Comment: Israel’s democracy faces more tests ahead

Protesters, institutions and business have shown democracy’s strength, but Palestinians are still left out.

By Bobby Ghosh / Bloomberg Opinion

Israeli leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu frequently trot out the specious claim that their country is the Middle East’s only democracy. And for decades, American politicians have reflexively amplified that claim without examination. Some, like former president Barack Obama, have gone further, to laud Israel as the region’s only true democracy.

Both assertions are easily disproved. The pedantic argument is that there are other democracies in the region, and two of them — Turkey and Lebanon — have been around longer than Israel has existed as a modern nation. The more pertinent point may be that, notwithstanding Obama’s presidential plaudits, a state that reduces 20 percent of its population to second-class status is not a true democracy.

But events of the past few months have demonstrated that Israeli society, distinct from the Israeli state, has strong democratic credentials. The massive rallies against Netanyahu’s plan to neuter the country’s judicial system have been popular, peaceful and persistent. And now it looks like they have been productive: In a prime-time address, Netanyahu announced that he would pause his push for parliamentary approval of the legislation, saying “I am not ready to divide the nation.”

Netanyahu’s ultraconservative coalition, elected in late December, has been seeking to rein in the Supreme Court, which has historically blocked right-wing goals, such as settlement-building in the occupied West Bank and exempting the ultra-Orthodox from military service. The prime minister wants to make the judiciary more answerable to the executive, and is using his coalition’s slender majority to ram through far-reaching legislation. A law approved last week stipulates that only the Knesset and cabinet can declare the prime minister unfit and remove him from office. (Netanyahu, remember, is currently under trial for corruption.)

Protests against these changes have swelled in recent weeks, drawing hundreds of thousands. Inevitably, the rallies have drawn comparisons with the Arab Spring protests of 2011, with the implication that Israelis are learning from, rather than setting an example for, others in the region.

But democracy, as the Middle East has shown over and over again, is about more than elections and protests. It is also about institutions that push back against the autocratic ambitions of leaders. Here, too, Israel has passed the tests: From civil society organizations to civil servants’ unions, all manner of institutions have come out against Netanyahu’s plans. Israeli embassies and consulates were shut on Monday as the country’s Foreign Service joined other government workers in a general strike. Perhaps most remarkable of all, large sections of the military establishment have openly opposed the judicial “reforms.”

This brings to mind the role played by the Tunisian military and civic bodies in sustaining the protests that brought down the dictatorship in 2011. Israel’s business community, less dependent on state patronage than its Arab counterparts, has been bolder in speaking out against any changes that weaken the independence of the country’s judiciary. Their argument that this would be bad for business has been echoed by international credit-rating organizations, which warn of a negative impact to the economy. “Stronger fiscal and debt metrics may not be sufficient to offset weakening institutions if the content of the judicial reforms and the way they are passed point to such weakening,” Moody’s said in a report, adding that capital inflows to the technology sector, a critical part of the economy, could be especially vulnerable.

Other tests will come; of vigilance and stamina. Even if the judicial overhaul is set aside for now, Netanyahu will likely return to it, whether for reasons of self-preservation, to forestall judicial action on the corruption charges against him, or under pressure from the far-right elements of his governing coalition. When that happens, the demonstrators and Israeli institutions will need to show that their ardor for an independent judiciary is undiminished.

But the ultimate test for any democracy is freedom for all citizens. Conspicuously absent from the demonstrations are the Palestinians, who have good reason to feel they have no dog in this particular fight. Few of those Israeli individuals or institutions that are taking a stance against the judicial overhaul have protested against the injustices visited on the Palestinians.

Until that changes, Israeli society will have no more claim to represent “true” democracy than the Israeli state.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.

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