Time to safeguard democracies

Like the captain of the Titanic, Netanyahu is directing our ship toward an iceberg. And like the captain of the Titanic, Netanyahu is willing to go down with his ship.

Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Benjamin Netanyahu
The year 2017 will be remembered as the year of democratic recession. Throughout the world, both young and established democracies have fallen prey to populism and nationalism. In Hungary and Poland, right-wing governments have sought to curtail the free press and limit the actions of political opponents. Post-coup Turkey can longer pretend to be a democracy, while the US is still acclimating to the rule of Trumpism. Forthcoming elections in France and the Netherlands threaten to deepen this recession.
Amid the climate of democratic erosion, national leaders must take concrete steps to safeguard their democracies, for if democracy is not nurtured it withers away. Democracies, by nature, are not strong but rather susceptible to the rhetoric of violence and the politics of hate.
In Israel’s case it falls on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bolster our democracy. Doing so means protecting three establishments: the media, the judiciary and civil society. The media’s role in a free society is to manifest the democratic values of pluralism, freedom of expression and government oversight. A country in which the media is subservient to politicians is a country primed for autocratic rule.
The judiciary is meant to manifest the democratic values of equality under the law and separation of powers, and to protect citizens from overzealous governments. Nations in which the judiciary is subservient to politicians have already succumbed to authoritarianism.
Finally, civil society organizations are meant to manifest, and protect, the democratic value of justice. Civil society organizations contribute to free societies by representing the disenfranchised, giving voice to the weak, speaking out against corruption or abuses of power and shedding light on travesties. By so doing, they hold up a mirror to society and challenge it to better itself.
But in Israel’s case, it is our very prime minister who is actively seeking to weaken these three establishments.
In recent months, Netanyahu has lashed out at the media, arguing that it is attempting to oust him from office with Bolshevik zeal. Those journalists that are not labeled as Bolsheviks are portrayed as being financed by Nazis. The prime minister has also undertaken the task of dismantling Israel’s new public broadcaster before it even comes to life. To aid this abortion, Netanyahu’s minions have been following journalists on Facebook so as to identify left-wing subverters.
The judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, now routinely comes under criticism from members of Netanyahu’s government, who portray it as the last bastion of the left-wing elite. Special legislation is proposed to curtail its power, while the justice minister contemplates new ways to rattle its foundations.
When the judiciary is not under attack, it is expected to undo the harm of Netanyahu’s own legislation. Soon the Supreme Court will hear arguments regarding the recent expropriation law and when it is struck down, Netanyahu and his ministers will once again portray the courts as enemies of the people.
Yet Netanyahu’s greatest efforts are channeled toward civil society organizations. Their leaders are detained and questioned by the Border Police, while their operatives are dubbed traitors. On state visits to London, the prime minister demands that foreign governments defund such organizations, while foreign diplomats who meet with them are subject to diplomatic reprimands.
Like most democracies, Israel is in great peril.
The ideas that fuel US President Donald Trump and France’s Marine Le Penn are already present in our politics. The merging of political ideology with religious zeal has already occurred. Yet unlike other democracies, Israel’s very caretaker is trying to undermine its existence. In his bid to remain in power, Netanyahu has forsaken his most important role in our society.
Like the captain of the Titanic, Netanyahu is directing our ship toward an iceberg. And like the captain of the Titanic, Netanyahu is willing to go down with his ship.
The author is a PhD student in diplomacy at the University of Oxford.