I tip my hat to every single Israeli demonstrator, the heroes who converged onto the streets for 30 consecutive weeks to protest the government’s sinister design to “reform” the judiciary. They know full well the dire implications to the country that these reforms, the first stage of which has just passed at the time of writing, will have. It is no secret that the government wants to usurp the power of the impartial Supreme Court, the crown jewel of Israel’s jurisprudence that ensures the democratic nature of the country, and place it in the hands of biased and corrupt elected officials who put their self-serving interests and lust for power above the national interest. The opposition parties rightfully claim that the passage of the first legislation of ‘reasonableness’ will allow the government to exercise unchecked power, removing the safeguard that shields the rights of the individual and minorities. In addition, it will dangerously further polarize the country between secular liberals and ultra-religious messianics, and create a permanent schism that could lead to widespread violence between the two sides—a prospect that will destroy the country’s remarkable achievements in all fields of life, which were earned through the hard work and dedication of many Israelis, and pave the way for a creeping dictatorship. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s disingenuous statement that the judicial reform will in fact strengthen rather than erode Israel’s democracy flies in the face of what democracy is all about as it is largely practiced in the Western hemisphere. But Netanyahu, who is totally self-consumed by his inflated ego, his authoritarian design, and his radical ideological bent, forgot what a democracy stands for. Let me remind him.
Democracy is not merely limited to fair and free elections where the majority of voters elect a representative government. In a true liberal democracy, everyone is granted equal rights under the law, and to secure equality, an independent judiciary becomes a prerequisite. In a democracy, there is a clear separation between the state and religion, and there is no discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, language, or culture. Freedom of speech and the press are sacrosanct in a democracy. Finally, albeit not exhaustively, the state budget should benefit all segments of the population equally.
The other false claim that Netanyahu and his cohorts assert is that the majority of Israelis voted for his government, which gives it the mandate to govern as it deems fits. To begin with, whereas the current government did win the election, it was essentially a tied vote—2.36 million eligible voters voted for the pro-Netanyahu bloc, and roughly 2.31 million voted for the opposition parties—approximately 39 percent versus 38.9 percent of eligible voters. Over 1.3 million eligible voters did not vote, in addition to 3.05 million Israelis under the age of 18.
Thus, to suggest that a government that was voted in by less than half of the population can usurp the power of the Supreme Court enshrined in the basic law by a simple majority is absurd, as it runs completely against the will and the interests of the overwhelming majority of the people. In addition, it will impair the future of Israelis under the age of 18—one-third of the country’s total population—who may well end up living under a dictatorship with catastrophic implications. Tens of thousands of young people will leave the country, causing a dire brain drain that will have a crippling effect on just about every economic and scientific sector in the country.
Beyond efforts to severely undercut the judiciary, from the moment the current Netanyahu government was formed the onslaught on democracy began with a vengeance, as each of the coalition partners wanted to secure their share of power and the financial largess that comes with it.
The creation and distribution of new superfluous ministries like candy, with appropriations of hundreds of millions of shekels only to satisfy the egos of various party leaders, is sick and alarmingly damaging to the well-being of the country. The funds appropriated for these utterly unnecessary ministries, such as the Ministry of National Security headed by a thug, Itamar Ben-Gvir, could have been spent on the poor and the needy—the tens of thousands of children who live in poverty, go to sleep hungry and live in squalor. This is not a democracy; this is hypocrisy and a criminal waste of the country’s resources.
When there is no clear separation between religion and state, democracy is inherently compromised as it directly infringes on the right of every non-religious person to live as they see fit. But this government has even expanded the religious party’s authority. Other than their traditional control over marriage, divorce, and rites of passage such as bar mitzvahs, circumcisions, and burials, they now want complete a prohibition of El Al fights on Shabbat, and to prevent the courts from intervening in cases of human rights violations, which adversely impact LGBTQ persons, Arabs, and other minorities. And on top of that, they refuse to enlist their children to serve in the army while demanding and receiving full subsidies from the government. This is not a democracy; this is a theocracy and a blatant breach of the separation between religion and state.
When demagogues and criminals—including Netanyahu who is indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Ben-Gvir who was sanctioned for his bigotry and extreme views, and Smotrich who wants to burn down every Palestinian village—control the levers of power only to further their interests and to hell with the country, they make a mockery of Israel’s democracy. Indeed, a true democracy is a system of governance that puts the well-being and safety of the people first, but this government is all about power grabs that do nothing but undermine Israel’s reputation abroad and destroy its social fabric at home. When a country is an occupying power and applies two sets of laws—one for Israeli Jews living in the West Bank and one for the Palestinians—that regularly violate the Palestinians’ human rights and subject them to a harsh and ruthless occupation, it cannot be a democracy. But then, leave it to this wicked government to manipulate public opinion, leading them to believe that the Palestinians pose a real and present danger to Israel’s national security, and must be dealt with firmly with an iron fist. The occupation has been eroding Israel’s democracy from day one, and as long as this authoritarian government remains in power and gets its way by subjugating the judiciary to its whims, it will move to annex much of the West Bank and bury what’s left of Israel’s democracy. It is appalling and shameful that the reasonableness legislation has just passed. But this disastrous, wanton act should become the catalyst for continuing the battle against this government and preventing it from passing further legislation that will completely cripple the Supreme Court and the appointment of judges, who will be beholden to the ideology of a dangerous messianic cult.
This government must be toppled by the people not only to prevent it from destroying the last vestiges of Israel’s democracy, but to save Israel from self-destruction. Every demonstrator who held the Israeli flag so high must not allow history to repeat itself and bring about the destruction of the “third temple” because of internal disputes, disunity, rivalries, and a morally bankrupt and irredeemable government. Beware, Netanyahu. The real battle for Israel’s soul has just begun, and you will be remembered as the despicable pharaoh who brought Israel to the brink of disaster.
____________ Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.