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Israel's new government sparks concern for the future of its democracy

Far-right changes to Israel's government have some experts and citizens concerned for the future rule of law in the country.
Posted at 8:54 PM, Jan 30, 2023

Violence has erupted in Israel recently, leading to the killings of Muslims and Jews. 

On Thursday, Israeli forces raided a militant stronghold in the West Bank, killing 10 people. In the following days, Palestinian gunmen have killed at least nine people, targeting Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem.

In the backdrop of this recent violence is a new hardline Israeli government whose critics are warning it could threaten the future of Israeli democracy and the rule of law in Israel.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power late last year while facing an ongoing trial on corruption charges. But unlike previous coalitions, only right-wing nationalist and religious parties have formed this government, including one with a leader previously convicted of supporting a terror group.

Even though this government doesn't have parties from all sides, Netanyahu's message to Israelis is that his government that will look after all the citizens of Israel and that he's committed to doing what the people who voted for him want.

"The 37th Government of Israel, which came into the world less than one week ago, is determined to go in the appropriate direction to establish our existence and our future as a Jewish and democratic state in the land of our fathers in the Land of Israel," he said.

They're proposing changes to a wide array of subjects such as rules governing plastics, Israel's generous immigration policy for Jews and an overhaul of Israel's court system that would allow the country's Knesset, or parliament, to overrule the country's Supreme Court with a simple majority vote.

That last one is getting people most riled up. In January, weekend protests have seen thousands hit the streets to oppose the court overhaul. An estimated 80,000 demonstrators braved heavy rain to protest in Tel Aviv earlier in the month.

Esther Solomon, editor in chief of the English section of the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, covered some of the protests. 

"It was also quite remarkable because the rain was pouring down the passes the time of the protest, but 80,000 people and their umbrellas came out," Solomon said.

Even more people showed up the next weekend, with more than 100,000 turning out. These numbers mean a lot more in a country with fewer than 10 million people.

Many of the proposals to overhaul Israel's court system also include greater say for political leaders in judicial appointments — something that also happened in Hungary and Poland, two countries drifting toward authoritarianism.

University of Chicago law professor Tom Ginsburg, who studies constitutional democracies around the world, says any one of these changes on their own are reasonable, but enacting them all at once is worrying. 

"When you combine those two things — control over appointments and overruling after the judges make their decision — you'll see that the judiciary will be extremely weak after these reforms go through without any leverage to discipline the Knesset, which means 61 members can do basically whatever they want," Ginsburg said.

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As for whether Israel is drifting toward authoritarianism, it's complicated.

Israel has long had a liberal democracy for its citizens — one that both Israel and its allies, including the U.S., have touted as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East.

But that only applies to Israeli citizens, who are mostly Jewish but include a minority of some Muslims living in Israel. Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza do not have Israeli citizenship and aren't part of that democracy, even though Israel occupies the West Bank.

Since its independence in 1948, Israel has been governed by a Basic Law system — basically an informal constitution. The Basic Law says Israel is officially a "Jewish and democratic state," which is a phrase has been fundamental to Israeli political debates.

The mostly secular left and center want to emphasize that Israel is a democratic state, while the right, which includes a large religious wing, leans toward a more Jewish one.

The Supreme Court has always been a very powerful institution in Israeli society, as it has interpreted and developed the constitutional rights of Israeli democracy in its rulings. 

"It reached into the jurisprudence that concerning the occupation but, perhaps more centrally, got into questions about the balance between various forces in Israeli society, fundamental rights, which if you don't have a constitution, where do your fundamental rights come from?" Ginsburg said. "Well, they came from the judiciary interpreting these basic laws to tell the government that it could do what it wanted to do."

But as Israel's right drifts further right and fights to weaken institutions like the judiciary, it's led to worries from folks, like American University professor and Israel studies expert Boaz Atzili, that the government is treating Israel more like the West Bank.

"You just can't control and suppress another nation for such a long time without being there, with it having an effect on a democracy," Atzili said. "And how do you perceive the conflict, the balance between your own nationhood end and the democracy?"

Netanyahu has campaigned with a tough-on-crime, tough-on-the-Palestinians message that appeals to the right-wing base. His former adviser and chief of staff Aviv Bushinsky told Scripps News he thinks it's natural for Netanyahu to turn hard right over trying to win broader support.

"Netanyahu after, or maybe due to his experience or after what he experienced in person, decided to be right-wing all in," Bushinsky said. "He's not fetching, at least at the moment, to expand his coalition by center or center-left parties, but also he says that since it's a right-wing government, he or they should execute all their plans."

As Netanyahu tries to hold power and stave off his corruption charges, he's turned to some very far right-wing allies.

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Itamar Ben-Gvir is the leader of the Jewish Power party, which believes in Jewish supremacy. He's previously been convicted for supporting a Jewish supremacist terror group. As a member of the coalition, he's now the Minister of National Security.

To give some background on what Ben-Gvir is like: In 1995, after then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed a peace accord with the Palestinians, Ben-Gvir taped an interview where he held a Cadillac hood ornament stolen from Rabin's car and seemed to threaten the prime minister.

"This is the emblem, and people were able to remove it from the car. Just like we have gotten to the emblem, we can also get to Rabin," Ben-Gvir said.

Rabin was assassinated just weeks later by a Jewish supremacist opposed to peace with the Palestinians. 

More recently, Ben-Gvir has been known to patrol Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, including an incident during last fall's election campaign where he pulled a gun and urged cops to shoot Palestinians who threw stones at him. 

He shared a still from a clip shot by Israel's All World News, saying that he will go beyond what police are doing in order to protect Jewish people. He said in part, "Jewish blood will not be wasted."

But supporters and allies of Netanyahu aren't too fazed by Ben-Gvir's history. They say whether it's including far-right parties or pushing a court overhaul, it should go ahead because they won the election, and they promised these changes to the voters. 

"I think that most people in Israel thought that Netanyahu says that they're going to do some changes" Bushinsky said. "And he did say so prior to the elections, and not only him: also the current speaker of the parliament, Yariv Levin, the current minister of Justice, etc., etc.. They did say that going to change the system and suddenly they are going to change the system, so everybody is shocked."

Complicating things, Netanyahu has other issues he wants to work on; he's been aiming for some pragmatic foreign policy goals abroad. Netanyahu signed the Abraham Accords with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in 2020, and he's aiming for more, including some where working with people who don't share his politics will be helpful.

Former State Department senior advisor David Makovsky worked on Israel policy during Netanyahu's previous tenure.

"His agenda is a much more Middle East-focused agenda," Makovsky said. "[He] believes that there could be a diplomatic breakthrough with Saudi Arabia. He believes that the U.S. is after the Iran nuclear deal now and is a new phase. His agenda requires working closely with the White House, and they will look certainly askance at some of the ideas of his junior coalition partners."

But there's still an outcry — not just within Israel, but in the U.S. too.

American officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have suggested they will work with Netanyahu but not with Ben-Gvir. Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada, co-leader of a bipartisan congressional delegation that visited Israel in January, said she did not want the delegation to meet Ben-Gvir or finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of a religious party who describes himself as "proudly homophobic."