OPINION: Yes, Melanie Phillips, the Israeli government is a menace to democracy

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OPINION: Yes, Melanie Phillips, the Israeli government is a menace to democracy

The columnist unfortunately swallows whole a deeply dishonest populist tale which insists on dismissal and ridicule of opponents, writes Dan Perry, former chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Israel

A person stands in front of an Israeli police water cannon being used to disperse demonstrators blocking a road during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Jerusalem, Monday, July 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A person stands in front of an Israeli police water cannon being used to disperse demonstrators blocking a road during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Jerusalem, Monday, July 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Writing in the Jewish Chronicle and the Times in the past week, Melanie Phillips argued that it is the Israeli democratic protest movement, rather than the benighted government, that is the true danger to democracy.

Not only is the opposite true, but it is critical that UK Jews and other communities in the diaspora understand this and make their positions known, because Israel is on the precipice.

As someone who lived in Britain for years, I understand the reluctance of many in the Jewish community to engage with Israeli politics for fear of stirring up charges of dual loyalties and being seen as anti-Israel. Ms. Phillips is telling her readers that what we have is business as usual. But nothing could be further from the truth.

As with other enablers of the government, the centre of her argument is that the Supreme Court over the years has amassed too much power, and the government’s reforms are “merely correcting” this. She goes on to besmirch the protesters as a bunch of elites who are themselves anti-democratic because the government was elected.

Here is the truth:

_ According to the Israel Democracy Institute, in the 75 years of Israel’s existence the court challenged laws 22 times. As chairman of the Foreign Press Association I was involved in several appeals to the Supreme Court to overrule the authorities on various matters involving access; it generally proved a rubber stamp for the Government’s actions.

_ Whereas Netanyahu has argued that Israel’s judges are “self-selected,” in truth judges are appointed by a committee that includes three sitting judges, two members of the Bar Association, and five politicians from the coalition and opposition. In a country with no other meaningful checks against unlimited government power, it is critical the government not control the court.

_ Beyond the notion that democracy is more than just a tyranny of the majority, the election was essentially a tie in which the current coalition parties received just over 49 percent. An eighth of the opposition vote was lost dues to splits – a fluke. And Netanyahu hid his intentions to carry out the “reform.”

Moreover, the so-called reform goes far beyond government control over judicial appointments and a globally unique “override clause” that would enable a simple majority of parliament to overrule and Supreme Court judgment.

There is a breathtaking pipeline of 225 laws that have entered the legislative process or are planned, which if passed would verily make Israel into a thoroughly authoritarian theocracy.  These laws follow the authoritarian road map: control over the judiciary, control over public and private media, politicizing the civil service and law enforcement, erosion of basic freedoms of speech, religion and assembly, even taking effective control over the election process without any judicial or other review.  Bills proposed include:

  • Enabling legislators – meaning the coalition – to prevent other parties from running in elections without the possibility of judicial review;
Dan Perry
  • Forbidding investigations of the prime minister (such as the one that ensnared Netanyahu) and repealing from the law books  two of the three criminal offenses he is currently facing in court;
  • Transferring powers from the regular courts to the rabbinical ones bound only by Jewish law giving supremacy to men over women and easing the path to gender segregation in public;
  • Enabling the National Security Minister (the current one is has been convicted of support for terrorism) to make arbitrary “administrative” arrests.
  • Allowing the Shin Bet to monitor teachers to suppress education to critical thinking and insurrection.
  • Granting ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students permanent clearance from the draft and financial benefits equivalent to those of soldiers and criminalized “insulting” the Haredim.

It is no surprise that this onslaught is opposed not just by the “elites” but also by a solid two-thirds of the entire population. The opposition includes almost the entirety of Israel’s (retired) security leadership, the business and tech leadership, the academics, as well as grass-roots organisations from all over the country, including orthodox Jews, Mizrahim and settlers.

Ms. Phillips unfortunately swallows whole the Government’s deeply dishonest populist tale, which insists on dismissal and ridicule of opponents.

In the catastrophic (and unlikely) scenario that the Government’s plot will prevail, the country’s underlying social solidarity, so crucial for its survival in an unfriendly region, would be perhaps irrevocably ruined.  Without that, the thriving economy, the strong military, the vibrant creative culture that made Israel a magnet for so many will be a thing of the past.  The current Israel will be replaced by a grimmer, poorer, intensely violent backwater, living on borrowed time.

Melanie Phillips

Those who have given so much to the country, who send their children to risk their lives in its defense, are trying by non-violent civil means to stop this disaster, and to strengthen the feeble constitutional infrastructure that can maintain a healthy liberal democracy in a way that actually reflects the views of the large majority.

The word “democracy” has long been distorted by players of bad faith. Populist dictators from Peron to Mussolini spoke of the will of the people. Communist police states like East Germany attached the word democracy to their name in hopes of bamboozling the gullible. Now it is happening with the government of Israel.  If the government has its way, Israel will be a democracy only in the way that Turkey,  Venezuela and Russia are democracies.

Shame on those who would abet such a disgrace to Judaism, even if their ranks have now been joined by a well-known British journalist.

  • Dan Perry is the former editor of the Associated Press in Europe, Africa, the US and the Middle East, the former Chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Israel, the author of two books about Israel and a resident of Tel Aviv.
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