Samuel M. Edelman
Professor Emeritus and Lecturer

Israelis &Diaspora Jews Must Keep The Pressure On to Protect Democracy

As a long time Zionist and warrior in the US academic BDS wars I am proud of my Israeli colleagues and friends who marched and demonstrated in the streets to stop Netanyahu and his extreme right wing minions from destroying Israeli democracy by ending judicial checks and balances. No one should be fooled by Netanyahu’s call for a brief pause in the coalition’s rush to approve changes to the judiciary. Benjamin Netanyahu wants two things. He wants to hold on to power and he wants to save himself from being convicted of corruption. He believes in his core that only he can govern and save Israel. There are Israelis who believe this as well. They call him “King” Bibi. The question for Netanyahu is how can I hold on to power and at the same time get rid of the criminal cases against me? The answer is quite simple really. Change the courts!

There are others in Israeli society who will happily join in this endeavor. The Haredi ultra-orthodox parties see the Supreme Court as a block to their power. It was the Supreme Court who forced the Haredi to serve in the IDF, to institute secular education in their school curriculum, to accept non-orthodox conversion and marriage, to accept an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel. The settler’s see the Supreme Court as a block to their expansion of power in the West Bank, who forced them out of illegal settlements, who punish them when they perpetrate excesses against Palestinians. The extremist Jewish nationalists who feel threatened by Israeli Arabs and want to be vigilantes are held in check by the Israeli court system. For these groups, what Netanyahu wants they want.

Bibi has role models for what he wants. When he became prime minister this time, he traveled to meet his fellow autocrats Victor Orban of Hungary, Andrzej Duda of Poland, Italian fascist prime minister Giorgia Meloni (who he just visited). Bibi’s long history of friendship with and support of Donald Trump often was based on shared authoritarian tendencies both men expressed. Trump, Orban, Duda all have focused their efforts on altering their countries judiciaries as a first stage in eradicating governmental checks and balances opening the door to greater and greater authoritarian policies and muzzling of the press and making dissent illegal. Bibi has learned that if you want to be an autocrat and hold all the power you need to control the courts, especially if you control the legislature. In Israel, when the government and the legislature are the same thing because your coalition controls 64 seat then the only check and balance on governmental excess is through an independent judiciary not beholden to any political party.

So, this was his plan based on his role models. If he takes away the power of the courts he has the power without restraint. The court overriding law is his vehicle for holding on to power and getting rid of his pending criminal trials. If a law is passed and the court finds that law violates Israel’s basic laws and the Declaration of Independence, which act as a quasi-constitution, that law needs to be changed until if fits the parameters of the supreme court. If the court can be overridden by a simple majority of the Knesset controlled by the government then that bad law becomes the law of the land. There is no more check and balance for governmental excess and democracy become autocracy. Netanyahu, the Haredi, Smotrich and Ben Gvir destroy democracy by using democracy like Orban did in Hungary.

It is not just from Orban that Bibi learned these lessons. He gleaned these authoritarian tendencies from his father, Benzion Netanyahu. Benzion was Vladimir Zev Jabotinsky’s secretary in the late 1930’s until Jabotinsky’s death in 1940 in New York. So, it was natural that Bibi would follow in his father’s footsteps. In the early 1920’s and 1930’s Jabotinsky flirted with the fascism of Mussolini but rejected it. Jabotinsky did not reject autocracy though. As Jabotinsky’s secretary, Benzion clearly absorbed much of Jabotinsky’s vision of the world. I know this because in 1986 while I was working on the Ben Gurion Centenary for the WZO I was asked to interview Benzion. After spending a few hours of exceptionally stimulating discussion with Professor Netanyahu I left feeling dismayed. I had been treated to a stunning argument for authoritarian rule over Israel and a bitter attack on Ben Gurion and the left.

The real question Israelis need to ask, is destroying democracy worth keeping an old man, who has done some good things for Israel, but who is now way beyond his sell date, in power for a few more years?

The demonstrators and opposition must keep up the pressure. Maybe, when the pressure gets too much, then four or five responsible members of his party, to protect Bibi’s real legacy of changing the Israeli economy, creating the “Start Up Nation”, expanding Israel’s diplomatic foot print across the globe, and helping to jump start the “Abraham Accords” with the Arab world by voting against the government to bring it down.

Most importantly, Israel needs a government with checks and balances. So, for those demonstrating in Israel for democracy do not stop.

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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