The truth about the Israeli protests

This elitist, anti-democratic movement wants to constrain the power of the Israeli parliament.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics Politics World

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On Monday night, amid large-scale protests, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) passed the first part of the government’s judicial-reform package.

The ‘reasonableness’ bill, which passed 64-0, is designed to curb the sweeping powers of Israel’s Supreme Court. As Jeremy Sharon has outlined in Times of Israel, using the tool of ‘reasonableness’, the Israeli Supreme Court has been able to strike down the actions of elected ministers or officials as ‘unreasonable’. It can do this even if those actions ‘do not violate any particular law or contradict other administrative rulings’. If it becomes law – incredibly, the Supreme Court could still declare the reasonableness bill to be ‘unreasonable’ – that will no longer be possible.

By any measure, the reasonableness bill boosts Israeli democracy. It empowers elected lawmakers at the expense of an unelected judiciary. But that is not how those protesting the judicial reforms in Israel are presenting it. For these protesters and their leaders among Israel’s business and military elites, judicial reforms designed to strengthen parliament are talked of as a ‘coup’.

Meanwhile, the protesters hold the anti-democratic view that a powerful Supreme Court should curb the power of the elected parliament. They protest in the name of democracy, but their overwhelming concern is to constrain the actions of elected representatives.

The reasonableness bill is just one of several legislative components in the government’s judicial-reform package. Others include the override clause (which would allow the Knesset to override the Supreme Court with a simple majority vote); changing the way judges are appointed; and allowing ministers to appoint their own legal advisers. Overall, the thrust of the reforms is democratic, increasing the power of elected politicians and decreasing that of unelected judges.

Things get more complicated when the specifics of Israeli politics are considered. The coalition government pushing these reforms is broadly nationalistic, religious, socially conservative and supportive of West Bank settlements. It even includes a small but significant minority of politicians who could legitimately be described as far right. The most notable example is Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, who has in the past been convicted of supporting Kach, a Jewish terrorist group.

Nevertheless, it does not follow from the government’s political outlook that the reforms themselves are undemocratic. On the contrary, the reforms empower parliament. That benefits democracy in general, not any party in particular.

The protest movement is broadly defined as left wing. Its supporters tend to be more secular and socially liberal. They are also, in many cases, elitist and view the mass of the population with disdain. This is why protesters are keen to support a Supreme Court that will undermine popular sovereignty.

Moreover, there is little doubt the protest movement is supported by key components of the Israeli elite. All the leading sections of the military and intelligence services, which play a key role in Israeli society, are heavily represented. It has received public support from three former chiefs of staff of the Israeli military, five former heads of Mossad (the external intelligence service) and three former heads of the Shin Bet (the internal intelligence service).

Thousands of reservists from elite military units have also said they will refuse to serve once the reforms are passed. This poses a serious problem for a country like Israel, which faces security threats on several fronts, including from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.

Israel’s business class, including its key high-tech sector, is also overwhelmingly in favour of the protests, as are academia and the media.

On the other side to the military, business, academic and media elites is the fast-growing conservative majority in Israel. This population, which tends to be nationalist and religious in outlook, is expanding far more quickly than Israel’s secular left populations. As a result, the latter feel that they will no longer be able to dominate the political system in the same way that they have done since Israel’s founding. And so they are focussing on using the Supreme Court to curb the power of elected politicians.

Of course, secular Israelis shouldn’t have to rely on the Supreme Court to enforce their worldview. They could try to persuade their compatriots to adopt more liberal values. Indeed, convincing these different sections of Israeli society to adopt a more liberal stance towards, for example, the Palestinian question would be a step forward. But instead, the left finds it easier to call for a judicial veto on elected politicians.

Yuval Noah Harari, a best-selling international author, typifies the worst sort of this elitist reaction. Earlier this month, writing in Haaretz, Israel’s equivalent of the Guardian or the New York Times, he made the extraordinary argument that Israel is becoming increasingly anti-Semitic. He achieved this remarkable feat by casting the protesters in the historical role of Jews in the diaspora, when they were vilified ‘as foreign agents, cosmopolitan, unconnected to the land, and as traitors who served various types of liberal and global conspiracies’. He concludes that ‘exactly the same allegations are made today by the government of Israel against liberal citizens of the country’.

Unsurprisingly, the more traditional members of Israel’s population do not react well to being cast as racist. If anything, such contemptuous talk is likely to reinforce their illiberalism, in opposition to liberal scolds like Harari.

To make matters worse, the Biden administration is now openly intervening on the side of the protesters, and therefore interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. The White House even summoned Thomas Friedman, the veteran New York Times columnist, into the Oval Office this month to deliver Joe Biden’s message to the Israeli public. According to Friedman, Biden wants Israeli leaders to find ‘consensus on controversial areas of policy’ and ‘not to rush’. In effect, Biden is telling the Israeli government to desist from pushing democratic reforms in its own country.

Make no mistake, these protests represent an elitist movement, backed by the US, that is set upon constraining the will of the masses. Israel’s ‘pro-democracy’ protests are anything but democratic.

Daniel Ben-Ami is an author and journalist. He runs the website Radicalism of Fools, dedicated to rethinking anti-Semitism. Follow him on Twitter: @danielbenami

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World


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