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Analysis | Netanyahu drags Israeli democracy into the illiberal mire

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During his long political career, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has used a popular phrase. Israel, he has often said, is an “oasis of democracy” in a region marked by its absence. Israel’s freedoms, elections and rule of law, the argument went, contrasted with the status quo in the Middle East, where absolute monarchs and weak autocrats largely held sway.

Of course, the wording always ignored the millions of Palestinians who live as second-class citizens in their own homeland, stripped of the same rights and freedoms afforded to Israeli neighbors. That reality has long been accepted by the West and swept under the carpet by successive Israeli governments. Under Netanyahu’s watch, Jewish settlements expanded in the West Bank, further undermining the possibility of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state. Never mind – in the eyes of successive Washington administrations and a critical mass of two parties in Congress, Israel was a country of “shared values” and could do little wrong.

However, recent developments have made the “oasis of democracy” look a bit more like a mirage. After a long period of political paralysis marked by a series of failed governments, Israel hosted elections last November that returned Netanyahu to power for his third term with perhaps the most stable mandate won by a politician in more than three years. But to achieve this, the right-wing leader forged the most far-right coalition in Israeli history, catapulting politicians from factions once considered out of bounds in Israeli politics to leadership roles in his coalition.

The new government is already using its slim parliamentary majority to push for a radical overhaul of the judiciary, not least at a time when the incumbent prime minister continues to be plagued by legal troubles. Critics say the legislation “will destroy the country’s system of checks and balances to save Netanyahu from prosecution in three separate corruption cases and encourage his extremist religious partners to pass legislation that supports the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank my colleagues explained.

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None of this should come as a surprise. Unlike his nationalist fellow travelers in countries like Brazil, Hungary and Poland, all of whom resent judicial scrutiny of their authority, Netanyahu has long been furious with Israel’s legal authorities and state bureaucracy, which he sees as obstacles to the will. of the people has raised. He and his allies are “Long-standing ideological opponents of the courts and legal advisers — who see in them a meddling scrutiny of issues such as unfettered settlement building in the West Bank, blanket exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the military, and the violation of minority rights , including those of Arab Israeli citizens or African economic migrants,” wrote Neri Zilber in New Lines Magazine.

To get his way, Netanyahu is “deliberately unraveling democracy, turning his illiberalism into full-blown Hungarian or Turkish authoritarianism,” Alon Pinkas, a veteran former Israeli diplomat, told me. “He is the first prime minister of a Western democracy in history to wage all-out war against his own country’s institutions, traditions, judiciary, checks and balances and social fabric.”

Netanyahu has endured some setbacks. Over the weekend, he was forced to sack a key cabinet ally, Aryeh Deri, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, after the Supreme Court ruled he was unfit for office due to a “backlog of criminal convictions”. ” against him. Netanyahu regretted the decision and vowed to “find every legal way” to return his coalition partner to high office.

The new government’s efforts met with significant backlash, with tens of thousands of protesters taking to the streets of Israeli cities in three consecutive weeks of demonstrations. “The State of Israel was created so that there would be one place in the world where the Jewish person, the Jewish people, would feel at home,” celebrated Israeli author David Grossman told protesters in Tel Aviv over the weekend. “But when so many Israelis feel like strangers in their own country, something is clearly wrong.”

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The developments worry Israel’s financiers in the United States. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently called on President Biden to “save” Israel from turning into an “illiberal stronghold of zeal.” Some Democratic lawmakers have warned that the country’s current state of affairs could erode bipartisan support for Israel.

The Biden administration sent White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan to Israel and the West Bank last week. The US reading of the trip showed that Sullivan urged Israel to “avoid unilateral moves by any party that could create tensions on the ground,” particularly over the holy sites in Jerusalem, which are under surveillance by the extremist Jewish supremacists in Netanyahu’s coalition. But, at least in public, the government’s rhetoric seems rather timid.

“My approach is: you, Prime Minister Netanyahu, want to get big things done, we want to get big things done,” US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides recently told The Washington Post. “But if your backyard is on fire, we can’t get anything done.”

Critics of Netanyahu argue that a much harder line needs to be drawn. “The prime minister is now part of an international alliance of anti-democratic leaders [Hungary Prime Minister Viktor] Orban, [former Brazilian president Jair] Bolsonaro, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin,” wrote Amir Tibon in the left-wing daily Haaretz. “Things need to be said clearly to get people’s attention here,” he added.

The prime minister’s far-right allies are working on “a new and distinctly Israeli model,” wrote Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum. “It is a model that prioritizes Jewish supremacy, religious observance and territorial maximalism in Greater Israel.”

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The progression of that agenda could lead to an unwanted reckoning in Washington. It also questions Israel’s recent gains in its own neighbourhood, cementing formal ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and deepening tacit ties with Saudi Arabia. Further Arab normalization with an Israeli government that has already made it clear that it wants to annex territory in the West Bank — and counts among its ranks ministers with a track record of anti-Arab rhetoric — seems a non-starter.

Last week, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud told me at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that the priority should be negotiations leading to “a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. … The new government of Israel is sending out a number of signals that do not contribute to that.”

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