Israel's democracy is in danger: Knesset must rise above divisions - opinion

Today, the state of Israel is facing major risks of unimaginable damage if the reform of the judicial system becomes law.

 Israelis protest against the government’s proposed judicial reforms in Tel Aviv on February 4.  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Israelis protest against the government’s proposed judicial reforms in Tel Aviv on February 4.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Since 1948, the Jewish diaspora has wholeheartedly supported Israel, constructed from the ashes of millions of Jews and with the blood and sweat of millions of others. The pioneers were carried by an unshakable determination to build a state in which they could live freely and openly within the diverse religious and secular confines of Judaism. They were joined by immigrants with the same passion, or who were forced to flee the ugly scourge of antisemitism. Backed by the Jewish diaspora, the state was fragile but the people were strong.

Their dream was for an exemplary state built on values of sharing, social justice and democracy. They could boast of the bravery of farmer-soldiers, and of the endurance of a people that would no longer be wiped out or even humiliated. The military genius of the Israel Defense Forces brought victories in wars imposed on them by numerically superior enemies seeking the destruction of this young and fragile state.

Of course, there was more… the kibbutzim and agricultural achievements, as well as the wide range of scientific research, notably in medical fields, carried out often in brilliant universities open to everyone. And how about the world of culture, and the generosity of social programs established when the state was still financially weak? Later came the advent of the Start-Up Nation and hi-tech success. Even with so few natural resources, the economy is flourishing, mostly thanks to the hard work of Israelis.

Is the state of Israel perfect?

No, it is not. There are still too many difficulties and not enough justice. The situation for Palestinians is a problem, and solutions must be found with dignity and respect for everyone. Attempts to reach peace agreements have not succeeded.

The security of the state and its citizens is still a major worry, as terrorism is a daily danger and certain neighbors continue to call openly for Israel’s destruction. We must never forget this. And yet Israel has reached a level often compared to western democracies in spite of a hard, hostile environment and constraints forced upon its citizens by security measures.

 Israelis march in Tel Aviv during a protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, February 25, 2023. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) Israelis march in Tel Aviv during a protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, February 25, 2023. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

The state of Israel was constructed on two founding values. First, there was unity in spite of major societal divisions (the joke was that two Jews will have at least three opinions in any conversation). Second, Israel was founded as an indisputable democracy. Though complicated by voting procedures linked to party lists, its most important feature, developed with almost religious fervor, was the separation and balance of legislative, executive and judicial powers.

And the fourth power was the press, which enjoyed extraordinary freedom of expression, and still does. Every Israeli prime minister, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has brandished the banner of this democracy, the only one in the region.

This combination of incredible achievements and functioning democratic structures, pushed at times to extremes, has formed an incredibly positive image of the country. And today, the state of Israel is facing two major risks of unimaginable damage if the reform of the judicial system becomes law. First, there is the risk of a permanent fracture of Israeli society combined with the risk of severe discord with and among Diaspora Jews, a huge majority of whom live in functioning democracies.

Second, there is a risk of weakening Israel’s diplomatic and economic strengths. The image of Israel and its diplomacy are formidably served by all its superior achievements, its values and by its democratic system. Any process which weakens its democracy has, as we can already see, consequences for the image of the country. And as an advertising executive, I know how difficult it is to construct an image and how quickly it can be damaged. Diplomats, politicians, journalists and investors will feel these consequences. There are no guarantees that they will not distance themselves from the state of Israel.

The ongoing weekly demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of Israelis are gaining strength. They are a reflection of the fracture and deep divisions in Israeli society, which has so many other battles to fight. The dangers the state faces are not minor. Peace talks do make occasional progress but there is still no solution for Palestinians, who should be the main partners.

Terrorism is a constant threat, as certain states and groups have not abandoned their efforts to destroy Israel. With all these threats from within and on the borders, solidarity with the diaspora should be a treasure to preserve and cultivate.

Israel is identified with democratic values that form a shield as powerful as that of David. They allow this oh-so-controversial state, constantly under attack, to be admired for its capacity for integration (though this is not perfect), its tolerance of diverse groups of people, and for its, at times, excessive severity. This translates into respect for the balance of the three powers that define the state, in addition to its free press. And this image is a tremendous asset – a treasure for Israel.

I have always refrained from publicly discussing the politics of Israel, a country I love, with its rich diversity. I have always supported the country in all its efforts for security, survival and for peace with its neighbors, as well as its diverse educational and research activities, and its noble battles against antisemitism and all forms of racism and hate.

Today I say: “Prime Minister Netanyahu, some find your current actions very controversial, but you have accomplished a great deal for Israel in terms of its security, modernity, economy and in other areas. You must not be a divisive prime minister, one who creates irreparable fractures in Israeli society and in Jewish communities throughout the world.

“Do not be the leader who damages or even destroys a part of Israel’s image to the point of handicapping its diplomacy and economy. This has always been the dream of your enemies. You must not be the prime minister who fulfills their dreams. Rise up against this judicial reform package. You will take your rightful place in Israel’s history as the man behind the Abraham Accords who saved his country’s great treasure, its democracy.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu, your coalition and opposition leaders: Rise! Rise above your divisions and negotiate a consensual reform that will be approved peacefully by a vast majority at the Knesset, will strengthen Israel’s democracy, reunite your citizens and make the diaspora and the friends of Israel proud of the Israeli genius.”

The writer is the chairman of the board of the Publicis Group, chairman of the International Board of Governors of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and a lifetime board member of the Weizmann Institute.