Whispering Thoughts – On This and That (No 3)

April 2023


‘Israel was not created in order to disappear – Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralised by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honours the sword of freedom.’

— John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States of America.

Yesterday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised Israeli democracy as—‘a vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East’—in a message to mark the 75 anniversary of Israel’s Foundation. The Palestine foreign ministry accused von der Leyen of ‘propagandist discourse’ and spreading ‘anti-Palestine racist trope in relation to Israel’s 75-year colonial project’. The current imbroglio needs clarification.    

Headlines in several news outlets indicate that Israel is at a political crossroads. The National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz has gone so far as to hint at a ‘civil war’, referring to the current government’s move to implement highly controversial judicial reforms. Ironically, the statement is the antithesis of the party’s name. Doomsday predictions of Israeli democracy being under threat have become common ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in December 2022 for his sixth tenure as Prime Minister. The government, billed as the most far-right government in Israel’s history, faces mounting challenges on many fronts.

The fundamental challenge rises from the fact that Israel has no constitution. Therefore, the separation of power between the executive, legislature, and judiciary—the foundation of all functioning democracies—is fragile at best. The balance becomes more vulnerable to exploitation when a majority government is keen to implement populist measures. The fragility of Israeli democracy, and its traditions, date back to the country’s origins. In 1948, immediately after it was founded, Israel was attacked by seven Arab militaries bent on destroying the fledgling nation. At this critical juncture, Israel needed consensus among the different factions to ensure effective decision-making to survive. Commendably this was achieved.

On the other hand, it became impossible to achieve a consensus when it came to approving a constitution. The main point of dissent was the relationship between religion and state. An interim decision was made to give the role of a constitutional assembly to the Knesset, Parliament, to agree on a constitution within one year. Even today, Israel does not have a constitution enshrining the basic principles of rights and responsibilities, and fundamental checks and balances. Fortunately, in its early years strong democratic traditions were established and entrenched, permitting the nation to become a confident democracy. The lacuna is that customs and traditions that are not anchored in a robust constitution have no legal protection and can be moved aside by a political majority that wants to change the style of governance.

This lacuna has produced the current challenge that is consuming Israel—a contest between the legislature and the judiciary. The Netanyahu government wants to pass three ‘reforms’ in the legislature: one, the override clause, which will permit the Knesset to overturn judicial reviews with a simple majority; two, end the Supreme Court’s right to strike down any piece of Knesset legislation that the Court found incompatible with Israel’s Basic Laws that serve as the nation’s constitution; and three, political inputs into the appointment of judges and professional civil servants by which the majority political party would gain exclusive control of these appointments. The reforms, if enacted, will concentrate power in the hands of the political executive with no judicial oversight and no protection for the rights of minorities. In combination, they have the potential to fundamentally change Israel’s democracy.

The proposed amendments have brought the Israelis into the streets in massive and loud protests across the country with the government deciding to delay implementing the reforms as an act of appeasement. As in all cases, there are two sides to the argument. Supporters of the reforms say that actions to limit the ability of unelected judges to wield unchecked power over the legislature of elected people’s representatives are overdue. This belief is getting entrenched because the current array of judges is seen as ‘activists’ who regularly rule against the government in matters of immigration law, West Bank settlements, security policies and domestic issues like conscription of ultra-orthodox Jewish citizens. The critics fundamentally argue that the reforms would undermine democracy, allowing any government that could garner a simple majority of 61 in the 120-seat Knesset to pass any legislation, irrespective of the consequences.

In Israel, such divisions are not new but the virulence and fury of the protests, unprecedented in the nation’s history, took everyone by surprise. A point to be noted, in a survey conducted in February 2023 by the Israel Democracy Institute found that two-thirds of the respondents felt that the Court should retain the authority to strike down legislations that violate the Basic Laws. Half the supporters of Netanyahu’s Likud Party agree.

Further, a more fundamental issue has again emerged into the forefront—the challenge of the relationship between religion and the state and more importantly, how these two institutions relate individually and collectively to the more basic Jewish identity. An existing undercurrent of demands to reduce purely religious influence on personal matters—marriage, divorce, role of the rabbis in daily life—has resurfaced with greater prominence.

In the background, the challenges of assimilating sizeable non-Jewish minority groups, who demand equality within the State, have been churning along and have now gained critical momentum. By around 2010, Palestinian citizens started to form an electoral block. In 2018, a Basic Law was passed enshrining the notion of Israel as a Jewish nation-state. The Druze, an Arab religious group, traditionally loyal to the State, mobilised in opposition to this law. If these minority challenges were not enough, the question of racial prejudice against Jewish migrants from Ethiopia and their descendants has also gained prominence in the public debate, criticised as being institutionalised.

Apart from domestic issues, the on-going conflict in the Gaza has assumed the proportion of a festering sore with the potential to spread into other aspects of governance than purely national security vis-à-vis protection of borders and the physical sovereignty of the State. A mutual ceasefire reached on 21st November 2021 does not hold true anymore. A basic challenge is that the current cabinet is divided on actions to be initiated against Hamas, which continues to carryout rocket attacks against Israel, intensifying in scale and intensity. Tit for tat air attacks, also on a massive scale, has not proven to be as effective as they were a decade ago. Successive governments have not been able to find a lasting solution—the right-wing solution based on intensive military action might prove to be catastrophic to any further peace initiatives.

All is not doom and gloom. Israel is blessed with a cohesiveness within the country, underlined by the general acceptance of the need for the nation to be a homeland for all Jews, regardless of their origin—an overlapping and binding ethos not found in any other democracy. Even so, fault lines are apparent in this cohesiveness; evident since half of Israeli Jews want Arab citizens to be expelled, while the other half disagree with this sentiment.

For the past few years, Israel has been assiduously engaged in a slow process of diplomatic, economic, and military integration with the region. However, the shift to the far-right and the insistence of Saudi Arabia that the Palestine issue must be resolved before any peace resolution can be reached has slowed the move and has the potential to break it down completely.

It is reported that 2022 saw the highest number of Palestinians killed in the past 18 years. The expulsion of Palestinians from their homes is the grim reality of daily life in Israel and the West Bank. The Western media has for the past few months been peddling the line that Netanyahu’s right-wing government is threatening democracy in Israel, based on the trope that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle-East. The ground reality is somewhat different. Democracy in Israel has always been more like the Apartheid regime of South Africa than the free-wheeling concept practised in India or France.

Thousands of Palestinians who live on the West Bank under full Israeli control cannot participate in the political process; Palestinians in annexed east Jerusalem are ‘residents’ not citizens and have no voting rights; and citizens in Israel who are not Jews face everyday discrimination of a high order. The new right-wing government has only exposed the hollowness of the much-touted Western claim, that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle-East. The shield of democracy and the sword of freedom is tarnished beyond repair.

If ever Israel was the proverbial beacon on the hill for the region, the light is fast vanishing.

Sanu Kainikara

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2023]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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