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Israel at 75: Domestic crisis outweighs external challenges

  • Yossi Mekelberg

    Senior Consulting Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

    زميل أبحاث استشاري أول، برنامج الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا

The erosion of Israel’s democracy is damaging its international standing and relationships with key allies. But the damage to Israeli society will take even longer to repair.

Since its creation, Israel has experienced both enormous external challenges, including wars and violent conflicts, as well as domestic crises and sociopolitical fragmentation. But it has never before faced domestic turmoil of the magnitude and intensity that it has experienced since last November’s general election, that brought to power the most far-right and disruptive coalition government in the country’s 75-year history.

After five elections in four years, November’s vote provided somewhat of a decisive result and enabled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government that replaced the short-lived ‘change’ government led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. But the dark cloud of Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial on three cases of bribery, fraud and breach of trust meant he had limited options to help him build a coalition government, and only the most extreme ultra-nationalist Kahanist elements, together with the ultra-Orthodox parties, agreed to share power under these circumstances.

Never before has an Israeli prime minister been so dependent on – arguably held hostage by – his coalition partners not only to stay in power, but also to avoid a possible jail term. This makes Netanyahu susceptible to pressure from his coalition partners and clouds his judgement, a particularly dangerous combination for a country facing an extensive array of complex domestic and international issues.

An assault on Israeli democracy

The first mistake Netanyahu and his new partners made was to view their electoral victory in terms of seats in the Knesset, which due to the electoral system imply a much bigger victory than the actual number of votes cast in their support. Their second mistake was to believe they had a mandate to embark on a huge tranche of relentless and radical anti-democratic legislation, targeting the judicial system, and the Supreme Court in particular. In doing so, they underestimated the response from not only those who did not vote for them, but also from those who did, but who voted mainly for Likud and not for weakening the country’s democratic underpinnings. Consequently, Israel has been plunged into political and social turmoil, experiencing weekly, sometimes daily, mass protests against the extreme anti-democratic nature of the legislation.

Among the bills in the pipeline are proposals that would allow politicians – especially those from the governing coalition – to have the last say in selecting Supreme Court judges; take away the Supreme Court’s power to strike down legislation which is unconstitutional – known as the override clause – allowing the smallest possible majority in the Knesset to overrule the court’s decisions; and cancel the ‘reasonableness’ standard that enables the court to reverse government decisions that justices deem unreasonable. These are all powers which have proved to be an important instrument for constraining arbitrary decisions of the executive branch, and without which Israel will be a democracy in name only.

In addition to its assault on the Supreme Court, the government is also attempting to limit academic freedom, attacking the media and human rights organizations, and portraying those who oppose the government as unpatriotic.

Moreover – and irresponsibly – two extremely influential politicians from the far-right Religious Zionism Party, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, were put in charge of the national security and finance ministries respectively, while Smotrich is also a minister in the Ministry of Defence, overlooking issues related to the settlements in the occupied West Bank. These appointments give an accurate idea of the government’s direction, which includes expansion of the settlements, legalizing the outposts that even previous governments considered to be illegal, and creating conditions that will make any peace agreement with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future impossible.

Unfortunately, the Palestinian issue is also missing from the protest movement, as its leaders are afraid it will divide those who are resisting the government’s anti-democratic measures. Ironically, the protest leaders conveniently refuse to acknowledge the obvious connection between the occupation and the decades-long erosion of Israel’s democracy.

Domestic polarization and international condemnation

The widespread protests have also brought to the surface the deep polarization in Israeli society. This polarization stems from a range of sociopolitical cleavages, including different views on the nature of a liberal democracy, the Palestinian issue, and distribution of wealth, as well as deep divides along Ashkenazi–Sephardi and religious–secular fault lines. Much of this societal conflict revolves around the difficulty of preserving the definition of Israel as both Jewish and democratic without compromising either of these two pillars of the country’s identity.

No previous Israeli government has ever managed to divide the population this quickly and this profoundly. But the Netanyahu government’s assault on the democratic system has also enraged Israel’s allies. The United States did not stop at private and public rebukes but went as far as President Biden announcing he would not be inviting the Israeli prime minister to visit the White House anytime soon. A key pillar of the special relationship between the US and Israel is the sharing of liberal democratic values and, without them, this relationship is at risk.

Israel’s security and economic prosperity relies heavily on close relations with the US, the EU, and EU member states. Washington provides Israel with massive military and economic aid as well as a diplomatic umbrella, which helped stop the recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN Security Council. It also considers Israel’s security interests in its dealings with Iran and other regional powers. Consequently, damaging its relations with the US means Israel’s core national interests and challenges, including addressing Iran’s nuclear programme and its support for proxies such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, will take a back seat. An Israeli government seeking to aggravate relations with the Palestinians, also puts at risk the Abraham Accords and any future normalization with other regional powers, including Saudi-Arabia.

More broadly, compromising the independence of the judiciary increases the risk of criminal proceedings abroad, at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for instance,against Israel Defense Forces (IDF) commanders or other senior Israeli officials.

There is no easy way out of this crisis, even if Netanyahu leaves office until his trial reaches a verdict. This situation is already undermining Israel’s international status, the strength of its currency, and investment in its all-important tech sector. But the longer-term damage this upheaval has caused within Israel, and the social and political cleavages it has brought to the surface, will take much longer to resolve and repair.