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Israel Stares into the Abyss. And We Might Soon Follow.
Tens of thousands of protestors poured into the streets across cities in Israel yesterday following the sacking of the Israeli Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant. Gallant was the first official in the ruling government to break with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his plan to “overhaul” the nation’s judicial system. As crowds blocked highways and lit bonfires, the nation’s universities voted to halt classes on Monday, and the largest trade union called for a general strike.
The crisis has grown out of the governing coalition’s proposed “reforms” that would allow the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) to overrule nearly all judicial decisions by a simple majority vote. These changes would also give politicians much more say in determining appointments to the bench.
Critics argue that this would hand too much power to the legislature, disrupt the country’s system of checks and balances, and help Netanyahu escape prosecution for his crimes.
Bowing to growing public pressure, which reached a crescendo last night and today, some members of the ruling coalition began to signal they would favor a pause on the bills. Prime Minister Netanyahu, in fact, was expected to announce a halt on Monday in a televised address. But as of the time of this writing, Netanyahu has delayed that speech, scuttling the plan as far-right members within his coalition threatened to abandon him and dissolve the government, which currently rules with just a threadbare majority.
“We have been taken hostage by a bunch of extremists with no brakes and no boundaries,” said Opposition leader Yair Lapid, summing up the chaos that has engulfed the country.
We so feel you, sir.
Just as the Brexit vote demonstrated that once stable democracies could tilt quickly into self-destructive behavior, presaging the electoral victory of Donald Trump, the current political crisis in Israel is sending a stark warning of the perils of authoritarian drift and of permitting powerful leaders, backed by extremist politicians, to escape accountability.
Let’s dive in to analyze what’s going on and what lessons there are for avoiding our own political abyss.
A corrupt leader, returned
Netanyahu returned to power in late 2022 after a long and painful political crisis that saw Israelis head to the polls five times in under four years. This all happened while the former (and now current) prime minister was defending himself against criminal charges, including for fraud and accepting bribes. Israelis were faced with the question of whether a former leader who would likely be on trial for corruption could actually serve again as prime minister while that trial was ongoing.
Ooof. This hits close to home.
The idea of a corrupt leader returned to power by election, who is now using that power to try and wrest control over the judicial system to spare himself from prosecution, is precisely what Donald Trump would do if given the chance. In our case, he would almost certainly direct a new Attorney General to fire special counsel Jack Smith, with a repeat of Nixon’s Saturday night massacre if he refused to do so. But this time, most members of his party would be behind him and unwilling to impeach or convict, as they were twice before.
Netanyahu and the crisis in Israel is what happens when you return corrupt leaders to power, even in a democracy. And Israeli protestors drew the connection.
A threadbare majority gives extremists effective control
The far-right coalition Netanyahu heads won 64 out of 120 seats in the Knesset in late 2022. His own Likud party won 32 seats, but to hold power it relies on the loyalty of extreme elements, including a far-right alliance holding 14 seats and an ultra-Orthodox party holding 18. This functionally means that any defection by either a handful of his own party members or of his ultra-Orthodox or radical coalition partners would collapse the government.
Also, very familiar sounding.
Indeed, this is comparable in many ways to the bare majority House Speaker Kevin McCarthy holds in Congress. That narrow margin means McCarthy has effectively ceded power to the most extreme elements within the GOP. Like Netanyahu, McCarthy is now unable to compromise with the opposition party, even if clearly for the good of the country, because extremists will yank him from power if he does not go along with their demands.
Our own debt ceiling crisis, which will put the U.S. on the brink of economic ruin in just a few months, is therefore comparable to the parliamentary judicial power play taking place in Israel. Speaker McCarthy, like Netanyahu, has made promises to his political allies that he must either break (leading to him losing power) or hold to (leading to growing chaos across the country).
Democracy without guardrails is illusory
What Netanyahu seeks is a destruction of liberalism in Israel democracy by removing traditional guardrails that hold the worst democratic impulses in check. Allowing every matter to be decided by majority vote, without protections for basic human rights, press freedoms and vulnerable minorities, can lead to a “tyranny of the majority”—often headed up by a strongman authoritarian in an “illiberal” democracy.
One of the first things that enemies of liberal democracy do is come after those guardrails and protections by assaulting the independence of the judiciary. Netanyahu and his allies have used demographic and religious differences to press for changes to the judiciary, which Israel’s Orthodox religious and conservative populations view as too liberal.
The parallels with the U.S. our own Supreme Court and federal courts are striking.
If authoritarians can install loyalists in the judicial system, that removes an important check upon their authority. We saw that play out recently with Trump-appointee Aileen Cannon in Florida, who used her power as a federal judge to pull favors for Trump on his criminal matter. We’re seeing it now with Trump cronies coming after the state and federal prosecutors who are investigating their leader.
The opposition in Israel understands what Netanyahu is up to, and the people have made their position clear through massive public resistance. Whether it will be sufficient to derail the judicial bills remains to be seen. But those protests should also demonstrate to Americans what may be required should a leader like Trump (or, one day, DeSantis) brazenly seek to destroy our own system of judicial checks upon his authority.
Israel is different from the United States in many ways. It faces constant threat of war and is bordered by hostile powers, with some sworn to annihilate it entirely. That makes it a democracy constantly under siege, whether from enemy rockets or terrorist attacks. At the same time, critics point out that it has brutally suppressed its Palestinian population, and they argue that fascist tactics by the government permitted against one group of people leads inevitably to such tactics deployed generally. This is a warning we should also examine closely, given how America has historically treated certain populations here.
As different as our situations are, the current political crisis in Israel holds enough similarities with our own that we should not ignore the perils, nor stand wholly on the sidelines. While the U.S. government is understandably hesitant to criticize an ally and fellow democracy in such a strategically important region, when that ally’s government begins marching toward the abyss of authoritarian rule, we have an obligation to speak out and condemn such moves.
It might be as simple as asking, “Would we condemn this behavior if it were happening on our own soil?”
While I sincerely hope that we don’t have to ask that, other than in the abstract, all the ingredients and conditions currently exist to render such a scenario quite plausible here, too. We will get a taste very soon, for example, of what it’s like to have radical extremists holding the nation hostage, with political leaders so beholden to them that they are willing to drive the nation off an economic cliff just to hold onto power.
And soon, we could even also face the nightmare prospect of possibly electing an indicted criminal back into office. And now it’s doubly clear we must prevent that at all costs.