Paul Gross

The State of Israel vs. Benjamin Netanyahu

in earlier reverse waves [of democracy], military coups were the main method of democratic recession. Not today. The death of democracy is now typically administered in a thousand cuts. In one country after another, elected leaders have gradually attacked the deep tissues of democracy…

Larry Diamond, founding co-editor of The Journal of Democracy

The quote above can be found in Diamond’s latest book, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency. It’s one of a number of books on the topic of the crisis facing liberal democracies across the globe.

The domino-like victories of populist nationalists in Europe (Hungary and Poland and – to a lesser extent – the Czech Republic and Italy) and in two giant non-western democracies, India and Brazil, has combined with the distinctly authoritarian tendencies of the current President of the United States  to shake the foundations of what used to be called “the liberal world order”.

I read Diamond’s excellent book, along with a number of others, as research for an essay I was writing on liberal nationalism, the philosophy of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin. My thesis was that this idea, which combines belief in liberal values with reverence for national identity and solidarity, could offer a way of the morass. (If you’re interested, have a read.)

In the essay I wanted to explain what we mean by ‘liberal democracy’; that, importantly, it’s a lot more than just elected governments. Liberal democracies believe in liberal principles, under-girded by the idea that individuals have absolute, inherent rights (“endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” as the US Declaration of Independence had it).

These four fundamental liberal principles are:

  1. regular free and fair elections;
  2. protections for minority rights anchored in a constitution (or equivalents, like Israel’s Basic Laws);
  3. the rule of law including an independent judiciary; and
  4. freedom of speech, worship, press, and association guaranteed to all citizens.

In Hungary and Poland, the two EU member states whose governments have moved furthest from these ideals, items (3) and (4) have been undermined (more decisively in Hungary, but Poland is moving in the same direction quite deliberately, with its principal ideologue Jaroslaw Kaczynski declaring as early as 2011 that he was “convinced that the day will come when we will have Budapest in Warsaw”). The courts have been packed with judges loyal to the regimes; journalists critical of their governments have been fined financial penalties or fired; media companies have been bought out by regime loyalists. In Turkey this has been taken to an greater extreme, with critical journalists thrown in jail.

The importance of an independent judiciary in a liberal democracy cannot be overstated. It stands as perhaps the single greatest obstacle to a populist overthrow of liberal democracy. Menachem Begin writing 25 years before he ascended to power, described this scenario with impressive precision:

An elected parliamentary majority could be a tool in the hands of a governing clique and a cover for its tyranny. Therefore, a people that chooses free elections must establish its rights vis-a-vis the parliament lest a majority tramples those rights. This can only be achieved through the supremacy of the law—that is by enshrining civil liberties in a basic or higher law and granting a panel of judges the authority to revoke the validity of any law that runs counter to the basic law and contravenes civil liberties.

The populist claim against a judiciary is that it is unelected and therefore “undemocratic” — a definitional sleight-of-hand that ignores the need for a branch of government that is necessarily not dependent on the people’s vote, and that can render judgments according to the values of individual equality and civil rights without having to consider majority opinion.

I was not writing about Israel in the essay. But what disturbs me is that an essay on the same topic in a few years time might include Israel in its list of states where liberal democracy is imperiled – or worse.

Not convinced? Try this thought experiment: Imagine you’re reading about Hungary, Turkey and the like, and then you encounter another country on the list. In this country, the following has taken place:

  1. A long-serving prime minister adopts increasingly populist measures at election campaigns; in one, seeking to boost turnout of his supporters by ‘warning’ of  the allegedly high turnout of an racial minority community.
  2. Criminal investigations into his conduct lead the Attorney General – an independent civil servant appointed by the prime minister himself – to recommend indictments on charges of bribery and corruption. The prime minister (despite being on record calling for one his predecessors who faced similar charges to stand down for the good of the country) refuses to resign. Instead he incites a campaign of demonization against the Attorney General and Police Chief . Both are smeared as ‘leftists’ conspiring against a right-wing prime minister, despite both coming from notably right-wing backgrounds.
  3. The election campaigns that follow the indictments are the cue for the prime minister to lead campaigns of incitement against the media and the judiciary, smearing political opponents with blatant lies and empowering far-right extremists – including deliberately maneuvering to bring into parliament a far-right racist party that had previously been shunned by all mainstream parties.
  4. Legislative proposals designed to limit the powers of the Supreme Court are embraced by the prime minister, even though he had for many years openly opposed such measures. It becomes apparent that this is part of a plan to gain immunity from prosecution; to prevent the judiciary from overturning what would be a clearly authoritarian use of majority parliamentary power.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Last week we had Likud ministers, including the prime minister, ridiculing Benny Gantz’s statement that in a liberal democracy the law is supreme, above the executive. “I’m not sure Gantz understands what democracy is.” tweeted Netanyahu. Well, his predecessor as prime minster and as Likud leader Menachem Begin, is with Gantz on this one:

I propose that we not be content with merely the ‘Independence of the Law’, but that we raise the banner of the ‘Supremacy of the Law’.

What the Likud seem to be now saying, in a complete departure from their liberal heritage, is similar to what Hungary’s Viktor Orban has said:

Just because a state is not liberal, it can still be a democracy… the new state that we are constructing in Hungary is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.

It is not for nothing that a senior aide to Orban said recently that his boss and Netanyahu “belong to the same political family”.

To return to the quote at the top, “The death of democracy is now typically administered in a thousand cuts”. Israel will not become Hungary or Turkey overnight. Israel has a stronger civil society and democratic ethos than either of those two countries. But if tomorrow’s election allows Netanyahu to re-form his hard-right coalition, the brakes will be off. He will do what is necessary to stay in power, and away from the judges’ verdict. Israel will be on the slippery slope to ‘illiberalism’.

The trial set for 17 March in a Jerusalem courtroom is “The State of Israel vs. Benjamin Netanyahu” (let that sink in for a second or two…). The election tomorrow is also, in its own way “The State of Israel vs. Benjamin Netanyahu”. Vote for Israel.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.
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