Israel is a controversial state actor in many respects, but – unlike many of its neighbours – its democratic credentials have never been seriously doubted: until now.
Late on Monday evening, the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, voted to advance a bitterly contested judicial overhaul which Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, has warned will take the country “to the brink of constitutional and social collapse”.
The basic principle of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed reforms is to terminate the independence of the judicial branch of government – something taken straight from the modern playbook of illiberal states.
These reforms would end the current system where judges are proposed by an independent judicial committee, and allow politicians to appoint those they deem to be loyal. The Knesset would also have the ability to overrule court decisions it deems to be unconstitutional or just disagreeable.
Such extreme concentration of power within the executive seems particularly risky in a democracy like Israel, which has no upper chamber of Parliament or written Constitution.
Ever larger numbers of Israelis have been demonstrating against these critical reforms. Tens of thousands rallied outside Parliament ahead of the vote, which finally took place after a turbulent debate during which opposition lawmakers chanted “shame” and wrapped themselves in Israeli flags.
Last Monday, the crowds were estimated at more than 100,000 people, an astonishing turnout in a country of barely 9 million. A demonstrator was quoted saying, “These are crucial days for Israel’s future and its identity, whether it is going to be a democracy or a fascist regime.”
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US President Joe Biden weighed in on the matter last week via the New York Times column of Thomas Friedman, where he was quoted saying “the genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary.
“Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”
This is perhaps the first example of a US president intervening directly on a matter of domestic Israeli politics.
The proposals have also drawn fierce criticism from executives in Israel’s crucial tech sector, former central bank chiefs, and even former members of the military.
On Monday, Tamir Pardo, a former head of the Mossad intelligence agency, told the Times of Israel that the reform would turn Israel into a country that he “wouldn’t want to live in”.
The question is: Why is Netanyahu doing this?
It seems to be partly politics; his coalition commands a slender majority in the Knesset and is largely composed of far right nationalist extremists who are inclined to believe they should be able to do as they please.
There may, however, be more worrying personal motivations on Netanyahu’s part – he is still on the hook for corruption charges.
Israeli judges have proved themselves able and willing to prosecute former politicians – former prime minister Ehud Olmert spent 16 months in prison for fraud, while former president Moshe Katsav got five years for rape. Faced with a non-pliant judiciary, Netanyahu could get his own time in prison.
Israel is fond of claiming the moral democratic high ground amid the tyrannies of the Middle East. These claims will be harder to make when Netanyahu has more in common with Vladimir Putin than with Joe Biden.
As well as risking its democratic structure and the prosperity it has created, these reforms will endanger Israel’s economy and geopolitical security.
Over the past two decades, it has become clear that, alongside a free media, South Africa’s judiciary is one of the very last (albeit imperfectly) functioning aspects of its democracy. South Africa, meanwhile, has a uniquely specific relationship with Israel.
During apartheid, Israel served as a quasi-role model of how a belligerently racist state apparatus can be economically and politically sustained.
South Africans should see it now as, ironically, a terrifying example of how easily and quickly an independent judiciary can be overwhelmed by politicians determined to steamroll it. BM/DM