Democracy on the brink in both the US — and Israel

Appearance on I24

Americans feeling apocalyptic about the future of their country might be interested to know that there is another democracy hanging by a thread in a November election: Israel’s.

The Israeli right wing was always a surly bunch, but in recent years it has veered decisively toward the Trumpist variant of seething, populist disruption. Should the bloc led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win on Nov. 1, it is set to transform the Jewish state into another semi-democracy like Turkey or Hungary, a few steps removed from all-out fake one in Russia. Expect Tucker Carlson to be fact-finding smugly in Jerusalem.

Alongside the Israeli right’s familiar hardline policies, the signature innovation this time around is a plan to enact an “override clause” which would enable parliament, by a simple majority, to cancel Supreme Court rulings.

On a basic level, that would eliminate judicial oversight of the executive and legislative branches (which in Israel are anyway closely conjoined), trashing one of the foundational pillars of liberal democracy. They also plan to have politicians appoint judges and civil servants and make it impossible to charge those same politicians with fraud and breach of trust (two of the three charges — the other being bribery — for which Netanyahu is currently on trial).

All this would be disturbing enough anywhere, but in Israel there is the complicating factor of the conflict with the Palestinians.

Because of Israel’s 55-year-old occupation of the West Bank, about a quarter of its effective population are Palestinians denied the right to vote for the political body that effectively governs them. That is not the Palestinian Authority with its disconnected autonomy zones and (essentially) municipal-level powers, but Israel — which controls the surrounding territory, entry and exit from the overall West Bank, overriding security and justice, currency, airspace and most natural resources.

Moreover, Israel has peppered this territory with Jewish settlements whose roughly half-million residents have Israeli citizenship and voting rights — even though the land their homes are built on is not in Israel (and Israel has no absentee balloting) — as well as the protection of the army.

Israelis may be terribly offended when this arrangement is derided as a version of apartheid, but it is plainly problematic, inevitably unstable, and embarrassingly unique. Moreover, because of the mixing of the populations, which implies permanence, this policy is slowly altering what might have been a border dispute or a national battle into an equal rights question instead. Each day that passes, and each settler that is added, make the West Bank less partitionable from Israel.

Meanwhile, the institution that provides the Palestinians with a modicum of protection is the Supreme Court. Should it be defanged by a new government led by Netanyahu’s Likud, this risks a veritable explosion in the form of a third “intifada” uprising and the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

Down this path lie strife and international pressure that will ultimately force Israel to extend citizenship to the West Bank Palestinians. Israel is already one-fifth Arab, but such a development would turn it into a truly binational state, no longer in any plausible way a Jewish one. Because of the enmity between the Jews and the Arabs it is far more likely to resemble the former Yugoslavia (dysfunctional and ready to burst apart) than Belgium or Canada. Many Jews will leave. In the end, the country will probably change its name to Palestine.

The center-left wants to find ways to separate from the Palestinians — but is electorally hobbled by the fact that twice the Palestinian leadership failed to grab far-reaching peace offers — in 2001 and 2008. Also unhelpful is that the Hamas militant group successfully seized Gaza less than a year after Israel left in 2005, and has used it since as a launching pad for rockets aimed at Israel.

Incredibly, this morass is not the direst threat to Israel surviving as a modern and successful country, a status which its tech prowess alone accords it today. That prize goes to the country’s calamitous arrangement with its ultra-Orthodox Jews.

This group — often called Haredim — is fervently devout to the point that adult men are expected to study religion — instead of holding jobs — for all their lives. In Israel, they have more than 8 children per family on average; mostly live off subsidies and in poverty; impose widespread segregation of the sexes; largely refuse to teach their teenagers English, math, or science; and for the most part, refuse to serve in the military. Israel is a country with near-universal conscription.

They are currently perhaps 12 percent of the 10 million population, but their population doubles itself every 16 years, shows little attrition and by current birthrates will be a majority in a few decades. Unless something changes, Israel will be economically ruined and will become a Jewish version of Iran.

The current liberal government had almost succeeded in compelling one of the main sects within this group, the Belz Hassidim, to agree to a core curriculum for high schoolers — a move that clearly would be a component in any plan for Israel to save itself. Netanyahu last month scuttled this by promising the group that if he returned to power there would be no conditions placed on funding for their schools, and they could continue as is.

Netanyahu — with his master’s degree from MIT — surely understands how much damage he has done. But this seems to take a back seat to politics. In the same vein, he ordered Likud to vote against — and derail — bills that would have funded a Tel Aviv metro, as well as (incredibly) visa-free travel to the United States. He didn’t want the current government getting credit, and he assumed his supporters will forgive anything on account of hating the “elites.”

In recent days, Netanyahu has been agitating against the new maritime border agreement reached with Lebanon, in which Israel showed a small degree of generosity involving natural gas rights toward its impoverished neighbor. He attempts to portray the deal — supported by every senior security leader and widely believed to have prevented a war — as a dangerous capitulation.

Meanwhile, his cartoonish trial lumbers on, featuring hundreds of thousands of dollars in cigars, champagne, clothing and jewelry allegedly received from billionaires seeking favors. Other charges involve allegedly trading regulatory perks worth fortunes for positive press coverage. There is more that has not yet reached the courts, including a bizarre tax windfall allegedly reaching into the millions of dollars amid skullduggery involving a fix on a German submarines tender.

Given all this, how can it be that Netanyahu’s bloc is running even in the polls, and might actually win? How can they speak openly about their plans to undermine democracy?

Indeed, how can the US Republicans make no secret of their plans to game elections by appointing lackeys to key positions in the election bureaucracy? They are busily gerrymandering to render majorities against them ineffectual, passing legislation transparently aimed at suppressing minority voting, and preparing challenges based on fake claims of fraud to any election they might lose.

The reason is because both groups are so open about all this is that they no longer trying to retain right-wing votes that belong to the classic conservative elite, which respects liberal democracy. They and their associated politicians — think of Mitt Romney in the US, Gideon Saar in Israel, in a way even Emmanuel Macron in France and I’d bet also David Cameron in the UK — have essentially moved to the other side, clearing the path for the populist assault on liberal democracy. On what is left of the right, in much of the world, there is no interest in its quaint nuances.

This is especially so where there are large traditional and rural populations, and the reasons are simple. It is the professional, educated and urban classes who generally acquire the life experience and the social connections that translate into an acceptance of the other and a tolerant world view. You gravitate to cities, you work for multinational companies, you travel the world — and you end up realizing there is more to life than the Torah, la France Profond or Hindu nationalism, things you were born to through no fault or credit of your own.

Almost certainly you also raise fewer children. One’s offspring often reject their parents’ taste in music — but worldviews are interestingly hereditary. Perhaps you see the problem.

Liberal democracy might survive well enough when there is no huge dissatisfaction devouring people’s souls. But we are living in an era of dire discontent. Immigration, the collapse of manufacturing in much of the West, the end of pensions, agitation over global warming, rampant inequality caused by the elites’ projects known as tech disruption and globalization.

The populist right is highly skilled at turning this into politically effective anger — some of it based on nationalism, and some based on hatred of the educated classes, who are not only more liberal and less traditional but also, very usefully for the populists, generally wealthier. In the United States and Israel — the developed world’s least egalitarian countries — there is both.

On the other hand, there is a simpler explanation as well: the competitiveness of the Israeli and American right wings can be seen as a textbook case of irrationality.

Votes have consequences. Just ask the Brits. Just ask the Russians.

(a version of this story appeared in Newsweek)

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Dan Perry

Journalist and comms professional who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Author of Israel & the Quest for Permanence.