As the state of Israel is torn apart and undermined by its new far-right, ultra-religious government, its structures are falling apart.
Israel’s new government, which took office on Thursday, marks a turning point in the country’s history: it has adopted an agenda that, if implemented, would seriously “shrink” the Jewish state’s democratic fabric. In Israel, the decline of democratic norms has mushroomed over the years, mostly in rhetoric and manifestos. Its legislative representation remained limited until the 2018 Nation-State Act established Jewish supremacy.
Now, however, radical legal and governmental restructuring is rapidly catching up with extreme rhetoric. The new government will also embrace regime change, Viktor Orbán’s version of “illiberal democracy.” The coalition, made up of Benjamin Netanyahu‘s Likud party and five other parties, aims to strengthen the conservative, religious and nationalist, land-oriented character of the State of Israel.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Jewish people of Palestine embraced the ideals and practices of a democratic nation-state from the very beginning when they began their journey to independence during the 1948 war. Most Jews at that time came from Eastern Europe and had little experience with democracy; Jews who later came to Palestine from North Africa were no exception.
No normative or substantive text on democracy can be found in the early writings of Zionist leaders, nor does the concept appear in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. But if Israelis are still able to build a democratic state for their Jewish citizens with liberal core principles, it’s clear that liberal and democratic values in general are not getting enough love as the country approaches its 75th birthday or takes root. Palestinian citizens will argue that they have never benefited from these values.
As humans, we need narrative and meaning to justify our actions. Since 1967, the main project of the State of Israel has arguably been the control and ownership of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, so central is the ideology that justifies this policy. Over time, Israel’s occupation has increasingly fueled nationalism and racism to justify the dehumanization, subjugation, and displacement of Palestinians.
The Complexity of Democracy
Ongoing and escalating conflicts on the ground have left many with little patience for the complexities of democracy and its boring power-sharing and general liberal vision. Thus, in Israel, the way has been cleared for authoritarian thinking and the decline of individual rights. Between 2009, when Netanyahu came to power, and 2020, political and civil liberties in Israel have gradually declined (by 6.5 percent and 8 percent, respectively), according to Freedom House data. From now on, the descent speed can be even faster.
The military model of government in the occupied territories also promotes a right-wing authoritarian mentality, as in this case the power of the government rests entirely in the hands of the executive (the local chief), who is also the supreme legislator and appoints the judges. – he/she is immune from this judicial control. In other words, a military junta (according to international law) is a regime without separation of powers, but only one center of power.
As Israel’s far-right seeks to control the military junta for its own benefit, it also does the opposite: the rationale of this radical right-wing general government as a system of population control is introduced into Israeli political life. Since the junta has proven effective at serving the right wing in the occupied territories over the past decades, has been used by generations of Israeli soldiers, and is well-known to the country’s political elite, this justification is almost natural for radicalizing Israeli democracy.