Will Israel Keep Liberal Values at its Core?

Since its independence in 1948, the state of Israel has sought to position itself based on principles of democratic values, with a strong High Court and respect for minority rights. Across the 75 years of its existence, its political landscape has been contested by a number of important political parties that were (at some time) part of the Liberal International - the Progressive Party (1948-1961), the Israeli Liberal Party, the Independent Liberals, and most recently Yesh Atid, founded and led by former Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Over the last 4 years, the country has gone through countless political crises, the main reason for which being the refusal of the main parties to enter a coalition government together under Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Likud - a major center-right to right-wing political party in Israel - who has been facing numerous charges of corruption (and whose trial remains ongoing at the time of writing of this article).

The most recent election in Israel (November 2022) yielded the most right-leaning government in the history of the state - fronted by Netanyahu himself, who formed a coalition with far-right, and religious and radical Zionist parties. Featuring prominently in the government are figures such as Itamar Ben Gvir, an Israeli lawyer and politician, who serves as the Minister of National Security. Ben Gvir is a member of the Knesset and leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party. Also in government is Bezalel Smotrich, chairman of the Religious Zionist Party, which promotes an agenda of anti-LGBTIQ+, anti-Arab and Jewish supremacy. 

Since December, the main talking point of this government has centered around their proposed justice reform, which would see the independence of the Supreme Court massively reduced. The fact remains that since the Constituent Assembly and the First Knesset were unable to put a constitution together, the Knesset started to legislate basic laws on various subjects. After all the basic laws will be enacted, they will constitute together, with an appropriate introduction and several general rulings, the new constitution of the State of Israel. This issue relates back to the first Prime Minister of the country, David Ben Gurion, and his conviction that Ashkenazi Jews - the majority of the Jews in Israel at the time - should not set the laws for Mizrahi or Sephardic Jews - who in the following decades would journey en masse back to their ancient homeland. Resultantly, by the 1990s, the Supreme Court in Israel began to intervene increasingly in order to strike down legislation which it deemed to conflict with the Basic Laws. Israel has no written constitution,only a set of quasi-constitutional basic laws, making the Supreme Court even more powerful. Worryingly, Israel also has no check on the power of the Knesset other than the Supreme Court. Since then, there have been many discussions regarding the reform of this system. The main proponents of reform are the right- to far-right parties, who have declared that the court is too left-wing; and that their agendas cannot otherwise be implemented to the fullest. But in what concerns the liberal perspective, the main issues raised by Israel’s liberal faction are based on 3 areas: the increased ability of the incumbent government to appoint Supreme Court judges, the power of the government to pass a law with a simple majority in the Knesset (even when the Court has deemed it unconstitutional), and the fact that it could pave the way for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to remain in power despite a potential  corruption conviction sentence, which would otherwise make him unfit to continue his tenure. 

As protests have escalated in the last 2 months, the opposition (liberal) leader Yair Lapid has proposed a referendum for adopting a constitution, to ensure that the principles of liberal democracy will not be repelled by any extreme left- or right-wing government. According to Lapid, this constitution should be composed of three fundamental laws: first, the declaration of the superiority of the fundamental laws of the country and the subjection of all authorities to restrictions established by law. Second, the determination of how many ultra-Orthodox men the Israeli society and economy can support for full-time study of the Torah - with a growth rate of four percent, the ultra-Orthodox are expected to represent 16 percent of the total population by 2030 (CNN). Many of them study Torah full-time and are therefore not part of the labor force. The third law would define the possibilities of judicial review of laws passed in parliament. On this issue, Lapid considered that if "judicial activism" must be limited, "a democratic state cannot exist without a strong and independent court."

"If you continue on the path you are following, you will be responsible for civil war in Israeli society,” said former Defence and Prime Minister Benny Gantz at his National Unity party’s Knesset faction meeting about Benjamin Netanyahu, just days after the government unveiled its four-point plan to increase parliamentary power over the judiciary (the Times of Israel).

The question now remains, what should be our response as European liberals to this situation? Any liberal will agree that the separation of powers is a fundamental part of the democratic system and that the independence of the courts shouldn't in any case be attacked or weakened by autocrats such as those featuring among the members of the current government of Israel. A constitution would yield an even playing field for the members of society and ensure that the basic rights of secular Jews and minority ethnicities would be guaranteed by the state. The hope is that one of the only functioning democracies in the Middle East will not succumb to authoritarianism like some other countries in the region have done over the last decades.

 

 

Sources: 

  1. Gold, H. (2023, March 27). A threat to democracy or much-needed reform? Israel's judicial overhaul explained. CNN https://amp.cnn.com/cnn/2023/03/25/middleeast/israel-judiciary-netanyahu-explainer-intl/index.html 
  2. TOI Staff (2023, March 11) Lapid proposes constitution for Israel to extract itself from ‘terrible crisis’. The Times of Israel https://www.timesofisrael.com/lapid-proposes-constitution-for-israel-to-extract-itself-from-terrible-crisis/
  3. Unknown Author (2023, January 11) Israel: Gantz accuses Netanyahu of 'coup d'état' and pushing towards 'civil war' Middle East Monitor https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20230110-israel-gantz-accuses-netanyahu-of-coup-detat-and-pushing-towards-civil-war/
  4. Sara Himeles (2023, March 28) Why doesn’t Israel have a constitution?. Jewish Unpacked. https://jewishunpacked.com/why-doesnt-israel-have-a-constitution/ 

 

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April 25 2023

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