IN THE MEDIA

Is Israel’s democracy in jeopardy? (audio)

Aug 4, 2023 | Ran Porat

Protest against the legal reforms in Tel Aviv (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Protest against the legal reforms in Tel Aviv (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In Israel, the Knesset has voted to take away a key power of the country’s Supreme Court, triggering one of the biggest protest movements in Israeli history. It has also raised warnings that the 75-year-old democracy is in jeopardy.

On ABC Radio National‘s Between the Lines on 3 August 2023, host Tom Switzer interviewed Professor Sally Totman, Middle East politics specialist based at Charles Sturt University at Bathurst and Ran Porat, associate researcher at AIJAC and affiliate research associate at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University.  

 


TRANSCRIPT

Tom Switzer: Well, Israel is in deep political crisis. The Knesset,that’s Israel’s parliament, has passed a first major step of the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul. Now, this part of the legislation eliminates the Supreme Court’s power to block government actions that the court deems unreasonable. The controversial move has triggered one of the biggest protest movements in Israeli history, and it’s raised warnings that this 75 year old democracy is in jeopardy. Meanwhile, doctors have gone on strike. The stock market and currency, that’s sunk, and thousands of military reservists have threatened to refuse to report for duty. So will this judicial revamp undermine the essence of the Jewish democratic state? Professor Sally Totman is a Middle East politics specialist based at Charles Sturt University at Bathurst, and Ran Porat is affiliate research associate at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University. Sally, Ran, welcome to the program.

Ran Porat: Hi.

Sally Totman: Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.

Tom Switzer: Now, Ran, just tell us what this is all about. I mean, why is the government via and let’s remember, it’s a narrow majority, why is the government trying to curtail the power of the Supreme Court?

Ran Porat: So there are several reasons for that. But let me just sum them up really quickly. The first one is the past experience of the government, this government or the people that make up this government, the right wing sort of coalition is that the Supreme Court was the last bastion blocking their agendas. And their agendas include, for example, military exemptions for ultra-Orthodox, young ultra-Orthodox men to continue to study Torah instead of going to the Army. So one, one important aspect is blocking the right wing agenda that they want to stop that. The other aspect is their perception, of several members of the coalition, or members of their public, that the Supreme Court has an agenda of its own, and that is contrary to the right wing agenda, specifically with regards to settlements in the West Bank and other, other policies that are affiliated with the right in Israel. So, moreover, when it comes to civil rights, because of the way the Israeli democracy is built, it’s a unicameral system. The parliament and the government are sort of one. The government has control of the, over the parliament, the Knesset. The Supreme Court is considered the last sort of a factor that can stop government actions or arbitrary government actions. And in many cases, government ministers feel frustration for not being able to execute their policies because the, the Supreme Court blocks them. It could be in relation to civil rights, it could be relations to the Palestinians, it could be relations to all sorts of policies. So the government is trying to bend and weaken the Supreme Court in order to execute their agendas, which are diverse.

Tom Switzer: Yeah, so this is, I mean, you mentioned blocking this right wing agenda. And just to clarify, the ultra-Orthodox Jews, they want military exemptions, welfare. We should also stress they want their schools to be free to teach only religious subjects. So no maths, science, English, democratic civics and whatnot. Sally that still raises the question why is Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s been a veteran of centre right politics in Israel for so long, why is he even reaching out to the far right of these religious conservatives and ultra nationalists? These are people who’ve never really been in power before.

Sally Totman: Good question, Tom. And I think the answers are fairly simple. One, Netanyahu wanted to be prime minister again, and in order to form government, he needed to assemble a coalition that would give him at least 61 seats in the Knesset. And in order to do that, he had to partner with the religious conservatives and the ultra nationalists.

Tom Switzer: Okay, now that raises the other question here is, would Israel be in this crisis if Netanyahu were not trying to wrangle out of his criminal indictment by holding on to power with this coalition of the far right?

Sally Totman: Look, it’s hard to know for sure. These reforms are being read widely as being linked to Netanyahu’s ongoing legal troubles, which I think is a reasonable belief. But that said, I think if these reforms were introduced at another time, there might not be so much concern. But given Netanyahu’s legal troubles and who is coalition partners are, people are rightly suspicious on where this might be headed.

Tom Switzer: Okay. Now, in fairness to Netanyahu, Ran, and his government, I mean, they argue that what they’re doing here is merely a long overdue adjustment to rein in an unusually powerful judiciary that has become too powerful and too influential. How would you respond to the Netanyahu defence of this policy?

Ran Porat: Well, it’s a well known defence. And Yariv Levin, the Justice Minister did not hide his intentions before the elections. But the counter response is that, as I said, this is, Israel is not a regular system like you find, for instance, in the US we you a strong president and two parliaments, right? So the Supreme Court did take on extra judicial review authorities since the 90s under Supreme Court leader of Justice Aharon Barak. But this was happening because Israel did not have a judicial review mechanism that was actually usable and because Israel does not have a constitution. So what, what the Supreme Court did is took upon itself to protect civil rights, to protect the civilians against the government. And the expansion of their authority was actually backed up by legal reasons, and it was supported by most of the population. And it only came to a question once they started to block policies that the government of the day didn’t like. And in fact, Netanyahu himself protected the Supreme Court and he glorified it many times and its role as a as a beacon of democracy. So that that argument doesn’t stick from my point of view.

Tom Switzer: Okay. So these are key points here. Just to clarify, there is no upper house or no Senate in the Israeli parliament. There’s no written constitution, as you said, Ran. There’s also no state governments. There’s just a house of parliament, the Knesset. So the consensus here is that the Supreme Court does have a particular function within the democracy to provide that check and balance against the executive branch. But nevertheless, Sally, there are those who support Netanyahu and his government because he gets the most votes. He got the most votes at the last democratic election. He did win a democratic mandate. And they say, his defenders say, that the law will allow the elected government to carry out its agenda. What’s wrong with that position?

Sally Totman: Probably a lot of things, Tom. Look, Netanyahu’s party, Likud, won 32 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset. It’s not exactly an overwhelming majority. Yes, it was eight more than the nearest party, Yesh Atid, which is Yair Lapid’s party, who won 24. But it wasn’t an overwhelming vote for Netanyahu. That said, he did manage to cobble together a coalition with five other parties to form a majority government. They hold 64 seats in the Knesset between them, half of which are from Likud, Netanyahu’s party, and the other half made up of those five other parties. So I think calling it a democratic mandate for Netanyahu might be being a touch generous since the other parties in the coalition are all, well, right of Likud and I think Likud voters wouldn’t, you know, never, ever vote for those parties.

Tom Switzer: But Netanyahu says he’s still willing to hold a dialogue with the opponents for the next four months on any future judicial changes.

Sally Totman: Look, Netanyahu is great at holding dialogues. He’s not particularly great at compromise. So, you know, I think he’s willing to talk and talk and talk. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll change his position. That said, we’ll have to wait and see what’s happening. But I think, you know, given the recent protests across the country, many feel that the government’s agenda is is overstepping that elected mandate.

Tom Switzer: Okay. Now, meanwhile, the opposition to the government’s judicial reforms that actually extends to the country’s military, as I mentioned in my introduction. At least 10,000 volunteer reservists are reserving the right to refuse to serve. Meanwhile, Israel’s most senior general has warned that divisions in the army over this matter, the judicial overhaul that could risk creating dangerous cracks within the military. So, Ran, do these protests and all the controversy that’s erupted as a result of this judicial overhaul, does that represent a threat to Israeli national security?

Ran Porat: It does. It does because of two main reasons. One is actually practical. The reserve service is not just a hobby. People take out or leave their, you know, wives, their works, workplaces, their wives, their husbands. Of course also women take up reserve service in Israel and they have to practice and sharpen their military skills. This is especially vital for the Air Force, for example, that they have to fly once or twice a week just to maintain flight capabilities. And moreover, the reservists are part of ongoing war between war, the Mapam, as it’s called, in Hebrew, to block Iranian proxies and their aggression from Syria, from Lebanon, from Yemen, the Houthis, etcetera. And without those reserve services ongoing, the army’s capabilities to to engage in combat reduces. And that’s reason one. The second reason is that the Army was a symbol of unity for many years. It forged like that by the founding father of Israel, David Ben-Gurion. And the fact that internal dissent or the the internal division is actually now within the ranks of the army within the reservist. But not only some say that maybe going into the regular army, the younger ones or the the officers on duty, that is crucial. And just want to note that I think Sally was correct to say that Netanyahu won 32 seats, but he forged a coalition, and that’s democracy. Even if we disagree with that coalition or agree it’s still a democratic coalition. The fact that the other party, other people from his bloc did not vote for Ben-Gvir, does make it a democracy. Israel is a vibrant democracy. Even now, what we see is actually proof of how vibrant and committed civilians are for democracy. So it’s actually a positive sign from that perspective.

Tom Switzer: And that brings us to the Palestinians, Sally. I mean, with this judicial overhaul that does increase the prospect of more Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank. And we should stress this is a project that Israel’s Supreme Court had in some cases opposed. Now, what do you think the judicial overhaul means for the Palestinians?

Sally Totman: Look, it’s likely not to be good, but exactly how this will impact the Palestinians will depend on what legislation the government manages to pass that would have previously been struck down by the Supreme Court on the unreasonableness grounds that no longer exist following this reform. Best case scenario, no legislation like this is passed, and therefore there’s no impact of this change on the Palestinians. Worst case scenario, we’ll see significant curbing of the rights of the Palestinians and an accelerating of the West Bank settlement construction with some or all of that region annexed.

Tom Switzer: And what about for the Americans? Because President Biden’s been very critical of this move and the relations between Netanyahu and the White House have frosty, to say the least. I bring in this issue about the Americans because we’ve had two former American ambassadors to Israel in recent weeks. They’ve suggested something once unthinkable, and that is an end to US military aid to Israel. So what might the judicial overhaul mean for the future of Israel’s alliance with Washington, Sally Totman?

Ran Porat: Look, there’s definitely more and more are questioning in the United States of that US-Israel alliance, but it’s still very strong. And I think if we look at the White House press statement on this reform, it still reflects that, you know, the US would like broader consensus on the change, but it doesn’t actually have an opinion on the change itself. So it tells us, I think in many ways that although the US would like sort of democratic reforms to be perhaps more democratic and include perhaps more of the population in terms of the vote, they’re probably not going to interfere. And so I think it’s unlikely that this is going to have any real impact long term on the strength of that bond.

Tom Switzer: Yeah, Ran, what do you make about this rift between Washington and Israel? I mean, there have been disagreements between presidents and Israel, certainly since Eisenhower over the Suez crisis in 1956. But it seems to me that this crisis is not so much about foreign policy. It’s about Israel’s character. So how do you see relations between Washington and Israel proceeding?

Ran Porat: I think Sally was absolutely on the money when she said that there the alliance is still strong. I think Biden was talking to Netanyahu as a friend, but also as somebody that has a stake in Israel. The… remember the the aid is very substantial. Israel receives the biggest aid, possibly military and civilian as well, if you compare it to other countries. So the alliance is strong. I think that we are also at a point that the US pressure, along with internal pressure, of course, has produced something and it produced a stop. So the Knesset, the parliament is going to a break and it’s not going to be resumed until October. The Supreme Court will deal with the reasonable law, reasonableness law in September. That’s going to be another important point. But everybody understands. Netanyahu, I think particularly understands that this is where things have to stop and there has to be some dialogue and some compromise. So we may have hit the lowest point. But what I get from my friends in Israel is that there’s a bit of optimism now that we’ve hit the lowest point. And it’s going to be better from now on, including with the relations with the Americans.

Tom Switzer: Okay. Finally, let’s address this issue of demography. It seems so important in light of this judicial overhaul decision. Now, Bret Stephens, Thomas Friedman are among others in The New York Times to make this point. But I just want to put forward some figures here. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish population in Israel represents about 20% of the population. Now their numbers are likely to double. They do so every two decades. So they’ll represent 40% of Israel in the next quarter century, which means that 40% of Israel by then will not have studied maths, English, Science, civic education. And meanwhile, the more secular tech, heavy Jewish population, remember Israel are trendsetters on technology that 25% of the population, they pay 90% of the taxes and they fight all the wars. So to the extent that these demographic trends continue, Sally, what does this mean for Israel demographically in the future?

Sally Totman: Look, Tom, you painted a pretty grim picture it and if it pans out in that direction, I think, you know, Israel will be a completely different state in 40 years from what we know it today. It certainly won’t be the powerhouse that it is now. I think the other sort of demographic change that we could be seeing is, of course, if we see the accelerating of that West Bank settlement construction with that region annexed into Israel, you know, bringing in the Palestinian population into Israel proper as non-citizens is going to have a huge demographic impact on the country. And, you know, guess lead us to two more likely clashes between the ultra-Orthodox and the Palestinians. So I think, you know, with all of this on the table, Israel is in for a bumpy ride.

Tom Switzer: And following on from Sally, Ran, in conclusion about this point about demography. Get a load of this. This is a recent poll of 734 Israeli founders and CEOs of start ups, tech start ups. These are managing directors of venture capital firms. This poll found that two thirds, two thirds, were taking steps to move their assets outside Israel because of this law. The judicial overhaul. So what is the judicial overhaul mean for Israel demographically? Ran Porat?

Ran Porat: So the business community is worried and that’s part of the, I would say the protest, which will have to wait and see. As I say, I’m optimistic that there’s going to be like a turning point soon. But we will know in coming weeks about the demography. There’s after remember, another another aspect here. Yes, the ultra-Orthodox numbers are growing in numbers quite significantly. But at the same time, they’re what’s happening is a intermingled sort of a interaction with the secular population. So they’re not only in their enclaves. Sure, there are these separatists that live in their enclaves. Israel is sort of reshaping itself. I don’t think it’s going to be that bleak. It’s reshaping itself. It might become more Jewish, but at the same time, the same influence that the ultra-Orthodox have on the secular population. The secular population has an immense influence on the ultra-Orthodox population, and they are intermingled. They they are part of the job market, They are part of the the economy. We can see high tech ultra-Orthodox. So it’s not only black, it’s actually Israel will be again as it is the centre of the Jewish world. And I actually see positive future in that respect.

Tom Switzer: Well, on that positive note, we’ll conclude. To be continued. Ran. Sally, lovely to have you on Between the lines.

Ran Porat: Thank you.

Sally Totman: Thanks, Tom.

Tom Switzer: That was Ran Porat from the Australian Center for Jewish Civilization at Monash University, and Professor Sally Totman from Charles Sturt University at Bathurst.

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