In recent days, several of the most important newspapers in the world reported on a risk to the democracy in Israel, which is supposedly being attacked by its current prime minster, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his ruling Likud party. These papers include The New York Times, The Guardian and Le Monde. The Washington Post even went beyond that to call recent events “a coup.” Critics in Israel call Netanyahu “a dictator” and a big “virtual demonstration” was held on March 22 under the banner of “saving Israeli democracy.” All of this is much ado about nothing, and Israel’s democracy is alive and well.
To prove their claim about Israel’s at-risk democracy, the critics say that Netanyahu shut down the parliament, shut down the courts and ordered the government to track people by their cell phone data to identify those who should be quarantined. Netanyahu was able to do all that by using emergency powers and by bypassing what would typically be a process of approval by Israel’s parliament. In addition, parliament Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a member of the Likud, wouldn’t step down and allow the election of a new speaker.
Some of the claims against Israel are completely false. First, the president of the High Court of Justice published on March 21 a message that clarifies the courts in Israel are not closed, but they will minimize their activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Second, Netanyahu didn’t shut down the parliament. The new Knesset assembled on March 16. It then assembled again on March 18 and on March 23. It is true that the speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edlestein, delayed the establishment of new Knesset committees — and possibly his own replacement — but the Supreme Court ordered him to do so this week; that by itself is a sign of a functioning democracy.
In any case, that doesn’t even come close to “making Israel a non-democratic state” as some Israeli critics, such as Yair Lapid, one of the leaders of the main opposition party, Kahol Lavan, said. Israel must be a very odd dictatorship because nothing prevents the 61 members of the Knesset who oppose Netanyahu from forming a new government and displacing “the dictator” and his government should they decide to do so. No tanks and no coups necessary.
Extreme measures to combat COVID-19 are being taken all over the world, including limiting parliaments and courts and sending messages to the public about people who are positive to the virus, and Israel is no different. Many countries closed their courts or limited them to only deal with urgent issues, among them Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and South Korea. So have New York and California. And many other countries have closed or minimized their parliaments’ activity, among them Spain, Denmark and Canada.
South Korea has been sending messages that describe the movements of people positive to COVID-19, sometimes exposing embarrassing information about people’s private lives. Similar steps have been taken in Israel, yet The New York Times criticizes Israel for it, while it reported the previous day that in Singapore, “the details of where patients live, work and play are released quickly online, allowing others to protect themselves” with no criticism whatsoever.
In Israel’s history there were several major events that were by far more extreme in terms of democratic norms, but Israel’s democracy survived. During the Yom Kippur War, for example, Israel’s election was postponed and a temporary government was in charge. Before that, the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, monitored political opponents with the help of the Shin Bet, a practice that was not stopped until the 1960s.
As for tracking citizens — all Israeli Arab citizens lived under military rule between 1948 and 1966 that included draconian limitations. Israel’s democracy survived all these. Not only did it not die, but the Israeli democracy is alive and well, and in much better shape than in past decades.
This article was co-authored by Oren Dobzinski, a software engineer who lives in Pittsburgh. It originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.