The Battle for Israel

Will illiberal nationalism snuff out the founders' ideals? Or can the Jewish state remain a liberal democracy?

In post-independence Israel there were many political struggles—not to say fights—over land and peace, socialism or capitalism, the relationship with Germany after the Second World War, and so forth. But there was no struggle over the basic ideas of the rule of law, of human rights, of democracy ... There was nobody in the Israeli political arena who spoke against those basic values. I have to say that today this is not the case.

Former Israeli Justice Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor

For decades, Israeli politics was defined by questions of peace and security. Yes to Israeli settlements or no? Permanent control in the West Bank or “land-for-peace” with the Palestinians? No more. Today, the overwhelming majority of Israelis is united in a weary consensus: A two-state solution is not feasible in the near future. The question that divides us now is more fundamental still. Will Israel’s democracy continue to be liberal, with protections for individual rights? Or will it abandon its founding principles to become an illiberal nationalist state?

Attacks on Israel’s liberal democracy come from two directions: first, from an ideological section of the right; second, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an increasingly detached and corrupt leader nearing his 12th consecutive year in power, and now facing the threat of prison. For the past 18 months or so, the two have been marching together.

The state of Israel formally defines itself as “Jewish and democratic.” For a long time, it was the first part that divided opinion. Mainstream Zionism considered “Jewish” as a national, rather than religious, category, making the Israeli state Jewish and democratic in the same way that France was French and democratic. Fringe elements on the far-right wanted to apply “Jewish” in a religious or ethnic sense, but they never made much headway.

More recently, controversy has shifted to the second part of the Israeli self-definition: democratic. A number of senior figures on the right have echoed the Hungarian right-wing populist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who espouses illiberal democracy—in effect, interpreting “democratic” to mean “whatever the majority wants,” without regard for the rights of minorities. This challenge to Israel’s liberal-democratic traditions has found success that the old ethnic- and religious-based fringe never achieved.

The Israeli Democracy Institute, a leading Israeli think tank that monitors the health of the country’s democracy, described the parliamentary term 2014-19 as “the most injurious of all with regard to democratic values, freedom of expression, gatekeeping and, above all, minority rights.” 

Most significant was the passing in 2018 of the Nation-State Law, the 14th of the fundamental “Basic Laws” in a country that doesn’t have a written constitution. The right-wing drafters of this Nation-State Law pitched it as the preamble to a future Israeli constitution, with an opening declarative statement of “what the state of Israel is” to supersede Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which expressly promises to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; [and] guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

By contrast, the Nation-State Law pointedly changes Arabic from an official language to one merely granted special status, and omits any mention of “equality” or “democracy” alongside its multiple emphases on the state’s Jewish character. It’s no oversight: This omission sets the political trajectory of the country.

The endgame is an illiberal state whose Jewish character trumps democracy, and where no authority exists to prevent the government from implementing whatever legislation it requires to cement this transformation. Arab citizens of Israel are about 20% of the population, and though a small minority of far-right racists talk of “a demographic threat,” this is not at the heart of mainstream debate on the right. Rather, it is the drive to sideline Israeli liberals and elevate populist Jewish nationalism that motivates the power grab.

Where might this lead us? We can get a sense by looking at the right’s other priorities during that “injurious” Knesset term of 2014-19. One such was a law requiring NGOs to declare all funding from foreign governments in a move to single out those deemed “un-Israeli” or “unpatriotic.” Human rights NGOs, often close to the left-wing opposition, were plainly in their sights.

Even more extreme were a number of government bills that, for now, have been blocked. These included granting Culture Minister Miri Regev the right to decide whether theater or art exhibitions deserved state funding based on their “loyalty to the state.”

Another dangerous initiative was a law to prevent the indictment of a sitting prime minister. The fact that Netanyahu is mired in multiple corruption investigations was, we were told, purely coincidental. Then there was the attempt to pass an “override clause” to allow a simple parliamentary majority to overturn Supreme Court decisions. This prompted special concern, because the court is the only real check on executive power in Israel. For that reason, the court is detested by Israel’s illiberals.

A paradox of Israeli democracy is that—although rooted in a political culture marked by a loud, hyper-critical media and an extraordinary number of civil-society organizations—it rests on the flimsiest of institutional foundations.

Under its parliamentary system, Israel has a powerful national executive in control of the majority in the legislature, and individual members of parliament have limited ability to break with the party line. There is no second chamber of parliament to critique and amend legislation, and few powers are devolved to cities or regions. Absent a written constitution, all that we have are those Basic Laws, which can be amended or cancelled by a simple majority in the Knesset. In effect, the Supreme Court’s authority to strike down laws that violate fundamental rights is the bulwark between Israel and unbridled illiberal democracy.

Until a few years ago, the principal obstacle to a majoritarian tendency on the right was Netanyahu himself, who had been a traditional upholder of democratic norms. But during the turbulent past 18 months, featuring three election campaigns, the prime minister has embraced proposals to prevent the judiciary from overturning even the most blatantly authoritarian uses of majority power.

All of this comes as Netanyahu faces criminal trial on three counts of corruption. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, went to prison for similar offenses, but Netanyahu has taken lessons from his friend Donald Trump on how to fight such charges: spew conspiracy theories. Netanyahu has claimed a “Deep State” plot against him, saying that the police chief who led the investigations and the attorney general who recommended indictments have “joined forces with the left-wing media to prosecute me on bizarre trumped-up charges, in order to depose a strong prime minister from the right.” In fact, both men come from avowedly right-wing backgrounds, and were personally appointed by Netanyahu.

The earliest sign that we would see a different Netanyahu came in the run-up to the first of our recent trio of elections, in early 2019. The prime minister—concerned about losing votes to a small far-right party, Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”)—engineered its merger with another (somewhat) more moderate right-wing party. Pollsters hadn’t expected Otzma Yehudit to make it into the Knesset, but the merger ensured that it would be represented there, despite the fact that Otzma was the latest incarnation of Kahanism, the racist movement of the late Meir Kahane, who was banned from running for the Knesset in 1988 owing to his incendiary political platform.

Kahane and his disciples—some of whom now lead Otzma Yehudit—supported terrorism against Arab civilians and spoke about non-Jews the way that the Ku Klux Klan speak about non-whites. The Likud prime minister of the Eighties and early Nineties, Yitzhak Shamir, would leave the Knesset floor in protest when Kahane got up to speak. Netanyahu—Shamir’s successor as prime minister and as Likud leader—had no qualms about inserting Kahanism into his coalition.

Electoral deadlock temporarily halted the march towards illiberalism, forcing Netanyahu’s Likud into a bloated unity coalition with Blue and White, the party of his main centrist opponent, Benny Gantz. Blue and White, together with the almost-defunct Labor Party, have managed to block Netanyahu’s plans to legislate his own immunity from prosecution and to neuter the Supreme Court. But this is just a reprieve.

At the time of writing, a fourth election in less than two years seems probable. Whether Netanyahu manages to cling to power or not, the divide will remain between those who insist on a Jewish nation-state that is also a state of all citizens, and those for whom the demands of the Jewish majority should forever trump any liberal or civil-rights concerns.

Yet Israeli liberals are not without hope. Yair Lapid and his party Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”) lead the opposition in the Knesset, and in a lengthy essay outlining his political vision, he explicitly compares Netanyahu to both Orbán and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. All three, he says, “employ the language of democracy and democratization even as they abuse the power of their positions to dismantle the democratic systems in their countries.”

Lapid is genuinely engaged in the debate around the future of democracy and the contemporary threat of authoritarian populism. Judging by the now-weekly mass demonstrations calling for Netanyahu’s resignation, it is a battle that hundreds of thousands of Israelis seem anxious to fight.

Israel is a country of just 9 million citizens. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories notwithstanding, it is no superpower. But it is a liberal democracy with a unique story of survival in an otherwise autocratic, often despotic, region; a modern, free society with (however imperfect) protections for minority rights; regular changes of government via the ballot box; a lively free press; a raucous civil society; and a right to protest that is frequently exercised. A great many Israelis are actively fighting to preserve this inheritance.

Lovers of democracy and liberty everywhere should wish us well.

Paul Gross, author of a blog for The Times of Israel, worked in public affairs at the Israeli Embassy to the United Kingdom before emigrating to Israel in 2007, where he writes and lectures on history and politics.