Poland, Israel and the rule of law

Ever since 2015, when the right-wing Law & Justice party won government in Poland, it and Hungary (ruled by Viktor Orbán since 2010) have been the rogue members of the European Union. They have progressively undermined the liberal and democratic values on which the EU is supposed to be based, and have regularly feuded with the union’s leaders and its bureaucracy in Brussels.

All the same, the two governments have not quite been on the same page. Orbán is a long-time ally of Russia’s Vladimir Putin; he distanced himself a little following last year’s invasion of Ukraine, but he remains clearly the least committed to Ukraine among EU leaders. History, however, makes a pro-Russian policy unthinkable for a Polish government. Law & Justice’s leader Jarosław Kaczyński has been a consistent opponent of Putin and a supporter of Ukrainian independence.

So as the Ukraine issue has come to dominate the European landscape, it makes sense that there would be some rapprochement between Poland and the EU. From the EU’s point of view, Poland has become indispensable: its frontline position and sympathetic population makes it a major conduit for aid of all sorts to Ukraine. And from Kaczyński’s point of view, some of the issues in dispute have come to seem less important. Facing an election later this year, EU money and acceptance would be valuable assets.

Sure enough, last week the Polish parliament agreed to proceed with legislation to undo some of the “reforms” to the judicial system that Law & Justice had made to undermine the independence of the judiciary. If it goes through – and not all of Kaczyński’s allies are on board with the idea – the EU has promised in return to release some €36 billion in aid that has been frozen due to the dispute.

For a range of reasons (some political, some structural), Brussels has always been reluctant to enforce its own rules about respect for the rule of law against recalcitrant members. It took prolonged defiance and numerous provocations from Poland for things to get to this point. Both sides were probably looking for an excuse to back down; this compromise seems to be as good a chance as any. It doesn’t address all the sources of disagreement, but further progress will have to wait until after the Polish election.

As it happens, though, just as one country is pulling back from throttling the independence of the judiciary, another is moving forward. Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government in Israel, sworn in less than three weeks ago, has lost no time in proceeding with one of its key policies: it proposes to give parliament the power to overturn supreme court rulings by a simple majority vote, as well as increasing the government’s say in the appointment of judges.

The new government, of course, was already controversial due to its inclusion of ministers from the openly fascist party Otzma Yehudit. But the attack on the judiciary has been a wake-up call to at least some sections of the Israeli population, with large protests at the weekend against the proposals.

International reaction has so far been more muted. American aid to Israel is not as great as the sums the EU has promised Poland, but it’s still very large – easily enough to be an incentive for good behavior if only the United States were ever minded to use it that way. But no president since George Bush senior, more than thirty years ago, has put Israel under any real pressure, and there is no sign that Joe Biden is about to start.

While no-one by now should be surprised at the hypocrisy, it’s still striking the way in which Israel’s strongest supporters in the west point smugly to its status as an outpost of democracy, while giving aid and encouragement to those forces within it that are working hard to subvert that status.

6 thoughts on “Poland, Israel and the rule of law

  1. As someone whose half-siblings are Jewish, I disapprove of you linking to an Arab propagandist – the Jewish people were resident in the Holy Land centuries before the Palestinian Arabs’ ancestors conquered the area and the explicitly genocidal statements made by the Arab leadership when they launched the 1948 Arab Israeli war is rightly not forgotten – or forgiven – by any Jew.

    Making such statements only three years after the Soviets’ reached Auschwitz is one of the many reasons few Jews are willing to listen about a “Nakba”.

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    1. Thanks Paul! I certainly don’t disagree that many of the Arab leaders in 1948 had genocidal intentions, but I don’t think that discredits the views of all Arabs, and certainly not those of 75 years later – any more than I think that Itamar Ben-Gvir’s genocidal intentions discredit the views of Jews (or even Zionists) in general. Nor do I think that an argument about who occupied the land many hundreds of years ago has any real relevance today. It seems clear to me that any move towards peace & sanity in the region has to start with each group accepting that the other is there to stay and that both are entitled to equal rights.

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      1. Nor do I think that an argument about who occupied the land many hundreds of years ago has any real relevance today.

        Sometimes I have feelings that I shouldn’t have (or at any rate I think that I shouldn’t have them), and I try to control those feelings and their effects on my behaviour. Sometimes other people have feelings that I think they shouldn’t have, but I can’t try to control those feelings the way I can control my own. It would wrong for me not to consider the effects of my own actions on other people, and when I do that I have to remember that the effects of my actions on them depend on the kind of feelings they have, not the kind of feelings they should have (or the kind I think they should have). People shouldn’t carry grudges based on events centuries old, but also people should remember that other people do carry grudges based on events centuries old, and proceed accordingly. It is at least conceivable that Arabs and Israelis could settle their disputes (or at least some of them) on the basis of abandoning their feelings about past history, but it is also at least conceivable that they could do so not on that basis but rather on the basis of acknowledging that there is a past history which has left behind painful feelings on both sides which it is important not to exacerbate and jointly seeking a solution which offers the hope of improvement for the future without denying the pain arising from the past. (I don’t mean that either of these things is easy. If there were an easy solution, it would already have been arrived at. What I am suggesting is that for the people actually involved, for one side to say ‘Let’s just forget about all that historical baggage’ might not be the best way to begin.)

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    2. In my experience, one of the things that often happens when this topic is discussed is that people try, in a particular way, to change the subject: what I mean is that people on all sides of the dispute have points which they feel favour their side, and therefore bring them up whether they are relevant to what’s already going on in the discussion or not. I hope I’m not doing an injustice to Paul Ninteen Fifty-Four, but that’s how this comment seems to me.

      I disapprove of you linking to an Arab propagandist

      If our host links to an article (or blog post, or whatever) which offers a false or distorted presentation of the facts, it’s relevant to point that out, and a worthwhile contribution to the discussion. Is that what’s happened here? Any source may be false or deceptive–I know that there have been times in the past when I have repeated statements I thought were accurate and then later found out that they weren’t, or might not have been–but what particular distortion (are we supposed to believe) is going on in this case?

      … the Jewish people were resident in the Holy Land centuries before the Palestinian Arabs’ ancestors conquered the area and the explicitly genocidal statements made by the Arab leadership when they launched the 1948 Arab Israeli war is rightly not forgotten – or forgiven – by any Jew.

      Supposing** this to be an entirely accurate representation of the case, how is it relevant? If there were any reference either in Charles Richardson’s post itself or any of the sources linked to which contradicted anything in that comment, it might be relevant to dispute it; but I haven’t found any such reference, and none has been pointed out.

      ** I’m trying to avoid being drawn into a discussion of the remark’s accuracy, one way or the other, when its relevance hasn’t been established–that’s my point.

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  2. Against an organised nonviolent resistance movement Israel might have trouble with countries of any significance or power. But i think that nonviolence offends the Arab – and Islamic – patriarchal and cultural value of masculine honor. See also: Arab Algeria’s moronic refusal to remove its now pointless attack on the French in its national anthem.

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