Israel: A splintering democracy


President Shimon Peres was one of Israel’s greatest statesmen. He once said, “I learned that public service is a privilege that must be based on moral foundations.” Prophetically, he also said before his death in 2016 that “We are living in a world where image-making is important, so we ignore the facts.”

A desire for power and control can smother facts, moral principles, values and good judgment.

Peggy Noonan, columnist for the Wall Street Journal, wrote this week, “My sense is the world has grown less vigorously professional.” That statement hit home for me. I feel like I’m living in a world where narcissistic leaders are either toying with the sacred values of democracy, or are lusting for totalitarian power. Which brings me to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Why would a prime minister of the Jewish state want to bruise the proud democratic heritage of the Jewish homeland by seeking to enhance his power at the expense of the nation’s judiciary?

The current Knesset, controlled by Israel’s extreme right, passed legislation this week that abolishes the “reasonableness doctrine” which Israel’s Supreme Court uses in its oversight of government’s legislative actions. It’s been a long and historical part of the nation’s balance of power doctrine. It’s what’s known as a “sensible and sound doctrine” employed by other democratic judicial systems in places like Australia, Canada and Great Britain. Some believe that Netanyahu has pushed this overhaul of the judiciary so that the supreme court cannot rule against him serving in government if he is charged with crimes of fraud, bribery and breach of trust.

The demonstrations by those opposed to the judicial overhaul have been huge. But the judicial reform is a proxy for deeper troubles within Israel where the more liberal, business and technology sectors view the supreme court as a bulwark against the right-wing, ultra-orthodox and religious sectors of society that want to reduce the power of the courts in part by passing further legislation giving lawmakers more power to select judges.

The balance of power between the executive, legislative and judicial parts of democratic governments has been a hallmark of functional democracies. Mr. Netanyahu has been prime minister of Israel for 15 years, longer than any previous prime minister, and like other global leaders in recent times, he is loath to give up his power.

What does all this mean for the state of Israel? I have a source, currently in Israel, working for an Israeli company, who must remain anonymous, but has shed some interesting insights as he has witnessed the huge opposition demonstrations firsthand.

First, downstream effects.

Many investors in the business community are “now forced to advise new Israeli companies to form under U.S. law instead of Israel.” These high-tech Israeli companies are the backbone of the nation’s economy.

Second, what’s happening is more of a festering culture war in which the judicial overhaul is simply the spark, the initial cause of what many believe will engender a civil war.

Third, many Israelis — young, educated, professionals that are building their economy — pragmatically are transferring their assets to foreign bank accounts, clearly not in the best interest of Israel.

Fourth, Israel relies on the tradition of its volunteer military reservists. Many reservists and pilots have already refused to do duty in protest. Others have threatened to do the same.

Thousands of doctors walked off their jobs, except for emergency services. Trade union labor leaders are threatening a general strike.

And now, in the aftermath of the contentious new legislation, the Israeli Supreme Court is set to hear an appeal against the new judicial law in September, while the Knesset conveniently went into recess until October. It’s a crisis on hold.

It’s important to understand that this culture war has been festering for a long time. Balanced non-secular democratic institutions are threatened. The typical young Jewish business entrepreneurs are the fuel that drives the economy, but their families are reflective of contemporary young professional families around the world, small, maybe one or two children. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish families are averaging more than six children. The demographic trends are clear.

This social and political splintering is more than just a fight over the supreme court. The future of the only truly functional democratic nation in the Middle East is profoundly at risk. The social, economic and security implications, along with Israel’s international relations are at stake.

Time will tell if the fight for power and control will unravel this critical democratic cornerstone in the Middle East, but the ultra-orthodox religious right, along with Mr. Netanyahu’s lust for power and immunity, could seriously damage the future of the state of Israel. His anti-democratic impulses are bound to have serious consequences.

Needless to say, a civil war would be catastrophic.

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

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