Friends of Israel around the world are deeply saddened that the homeland for Jews and a vibrant democracy in a troubled region has slipped into a democratic crisis over the Knesset’s vote to pass controversial judicial reforms.
More than two years ago, we wrote in these pages about the January 6 attack on the very symbol of American democracy, the United States Capitol, which was incited by a demagogue who delegitimized democratic processes. We noted that the attack on the Capitol added an unwanted arrow to the quiver of American exceptionalism. We also sounded a cautionary note, saying: “The lessons are clear to other nations about the risks of demagogues in high office no matter how many checks and balances are built into the institutions of democracy.”
Today, it is Israel. The contemptuous actions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-Right coalition are moral as well as political failures of leadership, threatening not only Israel’s democracy, economy, and social cohesion but its long-term security.
Judicial reform, giving unchecked power, undermines democracy
The Knesset’s baffling steps toward curtailing judicial checks on the executive branch undermine Israel’s democracy. Since David Ben-Gurion, the head of The Jewish Agency for Israel, proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, Israel has been a beacon for democracy and the rule of law in the Middle East. This has been underpinned by a clear separation among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches – with the absolute independence of the judiciary guaranteed by law.
The system of separation of powers and dynamic democracy has served Israelis brilliantly for decades. It has helped fuel its innovation-driven economy and attracted massive foreign investment – a marvel that many others have tried to emulate. Yet, these so-called “legal reforms” have created legislative uncertainty and social unrest, and spooked foreign investors. The results are lowered credit ratings, a depreciating shekel, and Tel Aviv’s falling stock market. Weakening Israel’s legal system weakens Israel’s economy.
Despite deep divisions among Jews, and between Jews and Arabs in Israel, there has always been a recognition that Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people and a refuge from the virulent scourge of antisemitism. The new laws are stoking fears that Israel will become a less tolerant and equal society, with ultra-Orthodox political parties in the Netanyahu coalition pushing for special rights for segments of the population including broader exemptions from military service. These changes could upset a fragile social balance and veer the country toward a theocracy.
For a small country not blessed with natural resources, Israel has long punched well above its weight. Israel’s prestige and influence are rooted in its unique history, its commitment to democratic values, and its amazing investments in education, science, and innovation.
Protection of sovereignty and security is the existential role of any national government, and the number one job of every Israeli government has been to protect the Jewish homeland. For decades, Israeli military and civilian readiness has been the envy of the world. With the rule of law under threat, those serving loyally in the Israeli military may begin to question the lawfulness of military orders.
There is no question that Netanyahu misjudged the sustained grassroots reaction of his people, especially the reservists who are key to Israel’s security. What if this contagion spreads more broadly within the IDF, Mossad, and Shin Bet? What could that mean for Israel’s security readiness and public confidence?
As we learned from January 6 at the Capitol, democracies are both precious and fragile, and a demagogue with authoritarian tendencies and a willingness to aggressively indulge in identity politics can put them at risk. The US is again experiencing these risks as Donald Trump and “Trumpism” campaign for the highest offices in the land.
Israel too, is at a crossroads. Israeli protesters from every walk of society have the moral high ground – noisily and publicly standing up for democratic ideals and a free, pluralistic society. Checks and balances and an independent judiciary must be preserved in the face of a desire for unbridled power.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that Israel is based “on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” The lesson of recent months is that it is time to enshrine these principles in the constitution that was promised by October 1, 1948, but has yet to be delivered.
Working your way through a constitutional crisis without a constitution is not tenable.
Hon. Kevin Lynch was clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to the cabinet for the Government of Canada. Paul Deegan is CEO of Deegan Public Strategies and was deputy executive director of the Clinton White House’s National Economic Council.