go as far as making aid to Israel conditional on the preservation of proper checks and balances in the country.

A crucial lesson aspiring autocrats have learned is that they should move fast and break things – completely ignoring time-honored conservative precepts about “prudence” inspired by Edmund Burke. When their critics catch up, facts on the ground are often irreversible. What buys them time is the strategy that Steve Bannon memorably described as “flooding the zone with shit”: confuse people, in this case by offering learned disquisitions as to why intended changes to the legal system are completely harmless.

Rightwing US and Israeli think-tanks are becoming ever more closely integrated; so plenty of intellectual defenders of the constitutional coup stand ready to convince American audiences that proposed changes have parallels in well-functioning democracies: executive involvement in judicial appointments exists in the US as well; the Canadian parliament can override court decisions. As the sociologist Kim Lane Scheppele has pointed out, the result is the creation of a “Frankenstate”: just like the monster was put together from “normal” human parts, an autocracy can be created by cleverly combining elements that are perfectly innocent in other countries.

Observers in the US might take too long to wake up to these tactics. They might also take too long to realize that the far right will vociferously reject all supposed “outside interference” while happily accepting financial help from the very same outsiders. Just think of what happened with the European Union and its two rogue member-state governments, Hungary and Poland. The leaders performed the arch-populist trick – all criticisms of their conduct was recoded as an attack by “liberal elites” on the nation as a whole. They also occasionally offered cosmetic legal changes to mollify the EU. In the end, however, the only somewhat effective measure was to threaten withholding subsidies from Brussels.

Of course, all analogies have flaws; for starters, the US and Israel are not part of a larger political and economic union like the EU. But the reasons why outside observers should not hold back are still ultimately similar: doing nothing is not neutral, because it lets down the millions who voted against the current Israeli government – it won the election by a mere 30,000 votes – and who hoped that friends of the country would precisely prove their friendship by calling for tough action.

It also hardly an illegitimate interference in internal affairs, if the very president of the country calls for delays and consensus-building before undertaking radical changes to the judicial system. President Isaac Herzog – whose role is largely ceremonial – also warned of “constitutional collapse” and a “violent collision”. The government has so far ignored him, charging ahead with the legislation.

In such a dire moment, Biden has only offered the most anodyne statement, reminding Netanyahu that both the US and Israel are “built on an independent judiciary”. Of course, there might be more going on behind the scenes, and talk of consequences could be more effective if no one has to lose face. Netanyahu himself may or may not actually believe all the talk of power-hungry judges having to be reined in (though why wouldn’t he, given the corruption charges against him); the real point is that he has brought racists convicted for incitement and all kinds of fanatics into his cabinet; they will probably not be impressed by subtle diplomacy. Someone like Silvio Berlusconi may also have found the far-right leaders he included in his governments distasteful (he also needed them to stay out of prison). Eventually, they eclipsed him, changing the political landscape permanently.

Perhaps Democrats are simply afraid of being called anti-Israel or even outright antisemites. After all, Republicans (whose own record of hardly veiled antisemitism – think Marjorie Taylor Greene, not to speak of Trump – is deplorable) have a well-rehearsed strategy ready; they have been trying and testing it on Representative Ilhan Omar for years.

Democrats might also fear that a discussion of the state of Israeli democracy cannot be cordoned off from how the occupation has undermined it. Yet Democrats are likely to face vicious attacks from the right no matter what they do or say.

Being a friend means that you must say something if your friend is harming themselves. That’s why Americans who celebrate the US friendship with Israel have a duty to speak up.

Jan-Werner Müller teaches at Princeton and is a Guardian US columnist