The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the sense of election dread is greater than ever in Israel

A roadside campaign banner for Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism party near Nablus, West Bank, on Monday. (Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg News)
5 min

The leader of Israel’s surging far-right party has a plan for what he calls judicial reform. More accurately, it’s a plan to bulldoze judicial oversight, the rule of law and protection of human rights.

Here’s the context: Next Tuesday, we here in Israel will be going to the polls yet again. This is the fifth time since spring 2019, so you might think that repetition alone would lessen the anxiety, the sense that everything — not just who will be elected, but the very future of democratic government — depends on the final count.

Instead, speaking for myself — and possibly about half the nation — the sense of election dread is greater than ever. Because this time around, the question is not only whether the scandal-ridden Benjamin Netanyahu will return to power. This time, the polls consistently forecast that the far-right Religious Zionism party is likely to become the third-largest party in parliament, with more than 10 percent of the vote, making it probably the most influential partner of Netanyahu’s Likud, if he forms the next government.

The Religious Zionism party — the name is a calumny toward both religion and Zionism is itself an alliance of smaller hard-right factions. Most media attention thus far has gone to the party’s No. 2, Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) faction. Ben-Gvir began his career as an acolyte of radical rightist Meir Kahane, who served one term in parliament before being banned from seeking another under an anti-racism law. Kahane was assassinated in New York in 1990; his picture reportedly still hangs in Ben-Gvir’s living room.

A photo of terrorist Baruch Goldstein, the Kahane disciple who killed 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994, once hung in that living room as well. Removing Goldstein’s picture is emblematic of Ben-Gvir’s effort to soften his image ever so slightly, as far-right politicians elsewhere have done. He says he no longer advocates expelling Arabs from Israel and the West Bank. But he does call for deporting left-wing Arab and Jewish politicians who he claims “support terrorism,” for dismantling the Palestinian Authority and for Israeli police in East Jerusalem to use live fire rather than riot-control measures against Palestinian disturbances.

But last week, Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich regained the limelight by rolling out his “reform” proposals. The headline item: erasing the crime of “fraud and breach of trust” by a public servant from the criminal code. That offense covers misuse of public funds, using state power for personal purposes, conflicts of interest and other forms of official misconduct.

And just incidentally, Netanyahu faces that charge in the three cases for which he is on trial. In only one case is the ex-prime minister also charged with bribery. Smotrich’s plan would therefore erase most of the indictment. So, was he trying to show right-wing voters how pro-Netanyahu he is, or to embarrass Netanyahu by calling attention to the corruption cases?

Neither. He was accusing prosecutors of being a cabal that will foil a right-wing government by “cobbling together fake cases and opening criminal proceedings.” In Smotrich’s view, apparently, a corruption charge against any politician of the right, not just Netanyahu, is ipso facto evidence of subversion by the left. In a preemptive strike, he seeks to eliminate a main tool available to prosecutors.

That’s not all. Currently, the Israeli attorney general is a civil servant whose role includes acting as the government’s legal counsel — and her opinions are binding unless overruled by a court. Smotrich proposes separating off the role of legal counsel and making it a political appointment — that is, a yes man, rather than a check on executive power.

Smotrich also regards the courts as hostile to right-wing policies and laws. To solve that problem, he would change the makeup of the committee that appoints judges. Representatives of the governing coalition would have an absolute majority. The Supreme Court could overturn a law that violates constitutional principles, including human rights, only by an 11-0 vote. And if it did so, parliament could easily vote to overrule the court and reinstate the law.

The unsubtle subtext of Smotrich’s deforming reform is that he regards democracy as a dictatorship of the most recent majority. Once elected, his favored government would be free to take draconian measures against asylum seekers, or discriminate against same-sex couples, or for that matter deport pesky political opponents, without judicial interference.

Smotrich’s judicial plan, in short, is the enabling legislation for Ben-Gvir’s program.

For weeks, polls have shown the pro-Netanyahu bloc of parties, including Religious Zionism, getting 60 out of 120 seats in parliament — one short of the majority needed to rule. But polls are not precisely predictive; those numbers show only that the race is very close. Given margins of error, voters’ last-minute choices and the uncertainty of turnout, the race could easily go either way, and either side could win a narrow majority.

Hence the dread — and also a desperate measure of hope. In theory, as in any very close election, a single vote could tip the balance. When the count is complete, we may yet discover that democracy in Israel has survived.