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Israel has never had a democracy, so how can it lose it?

February 21, 2023 at 3:23 pm

Israeli people gather in front of the parliament building to stage a demonstration against judicial reform plans in Jerusalem [Mostafa Alkharouf – Anadolu Agency]

What should we make of the daily warnings issued about democracy being in peril in Israel? Over the weekend it was US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides who sounded the alarm. “What unites America and Israel is the love of democracy and democratic institutions,” said Nides while calling on the far-right government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to delay its planned legislation to overhaul the judicial system. “This is what makes us defend Israel time and again.” He was speaking a day before the Knesset — Israel’s parliament — passed the draft legislation on its first reading in the very early hours of Monday morning, with 63 MKs in favour, a simple majority in the 120-seat chamber.

Nides joins a long list of people and thousands of protestors warning about the death of democracy in Israel. They include Israel’s former attorneys general and ex-state prosecutors who published a letter warning that Netanyahu’s proposal imperils efforts to “preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Perhaps the most alarming remarks were those made by Professor Daniel Blatman at the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University, who said that fascism is “already there” in Israel. Liberal Jewish organisations on both sides of the Atlantic have also expressed their concerns about the government’s plan for judicial “reforms”.

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The vote on the contentious legislation has been described as “a battle over Israel’s essence.” Bills tabled will amend Israel’s “basic laws”, which are the legal equivalent to a constitution. The changes will grant lawmakers control over judicial appointments, eliminate judicial review of legislation and allow parliament to vote down Supreme Court decisions. In practice, this means that the most extreme far-right regime in Israel’s history will control the judiciary to an extraordinary degree. In the Israeli political system, where the government always enjoys a majority, such an overhaul eliminates the independence of the three main branches of a democratic system: the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.

Yesterday’s vote triggered further warnings about the threat to democracy. “Members of the coalition — history will judge you for this night,” the leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, said on Twitter. “For the damage to democracy, for the damage to the economy, for the damage to security, for the fact that you are tearing the people of Israel apart and you simply do not care.”

It is tempting to view this kind of judicial reform in Israel as just another example of democracy being in retreat across the globe. Moreover, the likes of Lapid, Nides and countless others who are critical of the Israeli government would like nothing more than for the rest of world to believe that the attack on democracy by the Netanyahu government is just an aberration. To prove their claim, they may even cite last year’s report by The Global State of Democracy which found that half of democratic governments around the world are in decline while authoritarian regimes are deepening their repression. While there is perhaps some truth to this claim, it ignores completely the historical tension between democracy and Zionism at the heart of Israeli politics.

For millions of Palestinians and many more who are familiar with the nature of Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing and takeover of the land of Palestine, the warning and outrage over democracy being under siege from a far-right faction in the Knesset is mystifying. In their eyes, Israel is far from being a democracy. A core principal of democracy is the idea that the state belongs to all of its citizens. Israel, though, is the self-declared “nation state of the Jewish people”. This has profound implications. It means that a Jew living anywhere in the world with no connection to Israel whatsoever has a greater claim to the land than non-Jewish citizens of the occupation state, who make up 20 per cent of the population. By downgrading citizenship in favour of one specific ethnic group, Israel undermines a fundamental principal of democracy and encodes discrimination into its basic laws.

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While 20 per cent of Israeli citizens face various forms of institutionalised discrimination, the apartheid state’s treatment of non-Jews in the occupied West Bank and Gaza is as far from democratic as the white supremacist apartheid regime in South Africa was. The Pretoria government established ten “Bantustans” to house ethnically homogeneous groups. The aim was to establish autonomous nation states for South Africa’s black communities, but no one was under the illusion that this was anything but part of the apartheid system. Israel, by the way, maintained a very close relationship with the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Today, Israel has created “self-governing” authorities inside the occupied Palestinian territories. Almost every Israeli politician, including those bemoaning the death of democracy in the occupation state, is in full support of such an arrangement which for decades has locked Palestinians into various zones of subjugation and control. There is nothing to suggest that the seven million Palestinians ruled by Israel will ever be granted the same rights as the seven million Jews who also live in historic Palestine.

Palestinians don’t believe that Israel is a democracy. Nor do they believe that the Israeli Supreme Court is in danger of losing its independence if Netanyahu’s reforms get through their second and third readings, which is likely. The simple reason for this is that the court has never displayed any independence. Israeli judges have rubber-stamped almost every policy and piece of legislation designed to preserve and maintain the apartheid system and Jewish supremacy in occupied Palestine. That’s why the Palestinians know better than anyone that the idea of a “Jewish democracy” is an oxymoron.

They have also discovered that every Israeli government will choose the Zionist ideal of Jewish supremacy over democracy; racial and racist discrimination over equality. The “Jewish state” has no democracy to lose.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.