Is Israeli democracy worth defending?

Readers are probably aware of the recent widespread demonstrations in Israel against its new far-right government and its plans to throttle the independence of the judiciary, with the associated media debate in other countries.

There are two particularly frustrating things about this debate. One can be summed up in the question “What took you so long?” Benjamin Netanyahu’s intentions have been abundantly clear for a decade if not two. Yet western commentators continued to handle him with kid gloves, pretending – perhaps even believing – that the authoritarian threat came only from people to his right, not from Netanyahu himself. As I said a couple of years ago:

To a large extent … Netanyahu pioneered the road that Trump and others followed. Yet most commentators in the west, even when they have no qualms about calling out the threat to democracy posed by the likes of Viktor Orbán or Narendra Modi, shy away from including Netan­yahu in the same group.

And they’re still doing it. Here’s Tom Friedman, for example, engaging in what for him is strong criticism of an Israeli government. Yet he still feels the need to tell us, implausibly, that “the integrity of the judicial system … has existed since Israel’s founding” and that no American president has offered such criticism before “because, up until a few weeks ago, none ever had to.”

Netanyahu, who was educated in the United States, is in many ways typical of the conservatives that clustered around the second Bush administration, producing the invasion of Iraq and the trashing of the constitution at home. The advent of Donald Trump brought a crisis of conscience for many of those figures: some became never-Trumpers and discovered some virtue in liberal democracy; others went full Trumpist.

But there was never any doubt that Netanyahu would be in the second group. A long-standing friend of Trump, he shares his open contempt for the values of the free and open society. The fact that he has to operate on the ground in the Middle East, not from the comfort of Mar-a-Lago or a Washington think-tank, has led him to make compromises (including a handshake many years ago with Yasser Arafat), but his core attitude has always been authoritarian.

The second frustration comes from the other side. Supporters of Palestinian rights point out, quite correctly, the thing that people like Friedman miss: that from the point of view of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, its democracy has always been flawed. And for Palestinians outside the state’s legal boundary, who are controlled by Israel but have no rights of citizenship, there is no democracy at all.

But some of them go on to draw the conclusion that Israeli democracy is a sham, with nothing worth defending. They point to the fact that the current protests include many people with violent anti-Palestinian records, as if that de-legitimises the movement. Orly Noy says that its “true purpose is to turn the clock back far enough so that the apartheid regime in Israel can once again be marketed as a functioning democracy, allowing the international community to continue turning a blind eye to the crimes it commits.”*

While I agree with much of what Noy says, I think she is too cavalier in dismissing the need for a broad front. Unquestionably Israeli democracy has grave flaws, but things could also be a great deal worse – and if Netanyahu has his way, they will be. The fact that he has roused the opposition of some who in other contexts would themselves be called right-wing authoritarians does not mean that the struggle is unimportant: quite the contrary.

It may seem that we’ve had this debate before, and we have. Back in 2021 I argued for the foundational importance of democracy, in the context of Liz Cheney’s open dissent from the Republican Party’s Trumpism:

The defence of democracy requires ideological compromise: it requires people with very different philosophical backgrounds and policy preferences to work together. …

That makes it all the more significant that Cheney is ideologically a hardline conservative (…). To criticise her on that score is perfectly legitimate, but in relation to this particular issue it’s missing the point. It’s precisely those who might be thought to be close to fascism in philosophical terms who can do the most good by opposing it.

By all means point out some of the hypocrisies involved in the anti-Netanyahu movement. But don’t forget where the main enemy is.


* Thanks to Sol Salbe for drawing this piece to my attention.


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