Israel's authoritarian judicial reform is a mistake as bad as Brexit - opinion

If Israel's judicial reforms do pass as is, the result will be about as felicitous as Brexit – that much is actually quite clear.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson takes questions during a news conference at the European Union leaders summit dominated by Brexit, in Brussels, Belgium October 17, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE)
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson takes questions during a news conference at the European Union leaders summit dominated by Brexit, in Brussels, Belgium October 17, 2019

The UK in the 2000s had its problems like everywhere else, but Lord knows that London, which was my home for most of that decade, was on top of the world. It was unrivaled as a financial center in its hemisphere, wealth was skyrocketing and the culture veritably crackled with a sense of destiny and progress; a little like Israel – until the current self-inflicted agitations.

Then the Conservative Party in the UK came to power in 2010 as part of a natural cycle. There was also some data that provided an argument for spending cuts, but mainly there was an ideological obsession with austerity masked by a plan called the “Big Society” to empower local initiatives at the expense of central authority.

Thus began a steady decline that went into overdrive when the Tories finally won an absolute majority in Parliament, making their centrist Liberal Democrat allies unneeded and putting prime minister David Cameron at the mercy of his party’s version of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Almost all serious economists, and most observers who understood how Britain goes about its business, warned that the campaign to leave the European Union was based on false claims and numbers. They shouted to the heavens that if so-called Brexit (a once-facetious updating of “Grexit”) happened, the cost would be dire.

The response by Britain’s reckless populists was this:

Like today’s proponents of Israel’s proposed authoritarian overhaul, they insisted that the change would bring benefit, not damage; more freedom, more governability, more democracy, more wealth even.

PM Boris Johnson visits Grodzinski bakery wearing 'Get Brexit Done' apron on December 6 , 2019  (credit: Courtesy)PM Boris Johnson visits Grodzinski bakery wearing 'Get Brexit Done' apron on December 6 , 2019 (credit: Courtesy)

Like Israel’s far Right today, with its rumblings about “governance,” they issued subtle appeals to racism. Thus did confused British bigots vote to leave the EU (instead of the Commonwealth) for fear of Africans and Caribbeans, achieving only a wall between themselves and white Europe.

Like Israel’s far Right today, they claimed that their opponents are elitists detached from the real people, the salt of the earth. 

And, like Israel’s far Right today, they dismissed with disdain the warnings. The Brexit campaigner Michael Gove, with breathtaking indifference to math, put it this way, “The people of this country have had enough of experts.”

That last mistake is painfully coming home to roost. The pound, trade, tax revenue and jobs have all plummeted, London’s financial mojo was sucked up by Paris and other sites on the continent, and by some estimates the GDP is 10% lower than it would have been without Brexit. This is why supermarket shelves are shockingly empty of European vegetables and why the sick wait all day for an ambulance and weeks for a hospital bed.

The polls show the Labour Party opposition is heading toward a massive victory in the next election – even though, just like the Israeli center-left, it was also guilty of cowardice and acquiescence to the general foolishness. Brexit remorse has spread to about two-thirds of the public, who want a new referendum. If Britain returns to the EU, it will be as the “sick man of Europe” once more, with hat in hand.

Bamboozling voters

WHICH BRINGS us to Israel.

Like Britain’s populists, the Right here is expert at bamboozling voters with over-complication, divisive grievance messaging, distortions of history and fuzzy math. But the situation is really quite simple. They want the coalition to appoint the judges and then for even decisions of these puppets to be “overrideable” by a simple vote of the same coalition – meaning zero limits on what the coalition can do.

If this outrage passes, the coalition could cancel the very idea of future elections. It could game the system however it wanted to ensure its future victory, including by denying the vote to whatever group it wanted. It certainly could jail its opponents.

Asked what, in such a situation, promises Israelis they would not be trampled by the government, Smotrich replied: “I promise.” This, from a man who called himself “a proud homophobe,” bemoaned the presence of Arab women in his wife’s maternity ward, and prefers the rule of religious law in Israel.

It is not polite to hurl insults, but one has to be a fool to consider this democracy. Not that many Israelis are fools. The reality is more dire: many are not democrats. They yearn for a King David. Lacking that, they’ll take an Israeli Putin.

Fortunately, I do not think they’re a majority quite yet. Which brings us to the practical outcomes of the proposed authoritarian overhaul.

By now all three major credit ratings agencies, Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch have issued warnings that the “reforms” could harm Israel’s outlook. The government – in a true insult to the intelligence of citizens – is trying to present the fact that this hasn’t happened yet as evidence that there’s no problem.

Billions of dollars have left and are leaving the country. Bessemer, one of Israel’s top venture capital financing companies has advised its partners to manage their exposure to the shekel and not keep all their dollars in Israeli banks. The tech unicorn Riskified this week announced it was removing its half-billion dollar cash reserves from Israel and offering relocations.

Economic fears

Every day brings more of this – and it will amplify if the reforms pass, because anyone holding cash in Israel, including me, will fear unchecked currency controls, the loss of the independence of the central bank, and even seizure of accounts.

Israelis’ sense of prosperity has been in large part based on the strength of the shekel. This is why the GDP clocks in at higher than most of the EU countries’ – it is math. And the strength of the shekel is based on demand for the shekel. Should this continue it will go in the direction of the old Greek drachma and the current Turkish lira. The era of inexpensive vacations by the middle class to the Greek islands will be over.

Add to that the growing revolt in the armed services – anyone ignoring a protest letter from all living heads of the Air Force is literally taking their lives in hand – and one can imagine the security atmosphere the day after, and the temptation to Israel’s enemies.

Electorates are just assemblages of people, and like people they make mistakes. Brexit was a terrible mistake and the same electorate now collectively knows it. As with the authoritarian overhaul, it should never have happened and the only positive outcome would be an eventual reversal.

Parliament votes are a more controllable situation. Each member’s vote should be weighed with sacred caution and face national public scrutiny. Brexit would not have been adopted by the British Parliament. The authoritarian overhaul should not be adopted by the Israeli Knesset.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition has 64 of 120 seats – a majority that is not based on a massive mandate but on splits in the opposition that wasted 6% of the vote in November. For the authoritarian overhaul to be blocked, all it will take is four righteous persons in this Sodom.

I have a feeling they will be found. Whether that leads to the collapse of the government, new elections, or a messy compromise – which itself could be a source of new problems – no one can say. But if the reforms do pass as is, the result will be about as felicitous as Brexit – that much is actually quite clear.

The larger issue, which is universal, is this disdain for expertise. Have the people truly had enough of experts? Of facts? Of data? Magnificent! We shall see then how they enjoy poverty, dysfunction and chaos, because such are the fruits of ignorance and folly.

The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press. He served as the chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem and is a managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him at