The new government’s plans for an “override clause” appear to be succeeding where 55 years of occupation of the Palestinians have not: foreigners not normally given to obsessing about Israel are alarmed about the threat to its democracy.
There seems to be genuine befuddlement at the fact that the Jews of all people seem to be on the cusp of reducing democracy to the vulgar baseline of majority rule – the basic tool of any autocracy. Can Israelis really not understand that for 51% to decide to violate the basic rights of the other 49% is wrong?
The lamentable answer is that many indeed do not, swayed by the right’s fallacious claim that the Israeli Supreme Court has been undemocratically activist. The truth is that it has been somewhat activist, but less so than the courts in Canada and other nations. And this, moreover, has done good, not bad: the court is the main recourse for otherwise disenfranchised Palestinians, thus salvaging some justice as well as Israel’s reputation among the nations, and it is critical for everyone’s human rights in a country that lacks a constitution because of the objections of the religious.
If the “reform” allowing the Knesset to override the Supreme Court (by a simple majority) passes, along with other plans for the politicization of the civil service and of judicial appointments, the result would be a remaking of Israel in the mold of the current fake-democracy regimes in Hungary, Poland and Turkey — even the model now entrenched in Russia cannot be ruled out. A key goal is compelling the Israeli Arabs to boycott future elections, cementing right-religious rule.
For a nuclear power sitting atop a tinderbox, which is a strategic ally of the US and an associate member of the European Union, this is a big deal that is almost unfathomable.
Israelis longing for external pressure to save their country from itself will be happy to know that the world is watching with concern. In recent weeks I have been interviewed about it here and there, and not only in English, and I’d like to offer what I think is a telling insight: even the Romanians are worried.
Due to a quirk of Jewish history, I speak Romanian: my parents fled the country before I was born, in 1960, after barely surviving the pro-Nazi Iron Guard regime and then being sold by the communists to Israel for foreign currency, like most of the survivors (then moving on to the United States). For three years after the Dec. 1989 Romanian revolution I was the AP correspondent in Bucharest; I’m in Tel Aviv today.
My parents basically hated the Romanians, and they spoke Romanian at home. Did they do the right thing by leaving? If I look at Israel, the United States and the European Union right now, I’m not so sure anymore. Masses of Israelis are applying for Romanian passports now, among others from the EU, as an insurance policy against the danger from within.
Romania today is still a poor country struggling with corruption and suffering from brain drain, with a GDP per capita that is little more than a third of that of Israel. But it is a member of the EU and is probably moving in the right direction. This is the most important thing for human beings: more than any objective given situation we yearn for a relative advantage, both compared to others and versus our own past. We want to feel that we are moving in the right direction. It is our weakness; perhaps it is our charm.
There is an interesting admiration in Romania for Israel which I have written about before on these pages. Speaking with Romanian-language RFI radio a few days ago I felt for the first time pity as well. I offer here the audio and a transcript below (here also is a link to the story in Bucharest-based Universul which in recent weeks has been running non-stop stories on the crisis here, like many other news sites all around the world).
Interviewer: So how should we view the new Israeli government?
Dan Perry: With much suspicion. This is a far-right government, full of convicted criminals, extremists and fanatics. About half of the public is very depressed, and this half consists precisely of the people who pay taxes, of the people who are responsible for the financial-economic-technological miracle that is Israel. Israel is a country with a number of terrible internal rifts, between religious and secular, between right and left regarding the West Bank and the Palestinians, and between all kinds of Jews from the West and the East, and especially between Arabs and Jews. This is a rather difficult situation, which is more than just a danger.
What to say? We wait and see. As with any new government one wishes them the best. But it is very difficult to imagine how a government that wants to increase the number of settlements in the West Bank, a government completely controlled by people who pride themselves on being anti-Arab, how such a government will bring peace.
Because in this part of the world things are always moving. If no moves are made towards peace, there is a danger that moves will be made towards war. It would not surprise me at all if violence breaks out again between Palestinians and Israelis.
Interviewer: But how is it possible that Benjamin Netanyahu came to power again when he faces so many corruption charges?
Dan Perry: In Israel, as in many democratic countries, it is almost supernatural how the country is torn into two almost identical parts. And the problem is more complicated because the left made some catastrophic mistakes and 6% of the votes did not reach representation in the parliament, instead of a tie with 60 seats against 60, the right has a majority of 64. The fluctuations are very small. There is no real decision here either way – there are very small gaps. Netanyahu was both very lucky and also ran an excellent campaign. He knew how to get his supporters to vote, and I must conclude that the more modern people in Israel, the more liberal, the more progressive, the people who want peace and are willing to compromise, were a little indifferent. Many of them did not vote. So Israel has a prime minister who is on trial for bribery.
Interviewer: Netanyahu is known for his not-so-pacifist views, but he is not extreme…
Dan Perry: He is a very conservative person. And the truth is that in order for Israel to make a peace agreement with the Palestinians, it requires taking many risks. The withdrawal of the army from the West Bank would be quite a dangerous act. If Israel ever does make this decision, there may no longer be many millions of Palestinians under Israeli rule, but it is not impossible that they will behave as the Palestinians did in Gaza. When the Gazans gained control of their territory, they used it as a military base from which missiles could be fired at Israel. I can’t say it’s a simple problem. Nonetheless, if nothing changes in the West Bank, the result will be that the situation changes by itself: without Israel taking such a risk, it will become an undemocratic binational state. These are millions of Palestinians who do not have the right to vote in Israel, but the Israeli government is the one that controls their lives and the territory where they live. So Israel does not have a good option. If the Israelis are smart, they will choose the least bad option.
Interviewer: Another problem is that we see this alliance with extremist parties. There is a problem in Israeli society with these religious extremists who have a lot of power. Could Netanyahu have come to power without them?
Dan Perry: No. Right-wing coalitions in Israel always depend on extremists, bigots and racists. Only with the extreme right can the right reach a majority, even a small one. But in the past, when the right plus the extreme right achieved a majority in the elections, and it happened more than once, the moderate right could form a coalition with the center. They’d go to the center and said: Center, if you don’t want us to have crazy people in the government, come to me anyway and make a coalition led by the right. It’s not very dignified, but it’s better than a government of lunatics. Now this possibility no longer exists as the center and the left in Israel are boycotting Netanyahu because of the corruption. They believe that it is illegitimate for a prime minister to stand trial. Indeed, it is very rare that such a thing happens in the democratic world. The Supreme Court addressed this issue and declared it technically possible. Legally it may be possible, but morally, and I would say politically, not so much. So in the last 3-4 years, Netanyahu has conducted a smear campaign against Israel’s legal system, with all kinds of conspiracy theories that everything is made up, that the police, the prosecutor’s office, the attorney general and everyone in the legal system are politically opposed to him. And that is not true. Most of the people who brought these accusations against him are right-wing people appointed by him. I mean, the lie is completely obvious. But Netanyahu is a force of nature. I have seen many politicians in my lifetime who knew how to speak well, I remember (former president) Ion Iliescu in Romania. But someone like Netanyahu… I have never seen anything like this.
Interviewer: Now it seems that he has made an alliance with the devil, with these extreme parties. Will he be able to control them?
Dan Perry: I don’t know. Depends on whether the extremists are more fanatical or more intelligent. I think that Netanyahu, being a very smart and very Machiavellian fellow, is actually not trying to control them in order to create a crisis situation. This will put pressure on the politicians of the center and the left, former prime minister Yair Lapid and his defense minister Benny Gantz, even though they don’t like it and even though it would break all promises, to enter the government instead of the fanatics. If you talk to them today, they will say that it is completely impossible, that it will be immoral and it will cost them politically. But the possibility cannot be denied. If the situation becomes severe enough, if the country is in flames in a year because the Palestinians launch another intifada, I do not rule out the possibility.
Reporter: It is expected, then…
Dan Perry: There is another possibility, that four or five moderate people from the Likud will decide they cannot continue and will overthrow the government. And it’s possible…I wouldn’t bet much money on this possibility, but it exists.
Reporter: And what do you think it will be?
Dan Perry: I think a likely scenario is a catastrophic situation for 3-4 years and then a centrist government (after new elections).
What other options exist? Maybe there will be great pressure from the West, or maybe Saudi Arabia will offer full normalization and a peace agreement in exchange for a change in policy toward the Palestinians. Netanyahu cannot engage with this without making an alliance with the left and the center. It’s possible he will. If Saudi Arabia really wants to change reality, it could alter politics in Israel. Lapid and Gantz would perhaps go with Netanyahu, Netanyahu would abandon the extremists, and this way we might see some progress, or at least a diminishment of the catastrophe.