Opinion | When Tyrants Overshoot

How Israel’s architects of autocracy ignited the current liberal democracy movement.
By | Jul 13, 2023
Opinion, Summer Issue 2023

History will likely list 2023 as transformative in Israeli politics. More specifically, history might just remember this year as the one in which a powerful movement for strengthening liberal democracy was born in Israel.

If so, January 4 should be recorded as that movement’s birthdate, and Justice Minister Yariv Levin as its father—though he intended to give birth to something else entirely. History loves irony, and cares little for intentions.

On January 4, freshly appointed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, Levin announced plans for a “reform” that would “restore confidence in the justice system and balance between the three branches of government.” In fact, the legislation he proposed was intended to do the opposite: eviscerate the country’s Supreme Court and grant the ruling coalition unbridled power.

Levin’s proposals—and more that followed, especially from Knesset law committee chair Simcha Rothman of the far-right Religious Zionism party—were a plan for regime change. Levin, Rothman and Netanyahu aimed at ending classic parliamentary democracy, in which the government’s power is constrained by the rule of law and the recognition of civil rights. In its place, they sought to create an elected dictatorship on the model of Hungary.

It was too obvious a grab for dictatorship.

Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition expected to pass the first batch of Levin’s proposals before Pesach. The architects of autocracy definitely didn’t expect what happened instead: an awakening of public protest that has reshaped politics and blocked their plans—perhaps temporarily, but maybe permanently.

But then, no one else expected the earthquake either. For years, the Israeli right has chipped away at democratic principles without igniting mass resistance. The most obvious example of democratic backsliding is the ongoing occupation of the West Bank. But since the Oslo process collapsed, most of the Israeli public has seen the conflict with the Palestinians as unresolvable and has tried not to think about the occupation. Within the Israeli polity itself, liberal democracy has also been under slow-motion assault. In 2011, the Knesset passed a law making it illegal to call for boycotting Israel “or an area under its control”—that is, promoting a boycott of settlements. The same year, the so-called Nakba Law—aimed at governments of Arab towns in Israel—empowered the Finance Ministry to cut funding to institutions that commemorated the founding of the state as a catastrophe for Palestinians.

A 2018 law aimed to prevent schools from inviting lecturers from Breaking the Silence, the organization of Israeli army veterans who testify about service in the occupied territories.

Most egregious, three days later the Netanyahu-led coalition pushed through the Nation-State Law, which enshrined second-class status for the country’s Arab citizens. It demoted Arabic from its status as an official state language and included a line intended to permit giving preference to Jews in town planning. I could go on for pages.

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Each time, a parliamentary majority restricted the right to dissent. At most, the changes set off brief flurries of protest and Supreme Court challenges, mostly unsuccessful. Life went on.

This year, though, Levin and company launched an all-out attack on the judicial system as a check on the power of the government and parliament. His “reform” includes giving the ruling coalition total control of appointing judges, including Supreme Court justices—but also drastically reducing the power of those judges, in case they show a glimmer of independence.

It was too obvious a grab for dictatorship. The public had to pay attention. Put differently: Levin turned up the heat under the pot so suddenly that the frog jumped out. The Saturday night after Levin’s announcement, the press reported that “over 10,000” people gathered at a Tel Aviv protest. The numbers escalated rapidly. On some nights, as many as 5 percent of all Israelis—in proportion, the equivalent of 16 million Americans—have demonstrated. Equally striking has been the breadth of the protests, from anti-occupation leftists to ex-Likud ministers, and the symbols: the Israeli flag, the declaration of independence’s promise of equality, the chant of “De-mo-kra-tia.” Meanwhile, polling shows a drastic drop in electoral support for the current coalition.

Netanyahu, Levin and Rothman have succeeded in reminding a majority of Israelis that democracy matters to them, that it’s basic to the country’s identity, to its demanding social contract, to patriotism. As I write, Levin is still demanding to pass his program. Netanyahu has delayed but not abandoned regime change. He may return to a gradualist strategy, aimed at reducing democracy while protest fades.

But it’s possible that the public can’t be put back to sleep—that a broad movement to strengthen democratic rights and institutions has been born. If that’s what the history books eventually say, they’ll have to assign much of the credit, ironically, to Levin and Netanyahu.

Gershom Gorenberg’s latest book is War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies, and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis from the Middle East.

Opening picture: Yarin Levin, Minister of Justice of Israel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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One thought on “Opinion | When Tyrants Overshoot

  1. Davida Brown says:

    In the final outcome, democracy won’t matter, patriotism won’t matter…only the judgement of God, who alone owns the land of Israel and has, from ancient times, called forth the Jewish nation to settle it and run the nation of Israel with equity and truth, His Truth. Nothing else will matter…the Land of Israel is eternal. The people, not neccesarily. Look to your God, Israel. Know what He requires of you. It’s all in the Book!

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