Israel: On The Cliff At The Edge Of Democracy

August 10th, 2023 by Tom Lynch

For the last eight months, Israel, America’s foremost ally in the cauldron of the middle east, has been an ally controlled by far-right extremists. This was driven home again this week in another episode of its government doing everything it can to antagonize its Arab citizens and the permanent residents of East Jerusalem.¹

Israel’s previous government had allocated Arab municipalities $85.5 million for educational programs in East Jerusalem. Moreover, additional funding was allocated for higher education preparatory programs for young Palestinians, designed to enable students from East Jerusalem to study in preparatory programs at Israeli academic institutions. Some 500 Palestinians have studied in them in recent years.

Although, given Israel’s precarious relationship with Palestinians, this educational funding may seem like one drop in a great big barrel of rain, it is at least a step toward the integration of East Jerusalem’s Arab population into academia that holds social, economic, and security importance for the long-term good of the country.

But now, defying stark warnings from Israel’s Shin Bet security service, as well as her international allies, the new government has frozen the funding and refuses to release it for the legislated purpose. The funding freeze can be laid at the door of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionist Party noted for his far right extremist views, especially with respect to Palestinians. He told Arab Israeli lawmakers in October 2021, “It’s a mistake that Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948.”

Smotrich is also a settler in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The UN Security Council, its General Assembly, the International Red Cross, and others have all agreed settlements on the West Bank and the Golan Heights violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Doesn’t matter to Smotrich and his colleagues now leading Israel. They just keep building new ones.

This is all just more fuel thrown on the burning Israeli blaze opponents now call the Judicial Coup of 2023, which began less than one week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cobbled together a coalition government in late 2022 after two previous elections that year had failed.

The coalition government consists of six political parties—Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Religious Zionist Party, Otzma Yehudit, and Noam—and is led by Likud’s Netanyahu, who has taken office as the Prime Minister of Israel for the sixth time. With the exception of Likud, the other five parties are right-wing and religiously conservative, hugely influenced, perhaps dominated, by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, known as the Haredim.

The Haredim have long enjoyed benefits unavailable to other Israeli citizens: exemption from army service for Torah students, government stipends for those choosing full-time religious study over work and separate schools that receive state funds even though their curricula barely touch government-mandated subjects.

This new government, with dynamite in one hand and a flaming match in the other, is now in charge and, as I have written before, is doing its best to remake Israel’s judicial system by emasculating the country’s Supreme Court and consolidating all power in its own hands.

Israel does not have a constitution, It has 13 rather vague Basic Laws enacted at various times between 1958 and 2018. The 8th Basic Law, The Judiciary, enacted in 1984, lays out common sensible judicial requirements about honesty, transparency, judicial probity, process, and the like.

Unlike the United States, with two legislative bodies, an Executive, and a judicial system to provide tripartite balance, Israel has only its Knesset, controlled by the Prime Minster’s coalition, and its Supreme Court, which is the only check on government overreach.

The Basic Laws place a heavy burden on the country’s judiciary and its Supreme Court, the High Court of Justice, making it the final arbiter. By nature, the Court is always involved in a tense relationship with its sister institution, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. In this regard, both are critical pillars in Israel’s foundational house of democracy.

Every one of Israel’s allies has strongly urged Netanyahu to pause his judicial “reforms.” But Netanyahu wants to stay in power, and if he loses the loyalty of his far-right coalition, he won’t. Simple as that. So, he and his colleagues, the ones who, to the bottom of their cores, believe deeply in what they are doing, are marching toward the cliff at the edge of democracy. Eyes wide shut.

Two weeks ago, they prevailed, despite country-wide protests, in the first of their attacks on the Supreme Court by passing a law prohibiting the Court from exercising one of its foremost functions: ruling on the “reasonableness” of laws passed by the Knesset, which is akin to our Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of any law. Now, in a judicial irony of the first order, the same Supreme Court will rule on the “reasonableness” of the “reasonableness” law just passed. What happens if, as expected, it rules the new “reasonableness” law is unreasonable, is anybody’s guess.

To give you an idea of just how ferociously this problem has torn at the country, consider this. Israel, being a small country with areas that often can pretty much resemble a war zone, is one of the world’s few countries with mandatory, two-year conscription for its armed forces. In addition, following their time on duty, many soldiers continue service as reservists. There are 400,000 of them right now, many of them Air Force pilots, and they are essential to Israel’s defense. However, many reservists and active duty soldiers have publicly vowed not to serve if the judicial coup continues. As you can imagine, this is tremendously concerning  to the country’s military leaders (who also oppose the judicial “reforms”), its security services, and, most important, its allies—us, in particular. But it does not appear, despite the best efforts of President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken, that Netanyahu and his coalition partners are prepared to budge one bit. At this moment, there is no resolution on the horizon for this impasse.

Hard to believe, but Israel is now standing at the edge of that democracy cliff and thinking about jumping. There’s not a parachute in sight.

¹ Although offered citizenship after the 1967 war, many Arabs refused. That is why, though comprising 20% of Israel’s population, many Arab’s living in East Jerusalem are designated as “permanent residents.”