Authoritarian-oriented populists operate by trying to overwhelm the checks and balances, flooding the system with assaults on democratic rights and norms. It’s been quite a week for democracy in Israel.
That’s why it’s so important to have our heads screwed on straight, and to keep our eyes fixed squarely on what’s important.
During the first Israeli elections of 2019, all the way back in April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party launched a campaign intended to suppress the Arab Israeli vote by dispatching 1,200 operatives armed with small cameras. Voting booth intimidation is a well-worn tactic that threatens democracy wherever it is practiced.
Luckily, Israel’s laws ensure every citizen’s unfettered right to a vote. That is why the Central Election Commission ruled that the Likud party had no legal authority to surveille in polling stations — and prohibited the practice. But instead of appealing the decision of the Central Election Commission to the Supreme Court, Netanyahu decided to launch an effort in the Knesset to change Israel’s election laws, just days before Israelis took to the polls.
Those charged with defending Israel’s rule of law — the Attorney General, the Knesset Legal Adviser, the Chairman of the Central Election Commission, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Mercer – spoke out against this gross impropriety. But Netanyahu proceeded nonetheless, whipping his party and the cabinet into passing an amendment to the law which would allow for cameras at the polls.
Netanyahu’s plan was part of a broader approach—to use the demonization of Israel’s Arab citizens and any Israelis who disagree with him to mobilize his right-wing base.
His blitz to pass this last-minute legislation required suspending the rules requiring a waiting period between drafting a bill and introducing it for debate. The Knesset Committee voted against this measure. But Netanyahu bulldozed onward, using the government’s ability to force a Knesset debate and a vote regardless of the Committee’s decision, even though he lacks the votes to pass the measure.
Even when Netanyahu’s bill withers, (it requires an absolute majority of 61 Knesset votes, which he cannot muster) he will proceed anyway, having gotten what he wanted: countless hours of news coverage of an invented – libelous — charge of massive election fraud–and a line that would stick: “The Arabs are stealing our election.”
Now, let’s be clear: there was as much evidence of widespread voter fraud in the Arab Israeli community (or, frankly, in any community) in April’s election as there was in the US election in 2016: that is to say, none. That didn’t stop Donald Trump from wasting enormous amounts of public resources to “investigate” his ginned-up false charges.
At the end of the day, they found nothing. Because there was nothing to find. But that wasn’t the point.
Netanyahu, like his friend in the White House, has invented a demonstrably false charge of “widespread voter fraud” for two reasons. First, because demonizing Israel’s Arab minority gets out the vote. Netanyahu’s political gambit rests on a simple formulation: the incessant delegitimization of Arab political participation and incitement against its leadership.
Secondly, spreading the lie of widespread voter fraud is meant to undermine voters’ confidence in the electoral system itself. Netanyahu wants to cast aspersions over the integrity of the electoral process itself–so that if he loses again, he can claim that democratic outcome itself is illegitimate. Sound familiar?
Make no mistake: this is a direct threat to democracy. It represents dizzying descent into unbridled populism on the part of the Prime Minister and his allies.
But there are still many Israelis – both in and outside of government – standing up and fighting back to protect the integrity of Israel’s democratic institutions. And some of the most important guardrails of democracy are Israel’s civil society organizations, resisting the erosion of democracy at every turn.
It’s Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel advocating before Israel’s Central Election Commission to bar the illegal use of cameras in polling places. It’s the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) petitioning against the unconstitutional cameras law. And it’s Zazim — Community Action not only presenting the Central Elections Commission with thousands of Israelis’ signatures objecting to voter suppression, but literally organizing shuttles to transport Bedouin citizens in the Negev from unrecognized villages to polling stations on Election Day so they can exercise their fundamental right to vote.
All of this transpired before Netanyahu’s reiterated his election-eve pledge to extend Israeli sovereignty to large swaths of the West Bank, forcing Israelis down the dark and anti-democratic path of annexation. By doing so, Netanyahu set out to sell Israelis on another lie. He wants Israelis – and the world – to believe that there are no costs to annexation. That Israel faces an “historic opportunity” because of Donald Trump’s upending of half a century of American policy towards Israel and the Palestinians by embracing a pro-settler, annexationist agenda.
But we know that the cost of such folly is clear and steep, and it will be borne by Israeli and Palestinian people. The cost is Israeli democracy itself. No press conference or sleight of hand can hide the basic facts—that a one-state reality, which Netanyahu is marching steadily towards, spells doom for Israeli democracy. The settlers have said it themselves. Netanyahu is closing the door on the possibility of Palestinian self-determination. Following Netanyahu’s annexation announcement, Israel’s settler camp cheered, saying, “This announcement closes the door on the crazy idea of establishing yet another Arab [Palestinian] state in the heart of the land.”
But annexation is a road to nowhere.
While Netanyahu boasts that Israel can annex the Jordan Valley and North Dead sea areas “without annexing a single Palestinian,” the truth belies this. Saeb Erekat, the Chief Negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, lives in the Jordan Valley. According to Peace Now, 8,775 Palestinians reside in the part of Area C which would, according to Netanyahu’s map, be annexed to Israel. Will Netanyahu’s government grant these residents full civic equality? What of the millions of Palestinians who face a future of unending occupation, residing in isolated and embattled Bantustans across the rest of the West Bank?
After all, the Prime Minister has made clear that annexing the Jordan Valley is just the first step in his greater plan: annexing all of the West Bank settlements to Israel.
Nothing this week has changed the facts. The best path for preserving Israel as a democratic state runs through a two-state solution. One state that maintains a separate and unequal system of laws for two separate people—one state without complete civic equality for all who reside in its borders—cannot fairly be called a democracy. That is a disaster for anyone who cares about Israel’s future and the rights of Palestinians.
This week, Israel’s democracy was battered and bruised. I believe that, ultimately, it will pull through. And when it does, it will be thanks to the ceaseless and principled work of civil society, holding up the torch of democracy and directing us ever toward it.