Of smoke and mirrors

Amir Mizroch responds to my response to his blog post arguing that “there are two distinct trends which [he] see[s] that are coalescing into one unmistakable reality: Israel is not going to be either a Jewish or Democratic state down the line.”

In a piece that colorfully asks — in the headline — what I’m smoking, he argues I “misrepresented or misunderstood” his argument.

He was not arguing that Israel was currently trending non-democratic, merely that it would trend that way “down the line.” And he wasn’t arguing Israel was abandoning its Jewishness today, only that it was almost certainly going to do so in the future.

Whatever I may be smoking, it hasn’t hampered my reading abilities. I remain unconvinced.

On his concerns Israel will no longer be democratic:

Israelis are going to vote in … a government that will be unable and unwilling to make the kind of offer the Palestinians would refuse anyway. Those are facts, Haviv. Argue those too.

Why would I argue with those facts? I mostly agree with them. But those don’t endanger Israeli democracy because, as I argued, “there’s only one thing about which Jews and Arabs agree in this conflict: they don’t want to be together.”

If the West Bank Palestinians look set to win an Israeli High Court petition to obtain Israeli citizenship … Israel will simply unilaterally withdraw from much of the West Bank.


Israelis already elected a prime minister (Ehud Olmert in 2006) on the express platform of such a unilateral withdrawal. Hamas’ takeover of Gaza and Hizbullah’s war in the North stopped that idea, but it’s already passed a public referendum of sorts.

This simple escape hatch of unilateral withdrawal suggests that time may not actually be in the Palestinians’ favor.

And, of course, “this takes nothing away from the moral or legal argument for Palestinian civil rights. I’m only noting there isn’t a demographic one. Israeli democracy is not threatened by waiting out Palestinian intransigence.”

So I’m unfazed when Amir writes:

Then [Haviv] writes: “Israel will simply unilaterally withdraw from much of the West Bank.” Now Haviv is on crack. There is no chance of a unilateral Israel withdrawal from anywhere in the next four years under a Netanyahu government, period. Double period.

I may be on crack, but at least I never argued the next government would withdraw. Why would it? In the calculus of people like Bibi, it’s better to wait for a negotiated settlement, not to mention a more stable Palestinian political situation, security guarantees, etc.

The Israeli government would withdraw, I wrote, only “if the West Bank Palestinians look set to win an Israeli High Court petition to obtain Israeli citizenship.” It’s the fairly obvious last resort that rather neatly puts the pressure to negotiate squarely back on the Palestinians. Abbas can make peace and build a flourishing Palestine under his stewardship, or wait it out, likely be ousted by Hamas and (if under Hamas Palestinians will still dare to go to Israel’s High Court) see a unilateral Israeli withdrawal that actually loses the Palestinians more than it gains them.

So when he explains there is a ”very, very small chance of a two-state solution,” it’s hard to understand what he bases that on.

There’s a very, very small chance of Palestine turning around its steady decline into a Hamas-ruled failed state — that’s true. But what has that got to do with the future of Israeli democracy? Obviously, it will mean more rocket barrages on Tel Aviv, which is pretty awful. But Amir is arguing there’s an existential threat here. If Israel simply withdraws from the 90%, give or take, of the West Bank it doesn’t even want to control, all the demographic threats we keep hearing about will be solved. And Israel wouldn’t even have to negotiate on Jerusalem.

Then Amir complains I called his piece part of the left-wing echo chamber.

Haviv must be smoking some good shit if he’s pigeonholing me as part of the “left wing echo chamber.” I work hard every day to be loathed in that echo chamber, as well as the right-wing echo chamber.

He’s right. Amir is bigger than any echo chamber. He worries about the future of Israeli democracy while editing the English version of a right-wing daily. In the piece, he speaks both of the dangers of the settlement project and also of Jewish rights to Shiloh and Hebron.

Amir as a whole isn’t locked into the left-wing echo chamber. But the premise underlying this piece was born there and cannot really survive outside it.

Here’s one telling example: Israeli democracy is also threatened, he says, by calls to limit (or simply better define) the role of the Supreme Court. He writes:

…Many members of the next (likely) coalition are staunch supporters of reforming the makeup and functioning of the Supreme Court and the rest of the judiciary (powers of the Attorney General and State Prosecution) so as to be able to execute their political and diplomatic agendas without legal interference.

As any constitutional lawyer can tell you, Israel’s Supreme Court, especially when it sits as the High Court of Justice, an institution borrowed from the British court of equity, is the single most powerful high court in the democratic world.

It is the only high court anywhere that can stop military and police operations in real-time to study their legality and proportionality (see Jenin in 2002 and the evacuation of E1 yesterday). It also has the broadest conception of standing in the West. Just about anyone can appeal anything done by any state body.

And it largely self-selects its members. It may shock foreigners to discover that justices are appointed not by the Knesset or government, but by a nine-member committee in which the Court itself, together with very friendly representatives of the Israel Bar Association, hold the majority vote. The nine-member committee consists of: three serving Supreme Court justices, two members of the Bar Association (who more often than not dream of being judges themselves), two government ministers and one MK each from the Coalition and Opposition. That is, the Supreme Court’s sitting justices have a massive (if not majority) say on the appointment of additional justices.

Now I don’t share the right’s fear of the Court. Israel has enjoyed, on the whole, a balanced and brilliant judicial class led by that Court. But it’s impossible to argue, on the facts, that calls to allow appointment of justices by elected leaders (as is done in most democracies) or to limit standing to the standards in most Western countries, are “anti-democratic.”

As for the attorney-general’s role, I’ll say only this. The first person who ever argued with me about rethinking the attorney-general position was Amnon Rubinstein, the renowned legal scholar, former Meretz education minister and author of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom. He noted that in the current Israeli system, the state defense works for the state prosecution. The state prosecutor is literally the boss of the person who will stand against him or her in the most high-profile cases. Similarly, the attorney-general is both the government’s legal adviser and investigator/indicter. If you’re a serving minister being investigated for something, the attorney-general’s office is both your advisory body and the lead prosecuting agency you need a legal defense from. It’s a mess, and it’s not anti-democratic to point that out. When the issue isn’t raised as part of the Knesset’s partisan bickering, Meretz knows that as well as anyone.

Amir’s arguments about the impending threat to Israel’s democracy and Jewishness are widely shared among the Israeli punditocracy. They inform much of the foreign coverage of this conflict, and the diplomacy that surrounds it. That’s unfortunate, because they are not grounded in some simple realities. There is no “time-bomb,” to quote the election-time rhetoric, that can’t be defused with a simple withdrawal. There is no actual evidence, beyond the sixth sense seemingly shared by many journalists, that democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression, fairness of elections, etc., are weakening.

The echo chamber that has turned these arguments into unexamined but commonly-repeated grand truths of Israeli politics actually obfuscate the real challenges that face Israel: educational decline, economic imbalances, religious coercion. The journalists who traffic in these tropes spend too much time talking to fellow traffickers rather than seeking out facts that might bolster or, better yet for honest examination, undermine their arguments. They speak less to other Israelis than to their own bathroom mirror.

It’s hard to see through smoke, I’ll grant Amir that. But it’s even harder to see through a mirror.

About the Author
Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.