The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Netanyahu drags Israeli democracy into the illiberal mire

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Throughout his long political career, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has invoked a popular turn of phrase. Israel, he has often said, is an “oasis of democracy” in a region defined by its absence. Israel’s freedoms, its elections and its rule of law, the argument went, stood in contrast to the status quo in the Middle East, where absolute monarchs and flailing autocrats largely hold sway.

Of course, the formulation always overlooked the millions of Palestinians who live as second-class citizens in their own homeland, shorn of the same rights and freedoms afforded to Israeli neighbors. That reality has long been accepted by the West and swept under the rug by Israeli governments. Under Netanyahu’s watch, Jewish settlements expanded in the West Bank, further undermining the possibility of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state ever emerging. No matter — in the eyes of successive administrations in Washington and a bipartisan critical mass in Congress, Israel was a land of “shared values” and could do little wrong.

Recent developments, though, are making the “oasis of democracy” look a little more like a mirage. After an extended period of political paralysis marked by a series of failed governments, Israel staged elections last November that returned Netanyahu for his third stint in power with arguably the most stable mandate any politician has won in more than three years. But to achieve this, the right-wing leader cobbled together the most far-right coalition in Israeli history, catapulting politicians from factions once considered beyond the pale in Israeli politics into leading roles in his coalition.

The new government is already using its slender parliamentary majority to push through a radical overhaul of the judiciary, not least at a time when the sitting prime minister remains dogged by legal troubles. Critics say the legislation “will destroy the nation’s system of checks and balances to save Netanyahu from prosecution in three separate corruption cases and embolden his extremist religious partners to advance legislation supporting the expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank,” my colleagues explained.

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None of this ought to come as a surprise. Not unlike his nationalist fellow travelers in countries like Brazil, Hungary and Poland, who all resent judicial checks on their authority, Netanyahu has long raged against Israel’s legal authorities and state bureaucracy, casting them as impediments to the will of the people. He and his allies are “longstanding ideological opponents of the courts and legal advisers — seeing in them a meddlesome check on issues like unimpeded building in West Bank settlements, blanket exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the military and the violation of minority rights including those of Arab-Israeli citizens or African economic migrants,” wrote Neri Zilber in New Lines Magazine.

To get his way, Netanyahu is “deliberately unraveling democracy, turning his illiberalism into full-blown Hungarian or Turkish authoritarianism,” Alon Pinkas, a veteran former Israeli diplomat, told me. “He is the first prime minister of a Western democracy in history who has waged a full war against his own country’s institutions, traditions, judiciary, checks and balances, and its social fabric.”

Netanyahu has suffered some setbacks. Over the weekend, he was compelled to fire a key cabinet ally, Aryeh Deri, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, after the Supreme Court had ruled that he was unfit for office because of a “backlog of criminal convictions” against him. Netanyahu lamented the decision and vowed to “find any legal way” to return his coalition partner to high office.

The new government’s efforts have been met by a considerable backlash, with tens of thousands of protesters taking to the streets of Israeli cities in three successive weeks of demonstrations. “The State of Israel was established so that there would be one place in the world where the Jewish person, the Jewish people, would feel at home,” celebrated Israeli author David Grossman told protesters in Tel Aviv over the weekend. “But if so many Israelis feel like strangers in their own country, obviously something is going wrong.”

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The developments are unsettling Israel’s backers in the United States. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently called on President Biden to “save” Israel from turning into an “illiberal bastion of zealotry.” Some Democratic lawmakers have warned that the current course of events in the country could erode bipartisan support for Israel.

The Biden administration dispatched White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan to Israel and the West Bank last week. The American readout of the trip showed Sullivan urging Israel to avoid “unilateral steps by any party that could inflame tensions on the ground,” specifically over the holy sites in Jerusalem, which are eyed by the extremist Jewish supremacists in Netanyahu’s coalition. But, at least in public, the administration’s rhetoric seems quite timid.

“My approach is, you, Prime Minister Netanyahu, want to get big things done, we want to get big things done,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides recently told The Washington Post. “But if your backyard is on fire, then we can’t get anything done.”

Netanyahu’s critics argue that a much tougher line must be drawn. “The prime minister is now part of an international alliance of antidemocratic leaders that includes [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban, [former Brazilian president Jair] Bolsonaro, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin,” Amir Tibon wrote in the left-leaning daily Haaretz. “Things need to be said clearly in order to get people’s attention here,” he added.

The prime minister’s far-right allies are working toward “a new and distinctly Israeli model,” wrote Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum. “It is a model that prioritizes Jewish supremacy, religious observance, and Greater Israel territorial maximalism.”

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The advance of that agenda may provoke an unwanted reckoning in Washington. It also casts into question the recent gains Israel has made in its own neighborhood, cementing formal ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and deepening tacit ones with Saudi Arabia. Further Arab normalization with an Israeli government that has already made clear its desire to annex territory in the West Bank — and counts in its ranks ministers with a record of anti-Arab rhetoric — seems a non-starter.

Last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud told me that the priority should be negotiations that lead to “a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.” But he acknowledged that “the new government of Israel is sending some signals that are not conducive to that.”