Democratic Backsliding under Netanyahu

Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the Knesset on November 21, declaring that a majority rule would be the core value that protects Israel’s democracy in his government. Many members of Netanyahu’s coalition have also supported giving the Knesset the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority, effectively invalidating the judicial check on the parliament. This begs the question of what actually constitutes democracy. Despite Israel’s most recent elections being free, fair, and competitive, the country is following a trend of significant democratic backsliding that many other major democracies around the world have fallen towards. Netanyahu claims legitimacy by highlighting majority rule as a main tenet of democracy, but ignores the other aspects that truly allow for a functioning one.

Giving the parliament the power to overrule Supreme Court decisions is one example of the way that many teetering democracies seek to weaken protections for minority groups. The possibility of legislation passing freely with only 6 out of 120 votes and no checks on its adherence to judicial precedent, legality, or other non-politicized factors is a frightening prospect. Checks and balances play an essential role in a functioning democracy, helping to ensure that one body cannot assume full governmental control, and to allow this level of judicial reform through a legislative override of Supreme Court decisions would pave a way for Netanyahu’s coalition to do just that.

Israel is not unique in its democratic backsliding. Many world powers have progressively scored worse in democratic quality based on several different indicators, many of which relate to the suppression of minority rights. According to the Sustainable Governance Indicator (SGI) Network, the United States’ score for quality of democracy has fallen a full point out of 10 since 2014 (though at its lowest had fallen an extra half-point), averaging indicators of voting rights, rule of law adherence, civil liberties, election procedures, etc. The research organization cites the suppression of minority votes, unlimited campaign contributions by Super PACs, and the politicized selection process of Supreme Court Justices as contributing factors to this decline. These methods are all used by politicians to consolidate power and weaken the minority opposition, not unlike what we see being proposed in Israel. 

Other powerful countries that have seen a dramatic decline in their quality of democracy according to the SGI Network are Hungary and Poland, falling approximately two and four points respectively on the same scale. The main factor listed as an explanation for the extreme decreases in these European Union countries is government control of the media and its role in spreading harmful rhetoric against political opponents and minority groups. These trends are emerging in Israel. Netanyahu has been known in the past to attempt to use the media to bolster his campaigns, hinder those of his opponents, and of course to sow distrust in minority groups by spreading inciting rhetoric. Part of his corruption trials deal with buying media outlets, and he constantly vilifies and delegitimizes the claims made by those he doesn’t control. If he were to be given free range on legislation through the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions with his government, it is not difficult to imagine Israel sliding further down this corrupt path that has engulfed so many other democracies by continuing to weaken state institutions. This should be taken as a more serious threat, considering Netanyahu’s history of weaponizing discriminatory rhetoric towards Arab Israelis and Palestinians, and top leaders in his coalition have proven even more radical, praising terrorists and directly inciting violence. What becomes of Israel’s democracy when these extremists have free range in lawmaking?

This trend Israel seems to be following is not shocking, yet it is frightening all the same. The world has watched the United States, an international symbol of democracy and freedom, fall further down this hole through seemingly endless layers of corruption, as democratically elected political leaders challenge their legitimacy by abusing their power over minorities, whether through gerrymandering, fear-mongering, increased voting restrictions, or limiting access to healthcare. Yet despite all of this, the United States still has a complex system of checks and balances that Israel lacks. If Israel cannot protect the non-politicized nature of their highest court of justice, I fear they will fall down the same path of abuse towards anyone who opposes those in power. 

About the Author
My name is Tamar Lerner. I am a senior at Indiana University studying International Studies. I spent the academic year 2019-2020 living in Israel, and developed a passion for foreign affairs and Middle Eastern diplomacy. I recently came back from a semester living in Berlin, where I was able to broaden my global perspective to include that of European politics.
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