In the end, it comes down to how you view democracy: is it majority rule or is it a nuanced blend that includes protection of the minority and an array of inalienable rights? If you lean toward the former, then you might be delighted with a victory for the Right in Israel, next Tuesday.
There is no reason to disbelieve the Right’s firebrands – Dudi Amsalem, Bezalel Smotrich, and their ilk – when they now openly speak of what is planned. The central plank is an override clause that will enable the Knesset to cancel Supreme Court rulings by a simple majority, eliminating real judicial oversight and, since the executive and the legislature in Israel are closely linked, in effect killing the separation of the branches of government.
The menu also includes politicians appointing judges as well as civil servants, and the removal of fraud and breach of trust from the list of indictments that politicians can be charged with. And what a coincidence that last bit is. Those happen to be two of the three charges facing Benjamin Netanyahu in court at the moment (it would be too unseemly to strike bribery from the books as well, so other machinations will be required).
Why is the right-wing so open about its destructive intentions?
The reason they can speak openly is that they are no longer trying to retain right-wing votes that belong to the classic conservative elite, which respects liberal democracy. They and their associated politicians – think of Mitt Romney in the United States, Gideon Sa’ar in Israel, in a way even Emmanuel Macron in France and I would also bet David Cameron in the UK – have essentially moved to the other side, clearing the path for the populist assault on liberal democracy. On what is Left of the Right, in much of the world, there is no interest in its quaint nuances.
This is especially so where there are largely traditional and rural populations, and the reasons are simple. It is the professional, educated and urban classes who generally acquire the life experience and social connections that translate into an acceptance of others and a tolerant worldview. You gravitate to cities, you work for multinational companies, you travel the world and you end up realizing there is more to life than the Torah, la France profonde or Hindu nationalism, things you were born to through no fault or credit of your own.
Almost certainly you also raise fewer children. One’s offspring often reject their parents’ taste in music but worldviews are, interestingly, hereditary. Perhaps you see the problem.
Liberal democracy might survive well enough when there is no huge dissatisfaction devouring people’s souls but we are living in an era of dire discontent. Immigration, the collapse of manufacturing in much of the West, the end of pensions, agitation over global warming and rampant inequality caused by the elites’ projects known as tech disruption and globalization. There is dirty work afoot.
The populist Right is highly skilled at turning this into politically effective anger – some of it based on nationalism, and some based on hatred of the educated classes, who are not only more liberal and less traditional but also, very usefully for the populists, who are generally wealthier. In Israel, one of the developed world’s least egalitarian countries, we have both.
Israel also has quite a unique set of circumstances that would render such a lurch away from liberal democracy particularly devastating.
If the cookie crumbles rightward and the Supreme Court is neutered, nationalists will rejoice because they know that the courts and especially the Supreme Court are among the only institutions in the country that make even a small effort to protect the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank. If you’re a nationalist, that might seem reasonable to you but it wouldn’t be very smart. Beyond the moral imperative that the Palestinians should have redress, Israelis have two reasons to reconsider based on their own interest.
FIRST, THE neutralization of the Supreme Court risks pushing the Palestinians in their desperation beyond the thin line that separates the unrest of the past few weeks from a third intifada. Bombs, shootings, knifings everywhere. The young people who seem so attracted to the easy solutions offered by the far-right may not remember this or often read history.
Second, and perhaps more convincing, the court not only protects the rights of the Palestinians, it protects the rights of Israelis themselves from abuse by the authorities. If a berserk state suddenly forbade redheads from traveling abroad, who would you turn to? The judicial system is the only source of protection against unconstitutional acts of indifference and cruelty by the government or a momentary parliamentary majority gone mad. Each country has its own peculiarities and not all have the challenges of Israel that make this so critical here; systems vary, but the bottom line is that the government is checked in truly democratic countries and not in China, Iran, Russia and Venezuela.
Nonetheless, the Right’s program is quite popular with its base, where I’m afraid it is only a minor exaggeration to declare that ISIS would be popular if Netanyahu so ordained it.
The rest of Israel is strangely indifferent. Partly this is because the left is feeling defeated and partly it is because of the brilliant propaganda of Netanyahu, who passionately pushes the partially correct mantra of excessive judicial activism.
The irony is that Netanyahu himself, an educated and knowledgeable person, would certainly not want it under other circumstances. But he requires these reforms to ensure he stays out of prison (as his predecessor Ehud Olmert, alas, did not).
Beyond corruption and hypocrisy, Netanyahu is a kind of tragedy because if this talented man had matured in time and moved to the center, like other Likudniks from Tzipi Livni to Ariel Sharon, he would have become a real asset to the country. Instead, he is a genuine threat.
The threats of a right-wing government
That’s because, in addition to the right’s coming assault on liberal democracy, it is dragging the country on a suicide course on two parallel tracks.
Because of the Right’s insistence on Jewish settlements, Israel and the West Bank will become inseparable, leaving them with an impossible demographic mix not wholly unlike the former Yugoslavia. For those who don’t remember, hundreds of thousands were killed there 30 years ago because of hatred between ethnicities mixed together.
Because of the Right’s dependence on the ultra-Orthodox, Israel will eventually become a version of Iran. It is advisable to remember Netanyahu’s disgraceful move about a month ago to thwart the core curriculum plan that was about to be accepted by the Belz Hassidim, by promising he would not require it. The lack of core education, combined with the stupendous birth rate of the ultra-Orthodox, will combine to kill Israel as a modern economy in a few decades.
Meanwhile, it seems that many young people are flocking to Smotrich’s partner, Itamar Ben-Gvir, that is, they intend to vote for the Religious Zionist Party they co-lead. They see him as something cool, even if they don’t necessarily like Netanyahu. His partner, Smotrich, is on record as wanting religious law to dominate. Israelis indifferent to all this had better prepare for bans on driving on Shabbat and on immodest clothing for women because that’s where this is headed.
Anyone who is alarmed by the above scenarios should reflect quite carefully before inflicting this level of damage on future generations. Ask the Russians who actually voted for Vladimir Putin. Ask the Iranians, many of whom supported the Islamic revolution. Things can get pretty ugly pretty fast.
The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press, served as chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem and is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him at twitter.com/perry_dan.