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Israel at 70: Why democracy is now in retreat

Eyal Chowers-Wednesday 18 April 2018

In a speech at the "Globes" Israel Business Conference in January, Israeli Prime

Minster Benjamin Netanyahu outlined his worldview of Israel’s sources of
First and foremost, he said, Israelis had learned to defend themselves, developing
military capabilities that are increasingly based on new, inventive technologies
and on experience of years combating terror.
Second, he argued, Israel has a growing, healthy economy with low taxes, a
flourishing private sector and is undergoing intensive deregulation. Netanyahu
mentioned, with pride, particular industries such as cybersecurity, computer parts
for cars, digital health, and water technologies.
In terms of GDP per capita, he predicted, Israel would soon surpass Japan. (Israel’s
GDP per capita is $38,000, unemployment is down to about four percent, and
economic inequality, while still very significant, is declining.)

Fireworks in Netanya, Israel, in May 2014 during Independence Day celebrations

Based on its economic and security achievements, Israel’s third source of power is
its standing and connections in the international community, stemming mainly
from the interest in its knowledge-based economy and novel military thinking and
technologies, he said.
Finally, Netanyahu referred to Israel’s cultural creativity; the fascinating dialogue
taking place between an ancient past and a present which embraces modernity.
It's a dialogue which indeed contributes to a booming scene in literature, movie
and TV industries, music, dance, scholarship and much else. And Netanyahu is
right: at 70, Israel is stronger than it ever has been.
Netanyahu, however, did not mention democracy as one of Israel’s four sources
of power. This is probably not an omission: Netanyahu is not Pericles, the father
of democracy. He likes to boast that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle
East, but when one looks at his entire career, it seems that for him democracy is
more of a means to augment the nation’s power than a noble ideal worthy in its
own right.
Netanyahu has been the key figure in Israeli politics since 1996, but in that time
he has not delivered one significant speech about the value of free self-
government, of individual rights, of plurality and tolerance. While Israel has
indeed flourished in so many respects during recent decades – mostly due to its
gifted and energetic people – its democracy is seriously at risk.
But perhaps the seeds of its riven, contemporary political life have been there
from the start.
Writing the future of Israel
The jurist Zvi Berenzon, a labour law expert who later became a judge at the
Supreme Court, was asked to write one of the early drafts of Israel’s Declaration
of Independence. The days in early May 1948 were hectic, and war was around
the corner. It was difficult to comprehend the weight that words would have a
few generations down the road.
Yet Berenzon, with a combination of foresight and naivete, suggested that the
declaration include the following:
“We, the People’s Council… hereby announce the establishment of a Jewish State,
free, independent, and democratic in Erez Israel [Palestine], within the borders
determined by the United Nation General Assembly.”
Although some of Berenzon’s proposals were incorporated into the final draft of
the declaration, his suggestions to introduce the key word “democratic”, and to
specify the borders of the future state, were rejected by his superiors and by
political leaders, notably Moshe Sharet and Ben Gurion.

Ben Gurion (left) signs the Declaration of Independence held by Moshe Sharet in
14 May 1948 (Wiki)
As the state of Israel celebrates 70 years of independence this week, it seems that
its main conflict with itself is encapsulated by Berenzon’s deleted, long-forgotten
Since 1948, and especially after the 1967 war, the question has become: can
Israel occupy all the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan
River, subject the Palestinians to military rule and still remain meaningfully
Since neither the nature of the government, nor the international borders, were
clearly determined by the declaration, a dangerous elasticity emerged whereby
the political institutions, constitutional laws and democratic norms could be
gradually moulded to suit the interest in territorial expansion.
The direction is clear: there are about 400,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank
(not including Jerusalem). Politically and ideologically, their power seems
tenfold. One wonders if the great Zionist leap to the ancient Jewish past, and the
recovery of a distant religious imagination, have not opened a Pandora's Box:
after all, in the Bible, God promises his people a holy land, but does not mention,
alas, democracy.
One wonders if the great Zionist leap to the ancient Jewish past has not opened a
Pandora Box: after all, in the Bible, God promises his people a holy land, but does
not mention, alas, democracy
The irony is that the rise of anti-liberal nationalism has become so pronounced
nowadays that the final version of the declaration - unsatisfactory as it may be -
has become the main footing for those committed to a democracy that respects
the universality and equality of individual rights and the role of a minority in
shaping the character of the state.
Israeli political culture is not language-based. Hardly any speeches, texts, and
proclamations took root in collective memory: rather, the Israeli world is mostly
shaped through action and building, not words, which are often mistrusted.
But the declaration is perhaps an exception to this rule - or at least there are
those who, lacking any other bastion, see it as their best chance to uphold their
relatively liberal worldview.
A vociferous debate emerged in Israel after Aharon Barak, the former chief justice
of the Supreme Court - and perhaps the most revered person among liberal
Zionists - argued that the declaration represents the ultimate values and ends of
the Jewish state. The declaration includes a commitment to espouse liberty,
justice, and peace, as well as equal individual, political and social rights for all; it
also invites Palestinian citizens of Israel to become partners in building the state.
Israeli settlers and a security guard outside their new house in Abu Dis in May
2004 (AFP)
Barak argued that according to Israeli law and judicial tradition, the declaration,
while not regarded as a constitutional document in and of itself, sets the highest
standard to which any law should be evaluated. These include "basic laws" which
serve in place of a national constitution.
"Everyone agrees," said Barak in an interview with Yediot Ahronot in February,
"that it [the declaration] sets the standard by which laws and basic laws should be
interpreted." He added that laws, including basic laws, must be legislated in
advance so that they are consistent with the declaration.
“Is the Knesset free to determine in a new basic law anything it sees fit, or are
there constitutional restrictions on its reasoning and deliberation?” Barak asked
At issue especially is the proposal for the new Jewish nation-state law, and the
question as to whether it will pass judicial review by the Supreme Court.
Like the declaration, which to some extent it may replace from a constitutional
perspective, the law fails to mention democracy as constitutive of the state, and
declares a monopoly of the Jewish nation over its nature and identity. Worse still,
it does not even promise equal individual rights for all citizens and allows for
segregated communities based on religion and/or nationality.
Under attack: Court and declaration
In recent years, Palestinian citizens of Israel have become more dispersed
geographically, living side by side with Jews in some cities. More Palestinian
citizens of the country have become involved in mainstream Israeli life, especially
in universities and at the workplace.
Netanyahu’s last two governments, in fact, increased their budgets to the Arab
sector, for example for schools. Yet as the government encourages its Palestinian
citizens to become fully integrated – especially as producers, workers and
consumers in its expanding neoliberal economy – so it seeks, at the same time, to
weaken their citizenship from a political and legal perspective, to “put them in
their place” and remind them who “owns” the state and its resources.
With the new law, Palestinian citizens and other minorities may have less access
to land and housing, or to budgets for promoting their culture.
Barak warns that the Jewish nation-state law, might (if accepted) have far-
reaching implications for the standing of Palestinian citizens of Israel and beyond,
and will generally restrict “liberal” rulings of the Supreme Court – a body often
characterised by the right-wing parties as dangerously "unpatriotic".
A Palestinian demonstrator and an Israeli soldier during a Land Day protest near
Ramallah in March 2008 (AFP)
Many years ago, I happened to sit near to Barak at a dinner: at one point during
our conversation, he opened his wallet, took out a copy of the declaration,
carefully unfolded it and explained to me the meaning of the rights promised in
the document.
I was struck by his sincerity. It was evident that for him, a Holocaust survivor who
remembers what it means to be part of a helpless minority, the words of the
declaration were very much alive and a promise Israel should realise.
Today, however, very different kinds of people run the Israeli legal system. The
justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, for example, responded to Barak by saying that
his statements concerning the superiority of the declaration over the proposed
basic law, and the role of the Supreme Court in guaranteeing this superiority
through judicial review, “demolishes democracy, since it is the Knesset that
should determine what has constitutional standing, and what does not".
Indeed, for Shaked and right-wing parties, the declaration has become a “leftie”
document, despite its great emphasis on the bond between the nation and its
ancient borderless land. Because the Supreme Court makes (very cautious) use of
the declaration to criticise problematic government decisions and abolish some of
the Knesset's laws (only 18 since 1995), one MP in the Jewish Home party
suggested that the court should be demolished with a D-9 bulldozer.
One MP in the Jewish Home party suggested that the Supreme Court should be
demolished with a D-9 bulldozer
Shaked is from the Jewish Home party, a right-wing party dominated by settlers,
although she herself is secular and lives in Tel Aviv. Now in her early 40s, Shaked
is a prominent voice of the new right in Israel; unapologetically nationalistic,
sophisticated in appealing to the Israeli secular centre, and especially willing to
use all the tools and resources of government to advance her ideology.
She is a leading voice among those on the right whose favourite pastime is
attacking the Supreme Court for protecting the property rights of Palestinians in
the West Bank, for intervening in security matters and occasionally criticising the
security forces, and for protecting, to some extent, asylum seekers. Recently she
noted that, for the court, “Zionism has become a dead zone”.
Shaked strives to remake the Supreme Court and lower courts through new
appointments of judges, ones who are not “activists” and creative in their judicial
approach, more sympathetic to Jewish law and, especially, less liberal in their
philosophy. So far, she has had a number of successes.
The leader of her party is Naftali Bennett, the education minister, who is
introducing religious Jewish content into schools’ curriculum, and who would also
like to impose an ethical code on university professors which would ensure they
could not bring their potentially critical “politics” into classrooms. Together,
Shaked and Bennett influence the identity of future Israel more than any other
The degradation of others
Since its inception, Zionism has always had an ardent romance with the human
“will”, a prominent concept in early Zionist texts since the time of Theodor
Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism. An abundance of this collective
will was needed to create a new world for Jews in Palestine, but it also had to be
limited and bounded in order to establish stable, democratic political institutions
in a given territory.
However today, for the bulk of the right, democracy is becoming synonymous
with imposing the will of the majority, unchained by founding documents, norms
that respect individuals as such and the collective rights of minorities, or indeed
the courts. They demand the abolition of the judicial review that Barak and other
judges introduced in 1995, or at least restricting it.
An Israeli army bulldozer drives over Palestinian homes, demolished for a bypass
for settlers in southern Gaza in May 2004 (AFP)
Just this week, Netanyahu joined them for the first time. In their rhetoric, the
Knesset is the sole sovereign, and only it supposedly represents the genuine will
of the people. The will of the majority can indeed go unchecked, given that Israel
has only one house of representatives and a president with no power of veto over
This would be a dangerous vision of democracy in any circumstances, but it is
especially so when it is joined with land-focused nationalism in which non-Jews
play no part, and in which the institutions of the state are increasingly oriented
toward legitimising the finalisation of Israel's territorial expansion.
To be sure, there are those for whom there is little difference between individuals
such as Aharon Barak and Ayelet Shaked and the dissimilar visions of Israel they
each represent. These critics view Israel as an occupying, colonial, nationalist,
militaristic, even illegitimate, state at its core; after all, they fairly argue, the
Supreme Court itself did little to stop the occupation and suppression of
Palestinians by Israel (even if it did intervene in specific cases and issues).
It is sobering, in fact depressing, to see how in very different settings, democracy
can be pushed back by using the same unimaginative yet effective techniques
But for those who see Jewish nationhood as no less legitimate than any other,
and who remember the many currents in, and complexity of, the Jewish national
revival movement and its unparalleled achievements (despite its serious flaws),
the disparity between the two Israels makes all the difference in the world.
These are not good times for democracy around the world. Viktor Orban in
Hungary, Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip
Erdogan in Turkey, are among the leaders and countries who testify that
authoritarianism is on the rise.
In Israel’s immediate environment, the Arab Spring collapsed, as did the
processes of democratisation in the Palestinian Authority. Numerous books have
been devoted to this subject, especially after the rise of Donald Trump (see for
example How Democracies Die by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky as well
as Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright).
It is sobering, in fact depressing, to see how in very different settings, democracy
can be pushed back by using the same unimaginative yet effective techniques.
These include:
 identifying real or imagined - internal or external - enemies of the nation
 cultivating fear and a sense of emergency
 introducing polarising politics and depicting the opposition as illegitimate
 personalising parties and idolising a “strong” leader
 creating an unmediated bond between the leader and the masses through
populist messages
 criticising cultural and intellectual elites as unpatriotic while elevating the
 manipulating and doctoring the law at will
 attempting to gain soft or direct control over the courts and media
 tolerating intimidation and even violence towards “disloyal” citizens and
human rights organisations
All of these are for the sake of augmenting and centralising power.
How democracy in Israel has receded
Israel is not an authoritarian state: in some respects, given its chaotic political
scene, it is far from it. The rule of law is also still in place. The former prime
minster, Ehud Olmert, has just been released from jail, as has the former
president, Moshe Katzav, and the police recommended in February
that Netanyahu stand trial for various corruption charges.
Parties from the entire ideological spectrum compete in fair elections, and free
speech is - for the most part - respected. The attorney general and other
gatekeepers of democracy have not been dismissed nor feel under threat, and the
civil service is not purged for political reasons. Democracy is not in imminent
And yet, regrettably, in each of the parameters of receding democracy listed
above, Israel has “progressed” in recent years. Chief of Police Roni Alsheikh, a
settler himself, is being viciously attacked for allowing the investigations into
Netanyahu to proceed. The prime minister's cronies, at the same time, are fishing
in the legal codes of other Western countries, trying to find “legitimate” ways to
shield the sitting PM.
Palestinian members of the Knesset are often bullied. Violence by settlers
towards Palestinians in the West Bank is, for the most part, not even being
Listen to a local Israeli radio talk show, and you may be shocked by the bigotry
you hear as everyday, casual conversation. If you are an artist, or a media
personality, better not say things deemed unpatriotic since you may lose your
livelihood. Palestinian members of the Knesset are often bullied. Violence by
settlers towards Palestinians in the West Bank is, for the most part, not even
being reported. I could go on and on.
Things have become so dire that nowadays that it is mainly Benny Begin, son of
Menachem Begin and an old-school Knesset member of the Likud, known for his
complete mistrust of the Palestinian Authority and the Oslo peace process, who
consistently and courageously struggles to preserve in his party at least some
commitment to universal and equal citizenship, to the property rights of
Palestinians in the West Bank, to transparency of police inquiries and legal
recommendations - and to a general sense of fairness and humanity.
In each country where democracy is receding, it happens for different reasons:
the difficulty in coping with large numbers of migrants and refugees, the severe
economic crisis and unemployment, a mistrust in political institutions, a state of
emergency and security breakdown.
As noted above however, none of these factors holds in Israel’s case. In fact,
Israelis consistently report that they are very satisfied with their private lives.
Israel was ranked 11th in the “World Happiness Report” of 2017.
No, if liberal democracy is receding in Israel it is because of other reasons. The
occupation of the West Bank - whether it is done for religious, security or
economic reasons - demands the weakening of Israeli institutions and political
forces that may challenge it, be they the courts or intellectuals at the universities.
It posits one nation against another in an ongoing conflict, and hence demands
the silencing of any voice that challenges the primacy of the nation or doubts the
IDF and the security forces, even when their conduct becomes very questionable,
as at the Gaza border at present.
Most concerning, the occupation leads too many Israelis to degrade others as
lesser human beings in order to justify their subjection and the usurpation of their
land. It depicts as disloyal those citizens who reject this degradation as inhuman
and un-Jewish.
Indeed, Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said earlier this month that the
liberal party Meretz, whose main support comes from Jewish voters, “represents
the Palestinian interest in the Israeli Knesset”.
Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, which is the longest in modern
history at 51 years, is shaping Israelis’ understanding of governing
In fact, Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank - which at 51 years is the
longest in modern history - is shaping Israelis’ understanding of governing. As the
two populations of Jewish settlers and Palestinians increasingly live side by side in
the West Bank under Area C, so the two models of law and sovereignty exercised
over the same territory influence each other ever more.
Israeli criminal law, for example, is gradually being applied in military courts, since
most of the judges are Israeli lawyers, civilians doing their reserve service. To
some extent, they have extended the rights of Palestinians standing before the
But the far greater effect of the occupation has been in the reverse direction: the
penetration of the military logic of sovereignty into the Israeli state’s
understanding of government and power. Under military rule, there are no three,
separate and independent branches of government.
Rather, the courts are under the control of the military commander of the area,
and that commander is also the ultimate legislator and final arbiter. With this very
effective model in mind, familiar to most Israelis through their military service,
recent developments make more sense.
How Likud's fate is linked to one man
I have already noted above the attempt to restrict the power of the Supreme
Court and weaken the idea of constitutional democracy; the Israeli Knesset,
however, is not doing much better. This parliament is succumbing, in contrast to
Shaked’s assertion that it is sovereign, to the domination of the executive, losing
its ability to supervise and check the latter, as well as to generate legislation that
is somewhat independent from the government and not coloured by pressing
political needs.
In Israel, elections are for parties, not for individual candidates, and government
is formed through a coalition of parties. Since many of the MPs are either
ministers or deputy ministers, the fusion of the executive and the legislative
branches has always been problematic under the Israeli system.

A rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv in February 2018
But in recent years, an especially ominous development has occurred: the parties
themselves have become less democratic. As of today, five parties in the Knesset
(religious and secular, right and centre) do not conduct internal elections. In three
of them (including Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which is the strongest contender for
replacing the Likud as the leading party), it is practically the head of the party
alone who nominates the candidates for the Knesset, and their career is wholly
dependent upon him. Overall, 40 MPs were elected this way - a third of the
Since these specific parties are usually part of any coalition, their influence is
especially pronounced.
Rather than independent MPs each forming his or her own opinion on the matter
at hand, representing diverse interests and outlooks, exercising their equal right
and responsibility to express their views and act upon them in the very house that
is supposed to embody these values, the actual number of people making
decisions is very small (even in matters of legislation), ensuring that a spirit of
servitude prevails. Parties that eschew democratic principles within themselves
cannot genuinely uphold these principles in public life at large.
It is in this political environment that the current head of the executive, Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has solidified his personal power: he has become
the uncontested leader of the largest party in the ruling coalition, the Likud.
While the party is democratic, it sees its fate as inexorability linked to its leader’s
personal one, so much so that, as the evidence mounted that Netanyahu received
gifts of champagne and cigars worth about $330,000 from “friends,” and may
have tried to influence the media through various forms of indirect bribery, his
public support increased.
Instead of resigning, Netanyahu insists that he is the victim of a witch-hunt,
progressively undermining the ethical standards of his own supporters and their
confidence in public institutions
Instead of resigning, Netanyahu insists that he is the victim of a witch-hunt,
progressively undermining the ethical standards of his own supporters and their
confidence in public institutions. And so ethical blindness, cultivated through
many years of occupation, becomes serviceable for many Israelis when it comes
to dealing with the ethical misconduct of their leaders in internal politics.
Something has indeed changed during the last year or two, and Netanyahu is
being adulated in ways unimagined in the past. Recently, for example, in a cabinet
meeting convened after the prime minister came back from a successful visit to
India, the Culture and Sport Minster Miri Regav said in front of TV cameras:
“You’re a great leader, even though some people in this country don’t like saying
so or broadcasting it. But the truth must be told… You have done us a great
service, with much pride and dignity… you were treated like a king in India. It’s
moving to the point of tears, thank you so much for what you’re doing for the
state of Israel.” (translation byHa’aretz).

There are no term limits in Israel. Netanyahu has been prime minister for 12 of
the past 20 years, albeit non-consecutively. When he entered political life,
Netanyahu had fierce rivals within the party, ones who not only challenged him
through internal elections but who also wielded political clout with which he had
to reckon.
But for a number of years now, Netanyahu has not faced significant challengers
within the party. Somehow, Likud party members, sharing some kind of collective
amnesia, came to believe that “it is in their DNA” to be loyal to their party leader
under almost any circumstances.
Individuals who do attempt to challenge Netanyahu’s leadership position know
they are risking their entire political career. Netanyahu, for his part, did all he
could to diminish his potential rivals within the party, refusing, for example, to
appoint a much-need foreign minister, apparently out of fear of the power and
prestige such a minister could gain within the party.
The Likud ruling party did not bother to issue a manifesto during the last elections
in 2015. Its leader, the prime minister, delivered only one speech during the
entire campaign: to the US Congress, about Iran’s nuclear programme.
The exercise of power had thereby been divorced from language and
accountability. It is not then only the Knesset that wishes nowadays to be
unchecked, and Netanyahu had already done that to a significant extent: no
words bind him, not even his own. And this, perhaps, is the most perturbing sign
for Israeli democracy.
- Eyal Chowers teaches political theory at Tel Aviv University. His book, The
Political Philosophy of Zionism: Trading Jewish Words for a Hebraic Land was
published by Cambridge UP in 2012.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily
reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, pauses in silence as he
addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly on 1 October
2015 at the United Nations in New York.
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