It always seems reasonable at the time: We have to curtail your rights because there’s an emergency; it’s only a temporary curb on your freedoms; we can always go back to the way things were before; at a time like this we need strong decisive leadership; we can’t waste time with too many discussions and deliberations.
That’s the challenge of fighting for democracy in 2020. It doesn’t die with tanks in the street and an armed takeover of TV stations. It dies slowly, with majority rule that loses sight of the basics of liberal democracy. It dies with elected representatives who either don’t understand or are too scared to take a stand.
And unlike the glorious revolutions of the past, you don’t notice until it is too late. Looking back, you see what you thought was a thriving liberal democracy has slipped deeper and deeper into illiberalism.
That’s what happened in Israel on Monday night, another step that seems reasonable from the outside but which weakens the foundations of our system. The separation of powers between the legislative and executive branch blurred when the speaker of the Knesset joined an official meeting of the government. Checks and balances disappear when the Knesset votes to allow the prime minister to pass new directives without any Knesset debate or approval, not even a committee hearing.
All this was done without providing an ounce of proof that it will make the fight against the corona crisis more effective (because that proof simply doesn’t exist). The failure to effectively tackle the health and economic crisis Israel is now facing has nothing to do with the Knesset. The responsibility lies squarely with the prime minister and his government.
But that’s it. Another step. If the prime minister decides to close down certain areas of the country but not others, no one can stop him. If he decides to severely limit the right to protest, he can. If he decides to shut down the courts because infection rates are high, the Knesset can only intervene in retrospect.
Oversight in hindsight is no oversight at all. The prime minister will put facts on the ground and by then it will be too late. That’s what he’s counting on.
Liberal democracy shouldn’t be taken for granted. The rights we enjoy and believe are “basic rights” shouldn’t be taken for granted. The ability of the system to rebuild after a sustained attack shouldn’t be taken for granted.
We should have no expectations from those who are leading the fight against liberal democracy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made his admiration for illiberal democracy and illiberal leaders in Europe well-known. He’s courted them and they’ve courted him. He has attacked press freedom, judicial independence and has worked to undermine law enforcement. Now he’s tearing the bricks out of our parliament, too.
But what about those who swore to protect and defend our democracy? Where were they when the Knesset voted to circumvent itself, to abdicate its responsibility to be the eyes, ears and voice of the public? Why didn’t they take a stand and draw the line?
In passing a law to bypass the Knesset, the governing coalition passed a law to bypass the public. At a time of national emergency – and this is a national emergency – democracy is more important than ever. But our democracy is now weaker than ever before.
The writer serves as an adviser to opposition leader Yair Lapid.