I have discovered the silver lining in the government’s attempted authoritarian overhaul: Israel is once again providing a light unto the nations, this time in the form of a lesson in the importance and fragility of the principles of true democracy.
My experience as a foreign correspondent all over the world leaves me with little doubt that this lesson is badly needed. Rare is a society where a solid majority appreciates what true democracy is. The problem is not unique to Israel: everywhere people tend to define democracy as free elections and majority rule.
Many Israelis are not alone in forgetting the important nuances that democracy also and perhaps mainly guarantees civil rights, such as freedom of expression and association, protection of minorities and marginalized populations, equality before the law, separation of powers and most importantly, limits on government power.
And what limits the power of the government? Who prevents it from canceling elections or imprisoning the opposition? What will prevent this government from outlawing homosexuality or a future one from banning yarmulkes in public? Only the judiciary.
It’s best if the judiciary operates under the auspices of a constitution but it’s essential that it not be beholden directly by the government, for then we will be dealing with not gatekeepers but puppets.
It is the so-called elites who don’t forget these nuances: academics, lawyers, philosophers, senior officials, cultural figures and yes, journalists. This is one reason why their freedom of action is also important. From these circles will come the drafters of constitutions, all over the world, when the time comes. That is why right-wing populists despise the educated and incite against them.
Once somehow elected, the populist right will demand unlimited power based on the argument that “the people have decided.” The educated will rebel but they are generally in the minority and will be labeled as “elites.” If this ploy succeeds, the populists’ next step – as in Hungary and Russia – is machinations to perpetuate their reign.
It is clear what the Israeli variant will do with unbridled power: religious coercion, oppression of LGBTQ people, marginalization of the opposition in all its forms and oppression of the Israeli Arabs, in hopes they will no longer vote. All this will cause a brain drain and capital flight.
The demand for the shekel will drop, the currency will weaken and with it the GDP per capita which has already reached $55,000 (NIS 197, 330) a year – higher than in Germany, France and Great Britain. The gravy train will derail.
This is why almost every senior official in the security, business, technology, academic and media communities is strongly opposed to the overhaul and they appear ready to fight. This is a real danger to the country’s ability to survive and the government’s disregard for it is reckless. It will not end well if this continues.
The world is paying attention
The fact that this tragedy is happening in a nuclear power poses a real danger to all, so the world is paying attention – some with concern and some with morbid curiosity, as when faced with roadkill on the highway. Israel’s friends are in despair and its enemies are joyous.
I KNOW of no other nation since World War II that has provided the world with such a riveting example of the danger of giving rein to fanatics – a colossal failure of Zionism. And while Israel’s religion-based madness has no exact parallel in the modern world, other countries do face a similar challenge.
In the United States and in parts of Europe, there is at this time the same rage that coalesces in the populist Right: against progressives, immigrants, globalization that has destroyed local industries, technology that is eliminating jobs in general, crazy income disparities and a feeling that tradition is being disrespected by the educated.
Populist leaders like Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Narendra Modi in India are trying to cultivate the same hatred of elites, harness the anger into personality cults and turn their countries into autocracies. Netanyahu’s Israel is simply on the vanguard at the moment.
One of the reasons why the populist right from time to time really comes to power legitimately is that the public in many places is asleep at the wheel about the brittleness of their freedom. The citizens in most Western countries do not tend to take danger seriously until their house is on fire. They’re more concerned with the quotidian. They’d rather not be political.
And that’s why it’s so helpful that the populist Right in Israel has volunteered to provide the world with a spectacular example of what can happen. And the world is mesmerized. The Economist, The New York Times, CNN and The Wall Street Journal are all covering it prominently.
About a hundred members of Congress are pressuring President Joe Biden to intervene. Most political parties and major media in Germany urged Chancellor Olaf Schulz to reprimand Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit. In London, supporters of Israel demonstrate by the thousands and there too a cold shoulder awaits the prime minister and his wife, if she insists on joining, as usual.
Among those who are captivated by the story here are the potential conspirators in other countries and therefore it is very important, for the entire democratic world, that the coup in Israel should fail. It is important that the unmasking of the Israeli populist Right – after it largely hid its plans during the election – will remove it from power for a good, long time.
It will be an instructive lesson for the citizens of many democratic countries and for those who plot against them. If the Israeli protesters are successful, then others will also rise up when similarly assaulted. If the Israeli populist Right is punished, its counterparts abroad will think twice and perhaps return to their caves.
As Peter Gabriel sang in “Biko,” about the twilight of apartheid in South Africa: The eyes of the world are watching now.
The writer is a 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 https://danperry.substack.com.