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A perilous implosion awaits Israel unless true democracy prevails

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Wednesday, 16 August 2023

The socio-political turmoil in Israel which is manifested by the pervasive hostility, distrust, and disdain between the religious nationalists and secular liberal Jews is tearing the country apart. The Netanyahu government's determination to subordinate the judiciary to the whims of elected officials does not only compromise the independence of the judiciary, but it has also exposed the other shortcomings of Israel's democracy which is exacerbating the schism between the two camps and taking the country to a point of no return.

To prevent Israel from self-destruction, the demonstrators who tenaciously and relentlessly poured into the streets by the hundreds of thousands to protest against the so-called judicial "reforms" must not be satisfied by simply restoring the independence of the judiciary. The conflict over these "reforms" offers a historic opportunity to examine and rectify every aspect of Israel's democracy which has been compromised since the day of Israel's inception. Regardless of how difficult such an undertaking might be, it is imperative to embark on it to prevent future onslaughts on Israel's democracy by aspiring authoritarians while ensuring its sustainability for generations to come.

There are five areas of reforms that will preserve and substantially strengthen Israel's democracy.


Ensuring the independence of the judiciary For all intents and purposes, the battle over securing the independence of the judiciary has only begun. Given that the government succeeded in passing a law that cancels Israel's "reasonableness standard," which allowed the Supreme Court to review and strike down government policies that were deemed unreasonable, the courageous demonstrators must remain vigilant and relentless in their fight for the independence of the judiciary. When the Knesset resumes its legislative session in October, the Netanyahu government is still determined to enact additional laws to subordinate the judiciary to the legislative branch, thwart the courts from intervening in cases of human rights violations, and most critically, take control over the committee that appoints judges, including Supreme Court justices.

The Netanyahu government must have no illusion about what the ramifications will be should it procced with its disastrous plans, as some of the consequences of its earlier actions will only be compounded if Netanyahu refuses to stop his nefarious design to reshape the judiciary and conform it to the whims of his messianic, reactionary and staunchly nationalist partners.

What has already happened should be a wakeup call that the government can ignore only at it peril. High-tech workers and companies are looking to relocate, with 80 percent of Israeli start-ups registered in foreign countries rather than in Israel this year alone; emigration is significantly on the rise; foreign investment in start-up companies is drying out; the shekel is sinking; doctors are looking to relocate oversees; Moody's and Morgan Stanley are issuing gloomy reports about Israel's economic future, downgrading its credit and advising their clients not to invest in Israel; thousands of pilots and other military reservists are not reporting for their voluntary service, which impedes military readiness; and Israel's international standing is at an all-time low.

To be sure, the amalgamation of economic (especially from the high-tech industry) and military power is what has strengthened Israel's hand politically and diplomatically over the years. The rapid erosion in these particular sectors poses a significant threat to Israel's security and economic wellbeing.

The demonstrators must now doubly prepare to resort to any peaceful means to thwart further judicial "reforms." This includes rallies, demonstrations, work stoppages, civil disobedience, and general strikes; they must prepare to for these peaceful acts transparently to leave no doubt in the minds of Netanyahu and his colleagues that the initial fight over "reform" was a rehearsal for what might come, that it could paralyze the country completely should the government not heed their call.

Indeed, as Andrew Jackson observed, "All the rights secured to the citizens under the Constitution are worth nothing, and a mere bubble, except guaranteed to them by an independent and virtuous Judiciary." Indeed, in the final analysis, an independent judiciary is the beating heart of democracy and any compromise between the government and the opposition that might be achieved must, under no circumstance, undermine the independence of the judiciary.


Separating state and religion

Another fundamental foundation of democracy is the separation between state and religion, which was not the case from the day of Israel's inception in 1948. Whereas initially David Ben-Gurion, the founding father of modern Israel and first Prime Minister, granted undue authority to the rabbinical institutions for the sake of projecting unity, believing that ultimately "Liberal Judaism" would eventually win out, the opposite has occurred. The religious parties and the state institutions further increased their power and became an integral part of most Israeli coalition governments and the most ardent supporters of the settlements.

The question is, given the presumed secular nature of Israel's democracy, why should the rabbinical institutions be allowed to govern the lives of liberal Jews concerning marriages, divorce, circumcision, bar mitzvahs, and so on, while restricting the government's activities on Sabbath?

This runs completely against the essence of democracy, which derives its moral strength and legitimacy from individual autonomy, as people should be able to exercise self-determination and control over their own lives and be granted equal rights as well as accepting equal obligations. As Laurence Overmire observed: "The separation of church and state protects people of all faiths and no faith. No religion should be able to exercise control over a government and thereby dictate its theology onto any diverse group of free people."

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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