Last week I wrote to a friend in Hungary that Israel seems to be heading at full speed toward the Hungarian reality of becoming an illiberal democracy.
My friend, who supports Viktor Orban’s government, answered that the Hungarian situation is certainly not problem-free, but that it is “mostly about keeping people tuned,” and that one can continue to live one’s life freely as long as “you leave politics out of your private domain, and do not let yourself be bothered.”
Since politics have been an integral part of my life since my late teens, and I cannot see myself “not being bothered” by a worrying political reality, what my friend had to say was of no comfort to me.
To my great surprise my friend, who is a professor of political science, did not mention terms such as democracy, the rule of law or minority rights in his response to my message. However, what he decided to focus on did get me thinking about whether what needs to be compared are the personal freedoms that still prevail in Hungary today, and those that might start to disappear in Israel should the government’s plans be fully realized.
My conclusion was that it is more important to concentrate on the changes and reforms that heralded the deterioration of the short-lived liberal democratic system in Hungary, and the question of whether they are about to start occurring in Israel.
I believe that should the coalition actually complete the approval of the bill that will prohibit the use of the argument of unreasonableness in court verdicts concerning policy decisions before the end of the Knesset’s summer session, we shall actually have mounted the slippery road leading from words to actions.
Most of those who speak in favor of the reforms that the Israeli government has turned into its policy since the beginning of January, argue against those of us who vehemently reject these reforms, that we are not really seeking to protect democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and other values of liberal democracy, but to protect our predominant status in the system, even though we no longer command a majority in the population in general, and certainly not within the Jewish population.
They emphasize that it is not the current coalition that is placing democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in danger, but the opponents of the reform, and that our claims about what is liable to happen in Israel should the government’s reform actually go through are totally subjective, no matter how many experts support us, since these experts are all ideologically biased – they are all progressive liberals, and in a true democracy there are many other ideologies and worldviews besides progressive liberalism. Whether true or not, none of this refutes the fear that we are heading towards the Hungarian reality.
The analysis of the Hungarian situation is much less convoluted than that of Israel. Since 2004 Hungary has been a member of the European Union, and since 2010 the EU started to be critical of the direction in which successive governments led by Orban have been leading Hungary’s democracy.
Today the situation is that the EU either effectively or conditionally prevents Hungary from receiving vast sums of EU funding, and at the moment is considering not to enable Hungary to assume the presidency of the EU Council in July 2023 – conditioning a change in its attitude on Hungary reversing many of the antidemocratic measures it has instituted in the last decade, and its failure to contend with various issues that are of common EU concern.
The list of Hungarian alleged transgressions includes: curtailing judicial independence and particularly judicial review of administrative decisions, academic freedom, and LGBT rights; and dealing inadequately with high-level corruption, the problem of global warming, and asylum-seekers.
For better or worse, Israel is not a member of the EU, and therefore does not find itself under the sort of supervision that Hungary finds itself, though Israel is frequently scolded by the EU, or individual members of the EU, for alleged transgressions of international law or for antidemocratic moves.
However, let us remember that Israel has been a member of the OECD (that has nothing to do with the EU, though all or most of the EU members are also members of the OECD) since September 2010. Before Israel was accepted into the OECD and Netanyahu’s returned to power in 2009, as a member of the Knesset Research and Information Center I participated, together with researchers from the Prime Minister’s Office, in preparing a document that attempted to demonstrate that the situation in Israel corresponded with the liberal democratic principles professed by the OECD.
It is no secret that since its foundation, Israel’s democracy has been faulty in various aspects – some resulting from the occasional clash between Jewish religious principles and those of democracy; others resulting from the fact that we came to the Land of Israel from all corners of the earth and have many different perspectives about democracy; and yet others resulting from the unresolved relations between ourselves and the Palestinians. Nevertheless, we managed to produce a document that was welcomed by the OECD negotiators. I am not sure that today we would have been able to produce such a document.
Israel should not become Hungary
MANY OF our current fears and concerns are directly related to the reasons that Hungary finds itself being ostracized in the EU. Most immediately, the government bill on the issue of unreasonableness, which Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman Simcha Rothman are determined to pass in its rigid original wording by the end of this month, will release the government from any sort of judicial review over appointments and other administrative decisions.
Though the rest of the legal reform will most likely be deferred until after the Knesset’s summer recess, and will probably be delivered salami style, there isn’t a single element in it that does not weaken the integrity and independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.
In the meantime, the government keeps acting in a manner that indicates that it has no intention of strengthening democracy by means of its reform, and that it is not committed to liberal democracy.
For example, when recently a liberal attorney – Amit Becher – was elected by a vast majority as head of the Israel Bar Association, which under the current system of selecting judges is an important actor in the process, the government decided to support a private member’s bill submitted by MK Hanoch Milwidsky (Likud) which will do away with the Bar and replace it with a new “voluntary” organization, whose head will be appointed by the justice minister. In other words, if free elections do not bring the desired result, get rid of the organization in which the elections took place.
I must admit that at the moment I am not optimistic about Israel’s mad race toward the dismantlement of much of what qualifies it to be considered a viable liberal democracy, actually being stopped. There are limits to what impressive demonstrations can achieve. It is also not the current results of all the opinion polls that matter, but the results of the elections that were held in November 2022, which gave the coalition its 64-seat majority in the Knesset.
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.