Well before the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, Jews in the Middle East faced existential threats from their Arab neighbours. After the six-day war in 1967, Israel faced hostility from the occupied Palestinian territories as recognized by several UN Security Council resolutions that spawned a national and international terrorist reality that we now live with.
Throughout this time, Israel has managed to remain a domestic democracy while being an occupying power dealing daily with security threats. It must also deal with deep internal divisions between those who seek a democratic secular Jewish state cohabiting peacefully with a Palestinian state, and those who seek to annex and settle the Palestinian territories removing democratic checks and balances by creating a state where their parliament (Knesset) is paramount.
Let’s look at history.
In 1992, the Knesset passed a law giving the Supreme Court the power to review legislation and decide whether it was constitutional. If not, the Court had the power to rescind the law.
This legislation was supported by today’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his LIKUD party claiming that democracy required mechanisms to ensure that democratic institutions were strong and effective to keep governments in check.
In time, the High Court ruled on controversial issues such as the right of Orthodox Jews (Haredim) to avoid compulsory military service, or the rights of Palestinians to stop the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories from expropriating their lands and home. This law raised the ire of those who supported the settlers, as well as those who believe that the Knesset should be the principal instrument of democracy and that its decisions should be uncontested by any other institution.
Fast forward to today.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is under investigation for corruption and could face a term in prison if convicted. When he was elected in 2021, his only allies were the ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist minority parties and together they formed the current government.
To keep their loyalty and ensure his freedom from investigation for corruption, he sought to ensure his legal and political viability. Consequently, he decided to pass legislation to preclude the Supreme Court from ruling on the constitutionality of laws passed by the Knesset as well as other elements of law to make the government the paramount authority in Israel with no checks and balances.
In this way, Israel would join such illiberal democracies such as Poland and Hungary in putting unfettered power in the hands of the head of a government that controls parliament.
According to the Washington Post, Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the basic elements of the judicial overhaul were borrowed from Hungary and Poland, two countries that have embraced illiberalism.
But “there’s a feeling among Israelis that the government expects us to donate our time and risk our lives during the next conflict with our neighbours,” she added, “and this gives them the moral ability to say things that couldn’t be said in Hungary and Poland.”
In response, last Wednesday, 37 out of 40 reserve pilots from the Air Force’s elite 69th fighter squadron refused to participate in scheduled combat training. Hundreds more, including members of Israel’s elite 8200 intelligence unit, medical personnel, and other fighters have also vowed to resist reserve duty.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of Israelis across the country have taken to the streets in recent days to protest the Netanyahu government’s policy characterising it as an assault on democracy.
After an attack by Israel settlers on the town of Huwara, The Washington Post reported that Netanyahu had said that “We won’t accept violence in Huwara, and we won’t accept violence in Tel Aviv.” Days later, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who also supervises security in the occupied West Bank, said: “Huwara should be wiped out. I think the state of Israel should do it.”
Yoav Rosenberg, who served in the Israeli military for 25 years, said Smotrich’s statement was “a gift” because it showed that Israel’s highest-ranking ministers support war crimes. “This is not about law,” he said. “It’s about changing the rules of the game.”
This leaves Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora between a rock and a hard place.
Can they continue to support a democratic Jewish state yet oppose its government?
Can Netanyahu act as s statesman and subsume his personal interests to his obligations as his country’s leader?
The only positive solution available to him is to withdraw the legislation and allow the country to return to normal. Israel cannot afford to be seen as an illiberal democracy, nor can it survive dividing its military and a majority of its citizens from the government.
Only Netanyahu has the solution, and his personal and political history leads me to believe that he will not willingly take the right decision.
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Edición: Laura Espejo
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