Democracy in Israel

Perry World House hosted a conversation to look at how the proposals from Israel’s new far-right government could weaken the country’s democracy.

An Israeli protester holds a lit flare giving off a red glow as another waves an Israeli flag in a nighttime protest.
Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 9, 2023.  (Image: AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Proposals from Israel’s new far-right government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, could significantly weaken the country’s Supreme Court and have drawn major protests around the country, with tens of thousands marching on the streets and military reservists refusing to train. 

In what the court’s chief justice has described as a “fatal blow to democracy,” these sweeping changes would give the parliament powers to override Supreme Court decisions by one vote, reinstate legislation that has been ruled in violation of Israel’s Basic Laws, and effectively control the appointment of judges.

Critics fear this disruption is a symptom of democratic backsliding in Israel, following the playbook of increasingly autocratic governments in Hungary and Poland. 

Perry World House (PWH) hosted a conversation looking at what this reduction in power of the court would mean for Israeli democracy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and whether the current public dissent could force the government to back down from these proposals.

Moderated by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist and PWH Visiting Fellow Trudy Rubin, the panel included Guy Grossman, a professor of political science in the School of Arts & Sciences, and R. Daniel Kelemen, professor of political science and law and chair of the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University, who is also an adjunct professor of European Union law at Penn Carey Law School. 

Grossman began by saying this as a “critical moment in the history of Israel.” He described the various bills that are going through the Knesset and how those amendments and laws are problematic and a threat to democracy. 

He said that there are very few checks and balances of the power of the government in Israel, with most coming from bodies in the justice system that are independent: the judiciary, the Office of the Attorney General, and the police and the prosecutor’s office. “The bills that have been proposed and going through the legislature are all designed to curtail and sometimes eliminate the independent power of these three different bodies,” he said.

He noted that protesters are from all walks of life around Israel, and they aren’t coming from a political place but rather from real people’s actual concerns.

“People are disturbed about what's going on in Israel and not only disturbed by the content of the laws but also by the process in which they are being enacted,” Grossman said. “This is a major overhaul of the system as we know it, and it's not being done in a deliberative process or an inclusive process. They are ramping up very fast without much discussion between different parts of the country.”

Keleman is an expert on democratic backsliding, particularly in Hungary and Poland, which he called “the two most rapidly backsliding democracies in the world.”

Three people sit in black chairs next to round wooden side tables at Perry World House.
On the panel was (left to right) Guy Grossman, Trudy Rubin, and R. Daniel Keleman. (Image: Courtesy Perry World House)

There’s a standard playbook, Keleman said, for what he calls “elected autocrats”: politicians who win a free and fair election but aspire to entrench themselves long term so they can transform what had been a democracy into what political scientists call an electoral autocracy. 

The first step in the playbook is to control the judiciary, then move on to control the media, then undermine the opposition, and finally change electoral rules, he said, as has happened in Poland and Hungary.

As for whether the Netanyahu government is deploying this elected autocrats’ playbook, Keleman said, “it sure looks like it.”

Rubin asked them their thoughts on whether the political attack on Israel's judiciary and undermining Israeli democracy is linked to developments in the West Bank and how this will affect Palestinians.

“I think that they will be the first ones to lose” if these laws pass, Grossman said. 

The courts don’t typically intervene on security issues and other issues in the West Bank, “but there’s one place that they do: if settlers capture Palestinian private property that the Palestinians can prove that they have a title over, the Supreme Court will intervene and will call for the military to remove settlers.” However, he thinks those who stand the most to lose are the Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, with a backpedaling of rights.

The conversation moved to audience questions, including one about the chance that Israel could lose support of the United States. 

Grossman said that prime ministers and governments in Israel traditionally view the alliance with the U.S. as absolutely vital for the security of the country. 

“Part of the national security of Israel is the fact that we are in this alliance with the United States that will come to defend the country given the shared values that we have,” he said. “Israel always likes to declare itself the only democracy in the Middle East. This kind of alliance is now in question.” 

Kelemen said he wouldn’t count on outside pressure putting a stop to these measures. 

“When it comes to things like attacks on the judiciary, they’re just a little too abstract to really mobilize that international pressure and intervention,” he said. He used Hungary and Poland as examples. “It’s when they got to really substantive policies, like the attacks on LGBTQ populations, that it got more international pressure. That’s when the EU finally stood up. That was a trigger.”

It’s harder for international partners to step in on abstract issues like attacks on the judiciary, but often, by the time the substantive attacks happen, the autocrat already has control.

“That’s why this is such a critical moment,” he said. “If these things go through, they’re very hard to reverse.”

A final question asked for their take on whether these nationwide protests will have an effect on the halting these laws or will politicians just ram them through.

Grossman replied that only one person can stop these laws from proceeding, and that is Netanyahu himself. Netanyahu has been on the record for years talking about the importance of an independent judiciary, and these proposed laws are an undermining of what he’s said over the years, Grossman said, adding he thinks Netanyahu genuinely cares about the long-term security of the country. 

“He’s been presented with a lot of evidence that passing this will jeopardize the long-term security of Israel and Israeli economic stability, and what he thinks about that is anyone’s guess,” Grossman said. “He can stop the madness tomorrow, if that’s what he wants. He’s the prime minister, and he’s a very, very shrewd politician and very powerful. But we don’t know whether that’s what he wants.”