Since Benjamin Netanyahu’s sixth government was sworn in on December 29, 2022, and especially after the new Justice Minister Yariv Levin presented his proposal for far-reaching legal reforms on January 4, 2023, the opposition has been complaining that the new government is responsible for a flood of anti-democratic bills of government and private member origin.
In a lengthy article he published on February 11, in Walla, under the title of “From Begin to Netanyahu, a 45-year journey in pursuance of ‘the end of democracy,’” Kalman Liebskind explained that since 1977, the Left has obsessively warned that the Right is about to bring the Israeli democracy to an end, so that there is really little that is new in the current round, except for the changing circumstances and personalities.
A major difference between all the Likud-led governments from 1977 to 2021, and Israel’s current all-right government is that all the previous governments included some liberal elements, centrist and even left-wing parties, and numerous liberal Likud MKs. These liberal Likudniks came from the now defunct Israel Liberal Party that originally formed the Likud together with the Herut Movement, or from liberal circles within the Herut Movement, who preserved the heritage of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, who had combined their right-wing nationalist beliefs with authentic liberal principles.
Today, there are no liberals among the Likud’s coalition partners – the ultra-Orthodox parties, and the nationalist religious parties – while the few liberals that allegedly still inhabit the Likud benches, appear to be in deep hibernation.
The two clusters of legistlation
There are two clusters of legislation for which the government is directly responsible that may be considered anti-democratic. The first has to do with fulfilling the promises made by the Likud to its coalition partners, both on a personal and a financial level. On a personal level, several ministers have been granted excessive powers that go way beyond the power that goes with the ministries they hold.
On a financial level, financial resources have been handed out both within the budget and within coalition funds, without having anything whatsoever to do with the government’s practical goals and democratic principles, such as drastically increasing the funding of ultra-Orthodox institutions of learning, without conditioning this funding on these institutions providing their students with any meaningful non-religious learning, including the principles of democracy.
THE SECOND cluster involves the various laws that Levin seeks to introduce into the statute book, which is designed to change various elements in Israel’s legal system, and especially, to weaken the effectiveness of the gatekeepers in the public service and the ability of the Supreme Court to prevent the government from passing unconstitutional legislation – primarily of an anti-liberal nature.
In the last five months, the anti-democratic nature of the legal reform/constitutional revolution has been proclaimed ad nauseam. At the moment this legislation is on hold, and its future is uncertain. However, in the first two of the five months, Netanyahu was still inclined to argue – as Levin himself is still doing – that rather than weaken Israel’s democracy, the reform will strengthen it by ensuring that the system will function in a more democratic manner.
This will be done by weakening the excessive power of liberal and progressive forces that are still in control of many of Israel’s power centers, even though they no longer represent a majority of the population. Today, Netanyahu speaks in a different language primarily about the need to try and reach a fair compromise between the government and the opposition.
Side by side with the problematic government legislation there is a flood of private members’ bills submitted by coalition MKs, some of which are highly problematic from a democratic point of view. These MKs are vying with each other for the support of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation of their bills.
Many of these bills are not really new and have been submitted in the past in identical or similar wording. For example, the bill submitted by MK Ariel Kellner (Likud) in February 2023 – which is popularly known as the NGO Funding Law – is in fact, a bill to amend the Income Tax Ordinance, by adding provisions for taxing donations received by associations and NGOs from foreign political entities. The bill proposes that an association or NGO that receives a donation from a foreign political entity (i.e. foreign governments, or organizations, such as the EU and UN), that involves an intervention in the internal affairs of Israel will lose its status as a public institution, with all the legal implications. It will also be obliged to pay 65% tax on its income from these donations. The intention of the bill is to diminish the involvement of foreign political entities in the Israeli democracy. The involvement that is to be diminished is that which is implemented by means of financial support of associations and NGOs, whose activity includes intervention in legal issues in Israel, political activity, government policy, municipal policy, or public opinion in its broader sense.
IN FACT, this is an attack on the financial resources of associations and NGOs associated with the left, that are involved in the protection of weaker populations, environmental issues, minority rights, women, workers, etc., or in other words, primarily with human rights.
Since right-wing associations and NGOs receive financial donations mostly from wealthy right-wing philanthropists and almost never from foreign political entities, it is clear that this law is designed to harm one side of the political spectrum. Not surprisingly, similar laws have been passed in Hungary and Poland.
For the time being, the government has decided not to promote this particular law, primarily due to protests by the American administration and West European governments, especially Germany and the UK, who are among the major donors. However, in the future, the law is likely to be submitted again, just as it was in the 23rd and 24th Knessets, by Kellner and others.
It should be noted that the submission of large numbers of anti-democratic government bills and private members’ bills by right-wing MKs is not a new phenomenon, and both the Israel Democracy Institute and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel have published annual lists of such bills in recent years. However, due to the existence of the all-Right government, the danger seems much greater than in the past that such legislation will actually get through.
Why have the laws not been passed?
For the first five months of the government’s existence, very few anti-democratic bills have actually turned into law, despite the fact that the coalition enjoys a comfortable majority and, at least in theory, can pass any legislation it wishes.
It might well be that five months is too short a period to determine whether the threat will be realized. Undoubtedly, several factors have served as a brake to the coalition’s progress, especially in the case of the legal reform/constitutional revolution. The first is the very impressive performance of the parliamentary opposition and of the anti-government-legislation demonstration movement. The second is protests from foreign states, but especially the US and various West European states. The third is the economic ramifications of the proposed legal changes.
The fourth is the reaction of Prime Minister Netanyahu to the factors enumerated above, and especially the criticism of the US administration, which is apparently the main reason why President Joe Biden has so far failed to invite Netanyahu for an official visit to the White House.
The writer worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her most recent book, Israel’s Knesset Members – A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job, was published by Routledge, last year.