Why I’m afraid

Tomorrow is the election and I’m trying to stay hopeful. The truth is, I’m genuinely scared of the government that could arise after Tuesday’s vote.

Democracy is not something most people spend their time thinking about. I get that. I know I’m nerdy about politics. I know I have Facebook friends who roll their eyes at all my political posts. But if you’re Israeli, and you have a vote in Tuesday’s election please hear me out.

I’ve written already about how a vote for Bibi on Tuesday is a vote, not just for his Likud party, but for a very specific coalition – pretty much the only one he’ll be able to form (if he’s able to form one). He calls it a “full right-wing coalition”. A more accurate description would be an extremist, far-right coalition, including Kahanists that were previously boycotted by every previous prime minister and government. A vote for Bibi is a vote for a different, darker Israel; an Israel that no previous Israeli prime minister – of any party – would welcome.

Unfortunately, Israel seems to be following a pattern of democratic countries moving in an illiberal direction.

Let me tell you briefly about Hungary.

Hungary became a democracy after the collapse of communism. Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party was elected in 2010 as a mainstream right-wing party. But in the first few years of Orban’s tenure, he changed the rules on amending the constitution, packed the Supreme Court with supporters, dismissed members of the Election Commission and replaced them with party loyalists, he established a ‘Media Council’ with the authority to fine outlets whose coverage the government did not deem ‘balanced’.

Since then opposition figures have been arrested in front of television cameras. Previously neutral public radio and TV stations hsve been converted into government propaganda stations.

The independent organization Freedom House, which monitors the state of democracy in the world no longer ranks Hungary as a functioning democracy.

It’s not a coincidence that Orban is admired by many of Netanyahu’s acolytes today. Nor that a senior aide to Orban said that his boss and Netanyahu “belong to the same political family”.

Now, I’m not saying Israel is Hungary or will be. But I am saying that if Bibi wins we will have a prime minister, desperate to prevent his possible conviction on corruption charges, with coalition partners entirely willing to subvert democracy and the rule of law. They will pass a law granting him immunity, and they will pass a law preventing the Supreme Court from intervening. Israel will be a different kind of country and, yes, it will be on the path to “former democracy” status.

In a recent debate on Facebook with someone, he said that I shouldn’t worry so much because Israel has other ‘checks and balances’. He’s wrong. Israel is not America with its multiple checks and balances to prevent an elected government from abusing its power.

In Israel there is no second chamber (like Britain’s House of Lords) to critique or amend the legislation. We have no written constitution, just ‘Basic Laws’, which can be amended or cancelled by a simple majority in the Knesset. In effect, the Supreme Court’s authority to strike down laws that violate fundamental rights is the only thing that can block a government that is set on abusing the rule of law or civil rights.

I know this is all boring political stuff. It’s not about Corona and Bibi’s great job getting the vaccines (though, what short memories we have! His handling of other aspects of the pandemic were politically motivated and have literally killed people). And it’s not about the Abraham Accords or the economy or Bibi’s wonderful mellifluous English.

But it’s because it’s boring “politics” stuff that many people aren’t thinking about it and aren’t considering it before they vote.

As I said at the beginning of this very long message, I really am scared. I’ve lived in Israel for 13 years. Before that I was a committed pro-Israel activist, on campus and professionally working for the Israeli Embassy. In that time Israel has had plenty of governments I didn’t agree with. But never did I imagine that I would feel that my country was being taken in a completely different direction, away from the Zionist ideal of “Jewish and democratic”, away from the principles of our Declaration of Independence, away from the most basic idea of the rule of law.

I’m voting for Yesh Atid because I believe in the more liberal, pluralist Israel that Yair Lapid wants to build. (I recommend you read Yossi Klein Halevi and Gil Troy for excellent expositions on why Lapid is the man for this moment.) But if you’re a right-winger and you want to vote for a right-wing party, vote for Gideon Saar.

Fundamentally, if you care at all about what sort of country Israel is; whether we stay what we have proudly been all these years, a democracy – against all the odds in this region of dictatorships and absolute monarchies – please vote for one of the parties that is determined that we stay that way.

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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