Samuel M. Edelman
Professor Emeritus and Lecturer

Is Israel Joining the World’s Kleptocracies?

In July of 2022 Thomas Mayne, a visiting fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House in Great Britain wrote a fascinating article, “What is kleptocracy and how does it work?” In this article Mayne defines kleptocracy as follows: “Most explanations of kleptocracy – derived from the Greek for ‘thief’ and ‘rule’ – stress the aspect of ‘grand corruption’ whereby high-level political power is abused to enable a network of ruling elites to steal public funds for their own private gain using public institutions.”

“Kleptocracy is therefore a system based on virtually unlimited grand corruption coupled with, in the words of American academic Andrew Wedeman, ‘near-total impunity for those authorized to loot by the thief-in-chief’ – namely the head of state.” Mayne’s also points out the strong relationship between the kleptocrats, the kleptocracy, dictatorships and authoritarian ideologies and ideologs.”

The list of national kleptocracies seems to be growing rapidly and includes Russia, Belarus, Hungary, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine under President Yanukovych, Tunisia, North Korea, Myanmar, China, Italy, Brazil, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Guatemala, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas in Gaza, Algeria, Libya, Mali, Iran, and Afghanistan just to name a few. Some of these kleptocracies are on the socialist left and some are on the fascist right, and some are Christian, and others are Moslem.

Today, Israel is on the verge of becoming the world’s next kleptocracy if the current government led by Benjamin Netanyahu has its way in its attempt to overturn the ability of Israel’s independent judiciary to act as a check and balance against legislative and executive excess.

Israel has no constitution and depends upon the Declaration of Independence and a series of basic laws and judicial interpretations to act as a quasi-constitution. When one party or a coalition of likeminded parties gets a majority of 64 votes in the Knesset then whatever check and balance between the executive branch and the legislative branch of government disappears and all that is left to check the runaway government is through the judicial branch.

The coalition ran up against massive protests from Israelis from across the spectrum from left to right. The coalition narrowed down their attempted judicial coup to changing the laws regarding the judicial use of reasonableness. Without a constitution, the Israeli supreme court has used the concept of reasonableness to adjudicate whether laws or actions of the government are indeed legal. The court asks for example, if the law to exempt Haredi men from the military draft is reasonable considering that these same men benefit from government subsidies and support while non-religious men and women who serve in the IDF deservedly get subsidies.

Netanyahu, Levin, Rothman, Smotrich, Ben Gvir and the Haredi parties all are taking their cues from an Israeli think tank, the secretive Kohelet Policy Forum whose role model is the American Federalist Society, who has single-handedly reshaped the American judicial landscape from state courts to the US Supreme court. The second role model for Israel’s right-wing coalition is Victor Orban of Hungary who used a similar tactics to substitute his authoritarian rule for democracy which he destroyed via a takeover of all the opposition media and then by gutting any checks and balances by the Hungarian court system.

How then is the current political leadership of the Israel kleptocrats? Under Mayne’s definition, the thrice indicted Prime Minister Netanyahu, indicted for corruption and bribery as well as for abusing his power as communication minister to get improved journalistic reportage of himself and his government would clearly be considered a kleptocrat. The anti-Zionist Haredi political parties would be considered kleptocrats because of their consistent milking of the Israeli economy for subsidies for their members without paying taxes or without serving the government through either public service or serving in the IDF. The settler movement parties would be kleptocrats because they want to see “reasonableness” removed and the court system gutted so that they can create their own vigilante approach to expanding settlements and punishing their Palestinian neighbors for real or perceived threats and attacks without court restrictions.

In short, this prime minister, to save his hide from being convicted for corruption, and his government who wants unfettered access to the rich Israeli economy to plunder without restriction are willing to destroy a fully functioning and vibrant democracy to install an autocratic kleptocracy in its place.

This must not happen. The demonstrations must continue and grow while at the same time remain peaceful despite shrill calls by Smotrich, Ben-Gvir, Levin and Rothman for harsh police responses. Most important though, more and more pressure need to be focused on four or five moderates in the Likud party and ethical religious men in the Haredi parties who must be called upon by the public to be brave heroes and rise above petty political party ideologies to save Israel from the kleptocratic abyss.

About the Author
Samuel Edelman, PhD, is an emeritus professor, former co-director of the State of California Center of Excellence for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance, former dean at the American Jewish University, former executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and currently a lecturer on world affairs, Israel, and the Holocaust.
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