Maria Maalouf: Will Israel destroy democracy itself?


An important question now being asked in Washington’s many political circles, as well as all over the world, is: Will the incumbent government of Israel destroy democracy in the country? This is because some of the government’s policy proposals have elicited widespread criticism and condemnation, both locally and globally. These policies have even provoked many objections inside Israel, as shown by the large protests that have taken place this year.

It is best to focus on a few of these policy undertakings to highlight the nature and scope of the political controversies dominating Israel’s political life right now. These policy debates center on the following points: judicial reform, crime and corruption, donations to elected officials, the electronic tagging of domestic violence offenders, the independence of the Israeli police, and the creation of a national guard.

To begin with, it is critical to examine the makeup of the current Israeli government. The 37th government of Israel, agreed upon on Dec. 29, 2022, was the result of the Knesset election held on Nov. 1, 2022. Six parties joined forces to create this coalition government. They are Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas, the Religious Zionist Party, Otzma Yehudit, and Noam. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is leading a government for the sixth time.

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The government’s first controversial policy was its proposed judicial reforms, which critics warned would lead to the weakening of the tradition of the separation of powers. Lawmakers from the ruling coalition are working to narrow down the authority of the Supreme Court, especially regarding its ability to side against both the legislative and executive branches. This would give the Knesset more power, allowing it to overrule certain decisions issued by the Supreme Court. In addition, the Knesset would have more say in the appointment of judges. Further, the Supreme Court would be denied the right to assess the constitutionality of Israel’s Basic Laws.

Another political quandary emerged in March, when Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant criticized the reforms “for the sake of Israel’s security.” The next day, Netanyahu announced that Gallant would be fired, but the prime minister later backed down.

Second, crime and punishment in Israel is a difficult political topic to argue about. The law in Israel permits a declaration of the incapacity of top elected officials to serve in their jobs if they are under legal investigation. Under the proposed amendments, no judicial review would be allowed. Furthermore, the authority to investigate would be shifted from the office of the attorney general to the collective authority of the government and Cabinet.

Third, the controversy surrounding donations to elected officials concerns Netanyahu personally. In March, the government introduced changes to the Public Service (Gifts) Law. This would allow Netanyahu to accept donations to finance his legal defense fund.

Minister of Justice Yariv Levin expressed his fear that allowing elected officials to receive gifts could cause a potential conflict of interest and foster an atmosphere of political corruption. And Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara said this law could “create a real opportunity for governmental corruption.”

Fourth, the appointment to ministerial positions of criminals who have served a custodial sentence would be possible under a bill introduced by the government in March. This relates to the case of the leader of the Shas party, Aryeh Deri. Deri was in jail between 2000 and 2002 after being convicted of corruption. The proposed bill would broaden the pardoning of convicted criminals to the degree where they could hold the highest political offices in Israel. This bill is being rejected by the attorney general, seconded by Knesset legal adviser Sagit Afik.

Fifth is the law on the electronic tagging of domestic violence offenders. It was described as being anti-men. The increase in the murder rate of women inside Israel prompted a bill necessitating that men accused of domestic violence must wear an electronic tag. In March, the Knesset voted down the bill, citing threats to Israel’s national security.

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The sixth political dilemma for Israel is the topic of the reorganization of its security establishment, in particular the level of independence that the Israeli police can be endowed with. Last December, Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir proposed that the office of the attorney general be stripped of the power to scrutinize the operations of the police. Instead, the Ministry of National Security would observe and monitor all of its activities. This still has not been settled yet. Politically, the suggested restructuring of the Israeli police touches on the question of human and civil rights in Israel.

The creation of a national guard is the seventh and last dissension in current Israeli politics. It raises the fear that Israel will have two police forces. There is the regular police, which will deal with the Jewish citizens of Israel. Then, there will be a pro-government militia that will deal with the Palestinian citizens. This will discriminate against the Arab population. Consequently, in April, Israel’s Cabinet consented to the creation of a law enforcement apparatus that would work separately from the police. Worries are mounting over the threats to the professionalism of Israel’s police. Many political observers view such an independent force as an indication of the politicization of the police.

Ultimately, the future of Israeli democracy is very difficult to judge. One crucial investigation to conduct is: Are these changes complete? Another question is what are the factors that define Israel’s democratic performance? It is often asked why the prestige of the attorney general’s office has not been employed to curb these controversial political practices. But the real question is what will be the attitude of the American Jewish community in answering the serious changes occurring in Israel today? And will the Biden administration pledge to continue maintaining Israel’s security while rejecting these laws as undemocratic?

Maria Maalouf is a Lebanese journalist, broadcaster, publisher and writer. She has a master’s degree in political sociology from the University of Lyon. This piece was originally published by ArabNews

Twitter: @bilarakib


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