Israel Elections: If Netanyahu wins, democracy is in peril - opinion

Benjamin Netanyahu winning the election could jeopardize democracy and make Israel the next Hungary, with Netanyahu the next Viktor Orban.

 Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to tesitfy before the Meron Disaster Inquiry Committee, in Jerusalem, on July 21, 2022 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to tesitfy before the Meron Disaster Inquiry Committee, in Jerusalem, on July 21, 2022
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

A recent headline in The New York Times declared: “Voters see democracy in peril, but saving it isn’t a priority.” The story related to a recent poll of American voters ahead of the midterm elections, in which 71% said they thought democracy was at risk in the US, but only 7% believed this was the most important problem facing the country.

As an Israeli, my fear is not only that my fellow citizens are similarly unconcerned about the threat to democracy, but I suspect far fewer than 71% realize that it is at far greater risk here than in the US.

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 every political post I write. But if you’re Israeli, and you have a vote in the coming elections, please hear me out.

A vote for the Likud, or for one of the parties that supports Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister, is a vote for a very different Israel. An Israel that no previous Israeli prime minister – of any party – would have welcomed. An Israel moving decisively away from the camp of liberal democracies like the US, the UK, France, Germany, Canada, and toward the new camp of former democracies; what Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban proudly calls “illiberal democracies.” 

As one of the leading scholars of democracy, Larry Diamond, explains, in the past, “military coups were the main method of democratic recession. Not today. The death of democracy is now typically administered in a thousand cuts. In one country after another, elected leaders have gradually attacked the deep tissues of democracy.”

 L: Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir. R: Likud leader, former-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) L: Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir. R: Likud leader, former-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

Hungary is the poster child for this gradual erosion of democracy.

Israel could become next 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 independent Election Commission, and replaced them with party loyalists, and 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 have been converted into government propaganda stations.

In April of this year, Orban was re-elected. So does this not prove that Hungary remains a democracy? There was a free election! Except it was free, but not fair. Orban’s “reforms” made a fair election impossible. His party received 90% of the country’s media coverage. He gerrymandered parliamentary districts, and the institutions that would have ruled his actions unlawful a decade earlier are by now instruments of his party.

This is “illiberal” democracy. Elections are held, but liberal values and institutions such as a free press, the rule of law, minority rights, and an independent judiciary are absent. The independent organization Freedom House, which monitors the state of global democracy, no longer ranks Hungary as a functioning democracy.

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

A democratic recession worldwide

Writer Anne Applebaum, whose most recent book discussed the democratic recession in Europe and the US, expressed astonishment that an Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu, would publicly court and embrace Orban, “really the only European leader since the Second World War who has used openly antisemitic language in his politics.” 

Now, Israel is not Hungary. I find it hard to imagine our hyper-critical media being brought to heel so easily, for example.  But Israel is not the US either, with its written constitution, and a panoply of checks and balances to prevent an elected government from abusing its power. 

The Knesset has no amending second chamber, like Britain’s House of Lords or Canada’s Senate. Our 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.

Straight out of Orban’s playbook

THERE IS a legitimate debate to be had about the extent of Supreme Court authority, and it’s a debate that both Yair Lapid and Gideon Sa’ar support, in the context of a comprehensive look at possible constitutional reform.

If Netanyahu returns to power, 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. As Bezalel Smotrich has said quite openly, they fully intend to change the appointment process for the Supreme Court, ensuring that the coalition picks the judges, and they will pass a law preventing the Supreme Court from blocking unconstitutional legislation. 

This is straight out of Orban’s playbook. The former Likudnik Sa’ar, who has been critical of the Supreme Court in the past, nevertheless describes the Netanyahu/Smotrich plan as “a paradise for government corruption.” Israel will be a different country.

It will be a country where a man like Itamar Ben-Gvir, a racist demagogue and inciter of violence, can be a minister; a country where a prime minister facing three corruption charges can simply legislate those charges away, and no independent authority will exist to block this abuse of power. 

I’ve lived in Israel for 15 years. Before that, I was a committed pro-Israel activist, on campus and professionally working for the Israeli Embassy in London. Israel has had plenty of governments I didn’t agree with. But I did not imagine that my country could be taken in a completely different direction, away from the Zionist ideal of “Jewish and democratic,” away from the principles of our Declaration of Independence.

I know this is all boring “politics” stuff. It’s not about the Palestinians, or the gas deal with Lebanon, or Kanye West’s latest moronic utterance. I know “democracy” is not a sexy subject. But it would be a tragedy if Israel sleepwalks toward democracy’s demise simply because not enough voters saw the approaching cliff edge.

The author writes and lectures on Israeli and global politics; and in defense of Zionism as a movement of liberal nationalism. He has been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, North America and the UK.