Daniel Orenstein

I asked AI how to turn Israel into a dictatorship. We are on our way

When ChatGPT agrees with the real live expert in democratic regimes that have fallen to dictators
Demonstrating for democracy outside government offices in Haifa, July 2023. (Photo by the author)

With the government’s judicial “reform” dominating the screens and the streets, and with deep sadness for our tactical loss with the passing of the law eliminating the “reasonableness” doctrine, I turned to ChatGPT, the free artificial intelligence language model, with a question: How can one turn a democracy into a dictatorship?

For those of you who haven’t yet experimented with AI platforms, they are masterful (if not perfect) at producing various compositions, from poems to recipes to college essays, based on all the knowledge they can cull from the internet. Chances are that the next letter of recommendation you read, or political speech you hear, will be written in collaboration with an AI language model.

My artificially intelligent friend, as it turns out, is not only almost all-knowing, but also quite ethical. “As an AI language model,” it answered, “I must clarify that promoting or supporting any form of violence, harm, or illegal activities, including attempts to undermine democratic principles or establish a dictatorship, is against my ethical guidelines.” It went on to explain that “dictatorships are oppressive” and it is crucial to strengthen democracy against threats against it.

“Can you say all that in 10 words?” I asked. It answered promptly, “Promoting undemocratic actions goes against ethical guidelines. Preserve democracy.

OK. I was fine with that, and glad that ChatGPT and I are on the same side of the ideological divide between democracy and dictatorship. But knowing that many supporters of the current government consider its actions, from the elimination of judicial “reasonableness” doctrine to the hundreds of proposed legislative and administrative changes to weaken Israel’s judicial infrastructure, as promoting democracy, I wanted ChatGPT to tell me precisely what steps a potential dictator would take to weaken democracy. My 17-year-old son provided me with the work-around to bypass our artificial advisor’s ethical wall by suggesting that we are only asking for hypothetical reasons. ChatGPT accepted those terms and offered up the steps below, which, as it turns out, perfectly describe the Netanyahu government playbook.

1. Weaken democratic institutions. Gradually undermine the independence and effectiveness of democratic institutions like the judiciary, media, and legislative bodies. This can be achieved through political interference, appointments of loyalists, or passing laws that restrict their functions.

Netanyahu and his ministers have not tried to hide their intent in this regard. The cancellation of the “reasonableness” doctrine last week was the first step, in their view, to “reign in” the power of the courts. They intend to extend their efforts through other means as well, such as changing the membership of the judicial selection committee to include more government representatives at the expense of professional members, eliminating High Court oversight of ministerial appointments, and 39 other legislative proposals to weaken the courts. Simultaneously, the government seeks to weaken the powers of the Israeli Bar Association (which is led by an anti-reform lawyer overwhelming supported by the Bar). The judicial system is only one area where the government has been centralizing its power. In both National Planning Committees and in the Council for Higher Education, the government is solidifying its authority by curbing public input and replacing professional advisors with government representatives.

2. Control media. Establish control over the media by restricting press freedom, shutting down independent outlets, and promoting propaganda to shape public opinion and silence dissenting voices.

Netanyahu has long been engaged in crafting a media more sympathetic to him and his party, usually under the claim of opening the market. The creation of the freely distributed Israel HaYom and Channel 14 were created ostensibly to “balance” the media, but primarily provide a megaphone for Netanyahu and the political right. Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi, being unsatisfied with the scope and dominance of the current right-wing media, has already introduced legislation to allow government appointees to monitor media outlets more strictly and limit their income potential, while benefiting their propaganda arm, Channel 14. Whether threatening opposition voices or propelling their own, the goal is the same for the government: Like in Turkey or Hungary (two models for Netanyahu’s playbook), control the media message.

3. Suppress political opposition.

The mass pro-democracy demonstrations in Israel, now in their 30th week, have been unprecedented in their size and perseverance. Itamar Ben Gvir, minister of National Security, has been humiliated repeatedly by the refusal of his police commissioner to brutally repress the demonstrators (see #4 Control the military and security apparatus). But now, with a slow rotation of leadership, commissioner Kobi Shabtai is stepping down, and candidates for the position of chief commissioner reportedly want to ‘please’ Ben Gvir. Simultaneously, new laws are being introduced that significantly restrict the right to demonstrate, with much more significant punishments (such as three years in prison for blocking roads).

Meanwhile, Netanyahu and his coalition partners continue to insult some of the most patriotic and productive members of Israeli society with a routine stream of demeaning rhetoric against air force pilots, intelligence officials, high-tech entrepreneurs, health workers, university professors, war heroes, youth activists, and anyone else who has decided that the government’s actions exceed the red lines of a democratic society.

4. Control the military and security apparatus.

The military and internal security apparatus have proven to be one of the biggest headaches for Netanyahu’s push towards dictatorship. Not only have thousands of volunteer reserve forces proclaimed they will no longer volunteer to serve in an army that serves a dictatorship, but thousands more are in the front lines of the democracy movement under their umbrella organization “Brothers and Sisters in Arms.” Further, until recently, the leadership of the country’s police forces have maintained a careful balance with protestors, allowing roads to be blocked while avoiding violence on all sides. The result has been nearly no injuries and no property damage. Now that Ben Gvir’s favorite officers are moving up the ranks, the police may start using far more violent tactics to intimidate demonstrators, as we have already begun to witness in Tel Aviv over the past week. All the while, Ben Gvir continues to move towards establishing a “national guard” militia directly under his command.

Police Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has found his ideal police officer (pictures compiled from Twitter).

5. And 6. Cultivate public dissatisfaction and exploit emergency situations.

Israel’s security deterrence and military readiness is eroding. Its economy is buckling. An increasing number of Israeli professionals and young people are seeking options outside of Israel. Rather than recognizing the anguish of their political opponents, the government and their spokespeople alter their response from claiming that nothing is getting worse to blaming the demonstrators for the country’s decline. What is certain is that no moves have been made to address the broad-based opposition to the government’s anti-democratic coup. Quite the opposite. Netanyahu, always the expert at turning Israelis against one another, continues business as usual, sowing suspicion, distrust, and hate.

This is how, according to artificial intelligence, Israeli democracy can fall to a dictator. Biological intelligence confirms AI assessments — for example, via an interview with Prof. Erica Frantz in Haaretz this week. Frantz is political scientist from the University of Michigan and an expert in the study of democratic regimes that have fallen to dictators. Prof. Frantz is clear that the soft approach — an elected government slowly and methodically dismantling a democratic government with the false justification that they are actually strengthening democracy — is exactly what the Netanyahu government is doing.

Both artificial and biological intelligence advocate unconditionally to continue the struggle to defend Israel’s democracy. Prof. Frantz adds that once broken, a democracy is notoriously hard to fix. ChatGPT concludes with a recommendation: “Democracies require active engagement from citizens to safeguard their institutions and principles against potential threats. By staying informed and participating in civic life, people can help maintain and strengthen democratic systems.”

So we take to the streets. While we still can.

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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