By Gabriel Teitelbaum
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own.
Over the last several weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has delivered a one-two punch to Israeli democracy which is now wreathing on the floor. The world waits with bated breath, wondering if the secular liberal democracy can survive. The first punch came in the form of a judicial overhaul that would relegate Israel’s legal system as the junior member of its relationship with the Knesset and Prime Minister. The second punch, yet more devastating, came when on March 23, the Knesset overwhelmingly passed legislation that grants Netanyahu de facto legal immunity. By answering the question of how this came to be, one can gain a better understanding of the international response that has since followed. Regarding domestic Israeli politics, the combined ruthlessness and desperation of Netanyahu and his right-wing cohorts can only portend the Orbánization of Israel’s economy and body politic if not stopped.
Earlier in 2022, it appeared as though the question of Netanyahu’s future was settled with his electoral defeat and legal jeopardy, which came in the form of corruption charges. Fortunes for all parties rapidly changed when Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s fragile coalition collapsed under the weight of Israel’s religious and ethnic division. While the centrist Bennet-Lapid bloc squabbled with Arab coalition partners and worked on brokering Israel’s first budget in three years, Netanyahu was biding his time, cementing old alliances while making new ones. Not having to contend with the burden of governance nourished Bibi’s political revival. All he had to do was wait for the coalition to collapse, which it inevitably did. The succeeding election was a sweep. Netanyahu leveraged these alliances, new and old, to form a majority coalition of sixty-four seats out of 120- resentment of the country’s political stagnation, reflected in the 71% turnout, did no favors for the hapless opposition.
Upon his return to power, Netanyahu’s Machiavellian cynicism has laid itself bare. The Prime Minister made a coalition agreement with Avi Maoz of the reactionary Noam party to establish a Jewish National Identity Office, which would effectively end Israel’s ethno-religious pluralism. Though Maoz has left the government, he remains within the coalition. He was far from the only member of the government capable of such antics: controversial National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir called a legitimate court ruling that limited his power over the police as a “coup” and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich vowed that a return to the “Laws of the Torah” would establish prosperity for Israel. Several more examples can be cataloged, though the reader surely understands the trend of Israeli politics at this point- in the same manner as Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump, the Israeli right has embraced outrage politics and culture wars in an effort to monopolize power. And if any cabinet member dares question this centralization, they will be met with the same fate of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who was sacked for doing just that.
Smotrich, who also serves as a Minister in the Defense Ministry, alone has done a great deal to diminish Israel’s national security. Laser-focused on winning domestic political points (and perhaps those points among French and American Evangelicals), Smotrich unveiled a map of “Greater Israel” that drew the ire of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. His overt genocidal fantasization regarding the Palestinians attracted scorn from Saudi Arabia, a critical ally that shares Israel’s chief geopolitical goal of eroding Iranian influence in Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula. The progress made by the Abraham Accords is of little concern to him. Worse yet, a disengagement policy vis-à-vis the northern West Bank was repealed, causing Israel’s ambassador to the United States to be summoned by the State Department for the first time in a decade. The rift between Israel and the European Union has only grown.
These recent events offer a grim geopolitical prognosis. Netanyahu is acting under the mistaken assumption that Israel can thrive in a state of splendid isolation. Netanyahu can take advantage of Israel’s extensive economic ties with China, an enemy of Israel’s primary ally, the United States, and an ally of the Iranian regime that endangers Israel’s very existence. Like Orbán’s Hungary, it is on the very outskirts of the Liberal International Order. It has exchanged the fruits of strong alliances with fellow democracies based on shared values and norms for hollow partnerships based on realist transactionalism. This comes with a flirtation with authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that more so serve the interests of Netanyahu and his clique than Israel as a nation; an Israeli rendition of Hungary’s Fudan University scandal may very well occur.
That all said, Netanyahu views the judicial overhaul as his biggest priority. Without a monopoly on political power on the domestic level, he would be unable to shape foreign policy. The media often fails to grasp the autocratic nature these reforms, so they will be briefly listed: the role of ministerial legal advisor would be politicized, executive orders would enjoy decreased legal scrutiny by the Supreme Court, alterations to the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee to make it favorable to the coalition in power, and perhaps most odious of them all, judicial review of legislation will be limited. The watered-down version of the legislation only mitigates one provision. This is no less than a dagger being struck at the heart of Israel’s pluralistic political system; any attempt to downplay this autocratization or democratic backsliding deserves mockery. It was Orbán’s subjugation of the court system that allowed him to accrue dictatorial power.
This anti-democratic rattlesnake is being met with fierce resistance from Israel’s civil society as well as its military. Elite fighter pilots, often deployed on immediate notice to neutralize terrorists in the Palestinian territories, refuse to take to the skies. Israeli citizens have taken to the streets and have exercised civil disobedience. The apparent firing of Gallant has only emboldened them, spurring protests near Netanyahu’s house. Whether these courageous displays of pro-democracy sentiment force Netanyahu to withdraw the overhaul depends on the intensity and scope of the resistance. If this democratic resistance can freeze Israel economically, draw international attention, and maintain hundreds of thousands of active participants, Netanyahu may be forced to relent.
Unfortunately, this is an unlikely scenario. Polarizing political figures tend to diminish their opposition via the levers of judicial power and control of the press or by distracting the population with irrelevant issues. Orbán can be accused of the former, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is a clear example of the latter, utilizing the fictitious “woke” bogeyman to gain the largest amount of power an American governor has ever enjoyed. Netanyahu, a master of deception and political institutions, is employing both tactics to destroy those opposed to him. Only time will tell if Israeli democracy goes quiet into the night as did its Hungarian counterpart.
Gabriel "Gabe" Teitelbaum is a junior at American University who studies in the School of International Service with a focus on National Security. Outside of his academic work, Gabe has worked for Representative Andy Kim's Congressional Office in D.C. and is Secretary of Students Supporting Ukraine, a club at AU. He has also written for Penn Political Review. In his free time, Gabe enjoys reading about military history, among other subjects. He hopes to fight for democracy in word and deed.