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17 January

We are watching Israel build an authoritarian government in real time

Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition is eroding checks and balances on power.

By Alona Ferber

In November, Benjamin Netanyahu regained power in the fifth Israeli election in under four years by partnering with far-right and religious parties. Many warned about the dangers of the new coalition – some partners hold extreme racist, homophobic and Jewish supremacist views – for Israel’s already fragile (and some would argue, questionable) democracy. 

Indeed, since the government was sworn in at the end of December, it has been busy living up to the reputation that preceded its existence.

Netanyahu’s new-old Israel is one of authoritarian lurch. Dominating the headlines are sweeping reforms to the justice system that the coalition is proposing in the name of protecting democracy and fighting “judicial activism”. These changes would limit the power of Israel’s Supreme Court to protect human rights and the rule of law. They include giving Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, a way of overriding the court’s decisions and increasing government control over appointing the Supreme Court panel.

In a highly unusual political intervention, on 12 January the chief justice of the court, Esther Hayut, gave a speech warning that the reforms will “crush” the judicial system and “deal a fatal blow” to its “independence”. The man pushing the reforms is the justice minister, Yariv Levin, a member of Netanyahu’s own Likud party. He responded in a speech of his own that the court is “a political party that sees itself as being above the Knesset and above the people”.

Netanyahu, who is still on trial for criminal charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, is looking for ways to discredit the state prosecution. For years, he has been undermining the justice system with the message that he is the victim of a leftist plot against the right. Still, the speed at which the coalition – barely weeks old – has pushed these changes is hardly typical of the PM’s more cautious style. In fact, it’s a sign of how little power he has over his coalition partners and members of his own party. On the latest election round, a Netanyahu desperate to avoid prison had little choice over which partners to join with in government.

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Since the planned reforms were announced on 4 January, the leader of the opposition (and the former prime minister) Yair Lapid, and Benny Gantz, the former Israeli army chief who led a movement to oust Netanyahu as PM before joining him in coalition in 2020, are among the many voices warning of the risk to democracy. They have even called for civil unrest. In a new low for Israel’s political discourse, some coalition members from the far-right coalition partner, the Jewish Power party, called for opposition leaders to be arrested for such pronouncements. 

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With protests taking place across the country, this kind of rhetoric can of course erupt into violence on the streets. Last week a man was detained after swerving his car near a group of students protesting the judicial reforms, while shouting “leftists, anarchists” at demonstrators. 

And the government’s penchant for authoritarianism is evident in other ways, too. Itamar Ben-Gvir, disciple of the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane and leader of the Jewish Power party, is minister for national security. The newly passed “Ben-Gvir law” gives him unprecedented authority over the police – and was condition of his party joining the Netanyahu coalition. Since entering office, he has called on police to crack down on protesters and ban the Palestinian flag from public spaces. Even the Jerusalem Post, a right-wing publication, has said the latter measure is too far.

Israel’s move rightwards is a long-term trend, with younger Israeli Jews increasingly polling to the right. But this government’s first few weeks suggest that Netanyahu is willing to dismantle democratic systems, perhaps only to protect himself – and that he has lost control of coalition partners who want to follow the lead of more authoritarian systems like Hungary, Russia and Turkey. 

Israel does have a record in undemocratic systems, however. Even before the recklessness of the current government, the country has exercised authoritarianism in the occupied territories, where Palestinians have no say over the Israeli authorities that control their lives. Was there ever a guarantee that the Israeli government would safeguard liberal democracy within Israel proper?

[See also: Maria Ressa: “The law was bent to the point it was broken”]