When my neighbor commented that to him, as a non-Jew and non-expert on Middle Eastern politics, Israel is starting to feel like Iran, I stopped in my tracks. Maybe he is right. Israel’s image is suffering in Europe, here in America and around the world, and I find myself repeatedly having to answer for just what the heck is happening. I’m no expert. Let’s start with that. But here’s a stab at a primer on the latest events, which are damaging not just to Israel’s reputation, but most importantly to the core of the values on which it was founded.
How We Got Here: In June 2022, several lawmakers withdrew their support for Israel’s most diverse government in its history; a secular government that included left and right-wing cabinet members, pro-Palestinian lawmakers, and perhaps most importantly, Arab voices. Then, Prime Minister Bennett lost support for extending rights such as health care, to settlers, while Palestinians in the territories do not have the same rights. NPR reported that “Netanyahu decried the outgoing government as reliant on ‘terror supporters,’ a slur aimed at the Arab Islamist party that participated in the government.” Perhaps Netanyahu conveniently forgot his own terrorists – the religious ones that hold the country’s laws, morals, and values hostage for the sake of their and Netanyahu’s personal power aspirations. So that’s how that happened. It’s a parliamentary system: Lawmakers pull out, and the coalition collapses. It’s that simple but the ramifications are anything but.
What Happened Next: In November, Israel held its fifth parliamentary elections in three years. To maximize his chances of winning, Netanyahu partnered up with the Religious Zionist Party led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, which holds some of the most homophobic, racist, and religious extremist ideas. In short, the country faced a real danger of fringe extremists gaining power.
Netanyahu Wins: On December 29, 2022, Netanyahu won the election, forming the country’s most right-wing and religiously conservative government in its 74-year history, promising to extend West Bank expansion and providing massive subsidies to the ultra-religious, most of whom do not serve in the army or recognize the state of Israel’s right to exist. To make matters worse if that’s possible, Netanyahu’s coalition proposed massive reforms of Israel’s unbiased and just Supreme Court. This is the same unbiased court that in 1993 overturned the war crimes conviction of alleged Nazi, John Demjanjuk on grounds that new evidence created reasonable doubt that he was Ivan the Terrible. Demjanjuk was identified by witnesses as the notorious gas chamber operator at the Nazi death camp of Treblinka. But a democratic country with a respectable legal system must abide by its laws – until now, apparently. The proposed reforms will essentially give the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, veto power over the judicial branch.
For years, Netanyahu professed his pride in Israel’s Supreme Court, which safeguarded Israeli democracy and liberal values. Now that he is on trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, he faces an ethical conflict of interest aimed at curtailing judicial power. His party proposes to halt his trial until he’s out of office, which begs the question, should he even have been eligible to run for office? Under the new legislation, the Knesset will have the ability to override Supreme Court decisions by a slim margin, while the Court will be required to show an 80% majority to strike down laws (an extremely high bar). While Israel does not have a traditional constitution, the judicial branch has always been separate and independent. The government also proposes to politically appoint justices, which Netanyahu defends as a system similar to that of the U.S. This distortion of reality fails to take into account the system of senate confirmation hearings, with the senate often comprising a different political party than the appointing president. No such checks and balances will exist in Israel if this law passes. In addition, under the new system, Netanyahu can fire the attorney general, appoint someone sympathetic to his legal woes, place his trial on hold, and potentially negotiate a better plea deal for himself.
For decades, Israeli diplomats and dignitaries have extolled and cherished the idea that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. The new government is not only hurting Israel’s image but moving away from democratic principles toward a theocracy run by self-serving religious zealots and convicted felons. Some make a distinction between Netanyahu and his coalition stating that traditionally he is not a religious zealot and has always respected the Supreme Court and Israel’s steadfast democratic process. How one can be separated from the other is beyond me, considering that he is the sitting prime minister, made possible by the coalition he formed, comprised of the very people that some wish to separate him from.
Where We Are Now: Top Israeli officials, including the president of the Supreme Court, former heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet, 37 air force pilots, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, the ex-police commissioner, professors, and more have sharply criticized the new coalition for threatening Israel’s security, economy, and moral fiber. The Coalition, made up of homophobes, convicted felons, racists and religious zealots threatens the basis of Israeli society as we know it: far from perfect, but also open, liberal, and secular. Human and civil rights stand to be severely diminished as long as this government is in power. As a consequence, tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to demonstrate consistently and peacefully over the last two months. The visuals of the eerie red robes from “The Handmaid’s Tale” seen on the streets are bone-chilling.
So, no. Israel is not Iran. Israel has a free and fair election system, and unfortunately, this time around elected a bunch of criminals who plan to take away basic human rights of citizens. Some would argue that this is no different than Americans electing Trump, who appointed Supreme Court justices who then took away women’s rights. Netanyahu’s government is playing fast and loose with the principles of democracy, and we should all be worried.
In an interview with Fareed Zakaria, Zippi Livni, Israel’s former foreign minister and vice prime minister correctly stated that every Israeli leader who visits the U.S. praises the shared values of the two nations. In the last few years, many Americans have also questioned the values and direction that our country is taking, but we don’t give up. So don’t give up on Israel either. Israel needs us more than ever.