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Israeli democracy is rotting from the inside

Tuesday’s election results exposed two major threats to Israeli democracy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the campaign.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the campaign.
Amir Levy/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Israel’s 2019 election results are in, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is all but certain to stay in office for a record fifth term. The consequences of his victory for both Israelis and Palestinians could very well be catastrophic.

The past several years of Netanyahu’s time in office have been characterized by drift in two illiberal, anti-democratic directions.

The prime minister has tried to buy off the independent media, further marginalized Israel’s Arab minority, and gone after civil society groups critical of his policies. Some of this behavior was, according to Israel’s attorney general, actively criminal; Netanyahu is likely to be indicted in the coming months but is expected to try to pass a law shielding himself from prosecution while in office.

In essence, this apparent victory could allow Netanyahu to continue his scorched-earth campaign to maintain power at all costs — up to and including doing serious harm to the foundations of Israeli democracy.

It has also become obvious that he has no interest in a negotiated solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, and seems content to indefinitely occupy Palestinian land without concern for the harm the occupation does to the Palestinians. At the end of the 2019 campaign, Netanyahu vowed to take this further and begin annexing West Bank settlements — a move toward permanent occupation and, ultimately, apartheid.

These two axes of authoritarianism — weakening Israel’s democratic institutions while perpetuating rule over the Palestinians without granting them political rights — are connected. The conflict with the Palestinians has destroyed Israel’s left and empowered a seemingly ever-more-radical right. In Netanyahu’s fifth term, this connection could become even more explicit: Experts on Israeli politics are concerned he might support a more concrete annexation plan as part of a Faustian bargain for the extreme right’s support in his quest for immunity from prosecution.

Israel has survived existential threats before, including two invasions that nearly wiped out the young Jewish state. Yet the threat to Israeli democracy today is not external, but rather of Israelis’ own making — a long-running illness that could soon turn acute.

The threat to democracy

If Netanyahu is still in office by the summer, which seems extremely likely, he will become the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history — passing David Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli prime minister, who has often been referred to as Israel’s George Washington. But if Ben-Gurion is remembered as the midwife of Israeli democracy, Netanyahu could be remembered as its gravedigger.

Under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel passed a law declaring that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” — an exclusive vision of national identity that excludes Arabs and other non-Jewish minorities. It passed a law aimed at silencing NGOs that monitored the Israeli military’s human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories, and passed a law removing a significant check on the prime minister’s power to take the country to war.

Perhaps the single most worrying example of authoritarian drift in Israel is Netanyahu’s efforts to suborn the media.

One of the hallmarks of democratic backsliding is the government exerting control over independent media outlets — as a compliant media allows the government to get away with other kinds of wrongdoing. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has either gotten cronies to buy up independent media outlets or pressured other publications into shutting down through punitive tax policies. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a less subtle route, jailing journalists and seizing control of independent newspapers.

Two of the legal cases against Netanyahu, known as Case 2000 and Case 4000, allege that he has attempted a smaller-scale version of these anti-media actions.

In Case 2000, Netanyahu allegedly attempted to strike a deal with the owner of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest newspaper: He would pass a law limiting circulation of one of its rivals, the already pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom, in exchange for more favorable coverage in the Netanyahu-skeptical Yedioth.

In Case 4000, Netanyahu allegedly manipulated regulatory powers in order to benefit Bezeq, a major Israeli company. In exchange, the Bezeq-owned news organization Walla gave the prime minister more favorable coverage. Unlike Case 2000, this apparently went beyond the conspiracy stage, with Netanyahu trading regulations for good press over a five-year period.

These attempts to manipulate the media, Israeli observers warned, were a clear and present danger to their democracy.

“What many of the allegations against Netanyahu point to is a systematic attempt to skew media coverage of the prime minister in his favor. And this is no piffling matter,” writes eminent Israeli journalist David Horovitz. “If a leader can line up most or even many of the ostensibly competing media organizations that cover national events reliably on his side, he can subvert their role as independent watchdog, misdirect the reading and watching public, and advance a long way toward cementing his position as prime minister — his non-term-limited position as prime minister in Israel.”

Israeli protestors opposed to the “nation-state” law last August.
Israeli protesters opposed to the “nation-state” law last August.
Amir Levy/Getty Images

Earlier this year, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced plans to go after Netanyahu on bribery and “breach of trust” charges for these media conspiracies, and will formally indict him pending a hearing. Unlike in Hungary and Turkey, where would-be authoritarian leaders managed to cement control over the media, the Israeli legal system is treating Netanyahu’s ability to do the same as a crime.

But Netanyahu has been framing the election as a referendum on his fitness for office. If he wins, the logic goes, indicting him and forcing him out would be a way of overturning the people’s just-expressed will. Hence the justification for the immunity bill, which he is almost certain to pursue as a top priority.

The brazenness of Netanyahu’s argument — that it would be undemocratic to prosecute him for his efforts to undermine Israeli democracy — is matched only by its danger. While some of the prime minister’s allies in the Knesset have expressed opposition to an immunity law, it’s best not to underestimate Netanyahu’s ability to convince them otherwise. He’s a canny politician who cares first and foremost about survival and will do whatever he can to undermine the legal case against him.

If passed, an immunity law would represent a double blow to Israeli democracy: both legitimizing the prime minister’s efforts to neuter the media and blocking an independent check on wrongdoing by the premier. It would not yet put Israel in the company of faux-democracies like Hungary and Turkey, but it would push the country in that direction — continuing Israel’s slide down what feels like a very slippery undemocratic slope.

Netanyahu’s dangerous annexation pledge

The Saturday before the election, Netanyahu went on Israel’s Channel 12 to make the case for his election. He promised something astonishing: that he would annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

“I will impose sovereignty, but I will not distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlements,” he said, per an Associated Press translation. “From my perspective, any point of settlement is Israeli, and we have responsibility, as the Israeli government. I will not uproot anyone, and I will not transfer sovereignty to the Palestinians.”

Annexation of any West Bank territory would be a renunciation of the premise behind the two-state solution, that the final status of all West Bank land would be determined by Israeli-Palestinian negotiations rather than Israel unilaterally. Even if he only annexed a handful of settlement blocs near the border that would likely go to Israel in any peace deal, it would still dash the already slim hopes of an agreement in the foreseeable future.

But annexation on the scale Netanyahu seemed to be suggesting here would render a Palestinian state essentially impossible. The “isolated settlements” dot the West Bank in such a way that annexing them to Israel would cut off Palestinian population centers from each other, essentially turning them into the holes in Swiss cheese. A Palestinian state would be impossible under these conditions; Israel would in effect be asserting permanent control over Palestinian territory without granting the Palestinians basic rights like the ability to vote in Israeli elections.

You would have an Israel that ruled Palestinians permanently as a separate, legally inferior population, practically the dictionary definition of apartheid. No serious person could consider Israel a liberal democracy — or a democracy of any kind — if this were the way its political system worked.

Netanyahu’s annexation proposal should have destroyed his campaign in a just world. But Israeli public opinion has drifted so far to the right in the past roughly two decades that it in all likelihood helped him.

A protest along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
A protest along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

Labor, the center-left party that dominated Israeli politics for most of its early existence, was decimated in this election — winning a scant six seats in the Knesset out of a total of 120. After the failure of the peace process and the subsequent violence of the Second Intifada, Israelis lost faith in a two-state solution and are increasingly punishing parties associated with it and elevating ones that threaten to torpedo it.

Now the question is this: Just how serious is Netanyahu about turning this threat into a reality?

That’s very difficult to say. It’s possible he was just posturing, trying to win over right-wing voters in the end stages of the election. We have to hope that’s the case. But there are two reasons to believe it might not be.

First, President Donald Trump has pursued what’s best described as a “blank check” policy toward Israel. Trump took a hardline pro-Netanyahu stance during every flare-up with the Palestinians and has done quite a bit to bolster Netanyahu politically. He moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem and, just before the election, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights — both signs that Trump is fine with Israeli territorial maximalism. Netanyahu likely believes that with this president, he can get away with murdering the two-state solution (in fact, some believe he already has).

Second, Netanyahu may have strong political incentives to conduct at least a limited annexation. More than anything, he wants to stay out of jail — and his coalition partners know it. He needs their votes for an immunity bill, and they can demand a steep price in exchange for it. The extremist United Right party might very well condition their support on Netanyahu annexing some settlements to Israel.

If that comes to pass, it would be an utter catastrophe for Israeli democracy. The prime minister would simultaneously be dismantling checks on his power within its recognized borders and moving Israel towards apartheid outside of them. The world’s only Jewish democracy would be in mortal peril.

This, ultimately, is what this election means. It is not merely a narrow victory for a legally embattled incumbent — but rather a signal that Israeli democracy is about to enter a period of acute crisis.

It’s very possible, maybe even likely, that it survives this crisis. Maybe the immunity bill fails and Netanyahu backs away from his annexation promise. Maybe Netanyahu’s indictment breaks his government and another one — one more open to a truly democratic vision of Israeli society — takes its place. Maybe.

But then again, maybe not. The forces that have pushed Israel in this dark direction are deep and fundamental, the result of Israel’s particular historical traumas and political institutions. Even if Netanyahu’s remaining time in office proves to be short-lived, the threats to Israel’s democratic survival likely will not.

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