Raphael Cohen-Almagor
Author of Just, Reasonable Multiculturalism (2021)

Israeli Democracy on the Defensive

2023 was a horrible year first and foremost because of the war. It was also horrible because of the elected government that tried to overhaul democracy and transform Israel into a dark authoritarianism. On 1 January, we were reminded of the struggle for retaining Israeli democracy against anti-democratic powers that were abusing their narrow electorate mandate.

A keystone feature of the disaster that the government wanted to impose on Israel was the reasonableness limitation law. In many of the world’s Supreme Courts, there is judicial standard that is often referred to as the test of the “reasonable person”. Acting as a check on government decisions, Supreme Courts are asked to evaluate government decisions and decide whether they are reasonable. The reasonableness standard is especially important as a safeguard against governmental abuse of power. The reasonableness law, passed in July 2023 as an amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary, barred all courts, including the Supreme Court, from deliberating on and ruling against governmental and ministerial decisions based on the judicial standard of reasonableness. For instance, if a minister wishes to appoint his close, loyal supporter as the General Director of his ministry, and that person lacks the required qualifications for the job, the Supreme Court can intervene and annul the appointment. Simha Rotman, one of the leaders of the judicial disaster that this government wanted to bring on Israel, who lacks any understanding or desire to understand what liberal democracy is all about, could be appointed to the Supreme Court. Corrupt ministers could fill ministries, directories, and other position of power with their “yes people” whose main quality is loyalty to them. Civil servants will no longer be professionals. Israeli governance would become deficient, dangerously irresponsible, and corrupt.

The government enacted the reasonableness limitation law as a clause in one of Israel’s Basic Laws, those that are the most important in Israel’s books of laws, assuming that the Supreme Court will be reluctant to intervene because this anti-democratic, unreasonable law is shielded by a basic law.

Appeals to the Supreme Court against that corrupt law were immediately tabled and on 1 January, the court handed its decision.

The Supreme Court, in a narrow majority decision, struck down the law. This was the first time that the Supreme Court has ever struck down a clause of one of Israel’s Basic Laws.

However, there is a strong warning for Israeli democracy. The Supreme Court is deeply divided. Only eight justices ruled to strike down the reasonableness limitation law, while seven justices submitted a minority decision. The minority was of the opinion that the Court lacks authority to deliberate on the validity of a Basic Law or to strike one down.

Most worryingly, seven justices of the Supreme Court analyzed this issue from a purely judicial aspect with total disregard to the political reality in which we live. Israel’s corrupt and very large government wanted to make political appointments the rule. Seven justices know that ministers in this government have no qualms in filling positions of power with people who lack the qualifications to carry their duties efficiently and responsibly; still, they opted to grant this government that power.

Furthermore, justices of the Court are fully aware that the present situation in which the legislature can simply tag laws as “Basic” is sufficient to make a law Basic; still, they did not insist that the government should pass a new, specific Basic Law: Legislation, to administer the issue.

Two more basic laws are fundamental. These are Basic Law: Human Rights, and Basic Law: Social Responsibility. Both are necessary to secure human rights for all Israeli citizens and for instilling the norm of social responsibility in governance.

After the disqualification of the grounds of reasonableness, the High Court of Justice ruled on another corrupt amendment to the basic law. This amendment prevents the removal of a prime minister to prison for criminal reasons, essentially stating that the prime minister is above the law. There is one law for almost all Israeli citizens, and another law for the prime minister. The Court did not unanimously say that this amendment is unacceptable. A majority of the Court said that it will apply from the next Knesset as the majority justices recognized that this amendment is a distinct personal amendment, tailored for Netanyahu, that constitutes an abuse of the Knesset in its founding authority. Outgoing President Hayut stated the obvious: “The personal interest of the current Prime Minister was the motive for the law”.

Worryingly, yet again, the majority was as narrow as it can be. It was a 6 to 5 decision.

If the plan of the authoritarian justice minister (what a euphemism) Yariv Levin to appoint two new justices of his worldview to the Court will succeed, then an appeal can be submitted and then the Supreme Court is very likely to accept the government corrupt law.

Democracy is not about mere majority rule. Democracy is about majority rule while respecting the rights of minorities. Take away the second half of the definition and democracy ceases to exist. Moreover, democracy needs to maintain a delicate balance: to represent the majority of interests in society without hindering its ability to make decisions and without harming the basic rights of minorities.

Israeli democracy is under grave threat. It must be on the defensive against those who wish to destroy it and bring about an authoritarian rule that will have little respect for minority rights (including gay rights) and women’s rights. Extreme regimes bring about extreme measures. Those who care about democracy, Israel’s identity and Israel’s destiny should support the democratic camp in Israel as it fights for the soul and compass of the country.

About the Author
Raphael Cohen-Almagor received his doctorate from Oxford University. He taught and conducted research at the faculties of law of the Hebrew University, the University of Haifa, UCLA, University of Hull, Nirma University (India) and University College London. He is President of The Association for Israel Studies (AIS). Raphael is now writing Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Critical Study of Peace Mediation, Facilitation and Negotiations between Israel and the PLO (Cambridge University Press, 2025). X: @almagor35