Democracy in Israel [PODCAST]

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Professor Yael (Yuli) Tamir, the President of Beit Berl College and an adjunct professor at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, who served as Israel’s Minister of Immigration (1999-2001) and as Minister of Education (2006-2009), as well as the deputy speaker of the Knesset and a member of the Finance committee, the Education committee and the Security and Foreign Affairs committee. They talk about what sparked massive protests in Israel, why the rule of law in Israel is in danger, and about lessons for citizens protesting worldwide.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): What was the context of the proposal for limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to subject legislation to judicial review in Israel and why is it so controversial?

Yuli Tamir

Yuli Tamir (YT): The new government that was elected in Israel a few months ago wanted to change the balance between the three branches of the government. To begin with, we do not have a very good control system of the parliament over the government because the latter always has the majority in the parliament. Therefore, the real balance of power in Israel is between the legislative body (the parliament) and the Supreme Court.

The current government wanted to overrule the power of the Supreme Court to make a review of governmental decisions. This is not a common thing for the Supreme Court to do; still, it does have the ability to oversee the legislative process in Israel and, in some cases, to actually send a law back to the legislator for amending (if and when they violate some basic rights or principles).

Therefore, at the heart of this debate lies a question: What is the balance of power between the government and the Supreme Court and what should we make of the attempt of the government to render the Supreme Court almost redundant (as it would not be able to review nor overrule governmental actions, which would make the government the sole decisionmaker in the country)? This is why there is so much anger and frustration among Israelis, who would like to see a more balanced and democratic system – like in all other Western democracies.

LJ: What was the explanation for the proposed reform?

YT: The excuse the government gave relates to a decision made in the 1990s. Back then, the Supreme Court – hand in had with a very progressive parliament – created a set of basic laws regarding human rights which are now at the core of the Israeli judicial system. There are some questions about whether this was done in a proper manner. The decision was made by the parliament, there were no procedures in place on how to create a basic law – Israel does not have a constitution, so our legal system is based on basic laws, so there could be some criticism of that process.

The question is, however, not whether there is any reason to review the system, but rather whether the review would leave Israel without the balance of power or with a new balance of power. A lot of people agree to review the system, but all those who are objecting the government (and they come from very different parts of the Israeli society) disagree with an attempt to make Israel a country with only one central power – which is, actually, quite close to a dictatorship.

LJ: What was the feeling among the protesters taking part in massive protests from two month ago?

YT: First of all, the protest is still going on. It is a very much a grassroots uprising, which brings together many different groups of the Israeli society – it is not led nor dominated by one group or party, but a coalition of numerous organizations (some very left wing, some very centrist), all of whom agree on one thing: they want Israel to remain a democracy and they want democracy to be grounded in a proper balance of power.

In this debate, there is also a question of the role of the ultra-Orthodox community and about the separation of the church and the state – something that has not yet been established in Israel and what is becoming one of the central issues. Of course, Israel is a Jewish state, and it will never have a full separation between the church and the state, but we should establish what would be the boundaries of the church’s intervention in state matters.

Those are the two main causes that pull the people to the streets. The fact is that the people who are objecting the government now are actually the people who carry the burden of the country on their shoulders. They are those who work, pay the taxes, serve in the army, lead the Israeli academic or the start-up community – it is a very productive part of the society.  This is the reason why the government tries very hard to dismiss this group, but it is very hard to dismiss given these circumstances.

The protest is very decentralized. There is only one principle that is agreed upon: that all the demonstrations start with a strong commitment to the wellbeing of the state of Israel. They are very much motivated by their commitment to the state and believe in the Zionist ideology. During all demonstrations, people carry flags, sing the national anthem, and talk about the history of the country – all of this is centered around the wellbeing of Israel in the future as a democratic and Jewish state.

Apart from that, people in different towns and provinces organize their own demonstrations. They bring their flags, print own t-shirts, and invite speakers. Everybody tries to be a part of this main ideology, but the way the demonstrations look is very different – music, actors, and speakers vary from one place to another.

LJ: Given the diverse character of the movement, is it capable of evolving into a broader opposition against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government? Or does it operate on a different, meta-political level?

YT: Interestingly enough, the initial organizers (the people who started the big demonstrations in Tel Aviv before they spread all over the country) were very clear about the fact that they are not interested in joining hands with any existing party nor active politicians. They have created a very important principle for this uprising, according to which while it is clear that these events are serving the opposition (and we see it in public opinion polls, as the government is losing to opposition), it is not run by the opposition.

Clearly, the government suffers and loses power due to the lack of control of the demonstrations. However, it is not clear which party or politician is going to benefit from these events. This fact allows for keeping the demonstrations relatively neutral and resistant to the political pressures that are very common in democratic debates in general.

Nonetheless, the protest has a face – it is a face of a very prominent woman who is leading the demonstrations in Tel Aviv. Still, she is not a political person – and that is very important, because we hear the voice of the people and not a political voice.

LJ: What is the impact of the protests on the government?

YT: The government is not giving up its power. Parallel to the demonstrations, there are negotiations going on at the president’s residence – they are trying to reach an agreement. This is why the government, and the official opposition are meeting – they are negotiating a solution.

The role of the protest is to show the government that the protesters have a lot of power and that they could stop or disrupt any decisions that would take us toward an illiberal democracy or a totalitarian reality. Those who are now conducting negotiations at the president’s residence are very much aware of what is happening outside.

I do not think there is a way for them to stop the demonstrations. At the beginning, a very extreme right-wing Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, tried to convince the police to be more aggressive toward the protesters and failed. It was a very interesting process – he was criticizing the head of the Tel Aviv police for not being harsh enough and then Ben-Gvir tried to remove him from the office (which is still pending).

All in all, there is an ongoing balance of power between the demonstrators and the police. Except for some extreme cases, the police restricts itself, in a way. They do not try to prevent the demonstrations, they allocate places for the demonstrators, and they, actually, protect the demonstrators during marches. There is a distance between the protesters and the police, but also there are very few aggressive clashes, given the number of demonstrators. Overall, it is a very controlled set of demonstrations.

LJ: It seems unlikely that the protesters will accept anything but a total capitulation of the government on the issue. Political parties will probably need to compromise. What will happen right now?

YT: It is difficult to say because it has a lot to do with the balance of power within the government. If it was up to PM Netanyahu, he would rather stay in power and find a solution. However, because he created a government with very extreme forces, they are now controlling him and are unwilling to compromise. As a result, Netanyahu might be dragged into a situation in which it would be very hard for him to resist the inner pressures, so he may want to give in to them rather than to the pressure from the streets. This would lead to a major crisis and so the balance would be shaken, which would lead to a much more violent form of demonstrations. Certainly, it could happen, but I do not know whether this will be the case.

LJ: Does it mean that if this law is not introduced, the government will fall? Or can Netanyahu’s coalition partners be convinced to stay in the government by other means?

YT: Unless Netanyahu manages to control his partners, the government will fall. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s only concern is staying in power, because of his court case. So, it is like a trap for him. If he goes with his partners, they will keep him out of the court, but this would lead the government into a political crisis. If he manages to control them and reduces the resentment toward the government, he may survive a little bit longer, but he will lose his power, because he will be making a particular trade.

This is exactly what the Prime Minister is doing right now – he is not continuing with the process of the legal reform, and he is doing that by means of pouring money onto every member of the parliament whom he could – in one way or another – recruit as a supporter in order to keep the coalition going.

LJ: Will this situation drag on until, eventually, the protests die down?

YT: Certainly, this is a scenario that Netanyahu would like. He would like to move slowly until the Jewish holidays – then, the country is paralyzed for about a month, a month and a half. This would give him more time. This is why he does not push anything into immediate decision-making, he is dragging the decisions. However, the political opposition is pushing him to make some decisions – as much as they can, in legal terms.

The key debate that is happening right now centers around the convening the committee that choses the Supreme Court judges. That, legally, should happen at the end of June. Netanyahu is now trying to postpone it, as this is a moment of a clear crisis – somebody must win, because the debate is about the construction of that particular committee. Therefore, he might find himself forced to make a decision. We will see if he will come out of it, but it is a difficult challenge to meet.

LJ: How are the ongoing protests transforming the identity of the Israeli nation?

YT: Something very interesting has happened. The ongoing debate forces us back to face the very basic questions of our existence. It forced the more centrist liberal Israel, which in the last twenty years was (like many other left-wing or centrist parties around Europe) more interested in the market than in the national existence, to fight again for its place and to reclaim Israel’s liberal Zionist state. It is no longer only about market, but also about human rights and the balance of power, in democratic terms.

Suddenly, the liberal democratic agenda, which was pushed aside, is back in the center of the debate. Interestingly enough, many people now understand how important these values for them are, and they are ready to fight for them. They have redefined their identity as political agents. For me, personally, this is fascinating, because I have always been in that particular place – I am both a Zionist and a liberal and human rights activist. This used to be a rather empty space – nobody inhabited it. Now, it is very crowded.

It is interesting because this has also been happening elsewhere. People were very keen on fighting in the processes of decolonization or gaining independence. For a while, they forgot what they were fighting for, but now it is coming back to the political discourse in an interesting and hopeful way.

LJ: What will be the place for Palestinians in Israel?

YT: The Palestinian citizens of Israel tended to say that it is not their debate and so they do not want to participate in it. They think it is for Israelis to decide what kind of a country they would like to have, whereas the Palestinians are, in a strange way, by-stranders who do not like the state anyway. Once all of it is established, they will fight for their rights. They started pretty much as the observers of the debate.

However, at the moment, in light of a lot of violence in Palestinian communities, the Palestinians begin to see the risks embedded in illiberal democracy that impact them, the citizens, and so they are slightly more ready to engage in the demonstrations. Still, it is more of a Jewish-Israeli matter than a Palestinian-Israeli debate. The way the debate will be settled will determine the place where the Arab citizens of Israel will be allocated in the new state and how ready will they be to fight for it.

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.

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