The starkest indicators [of erosion of democracy] which presumably underlie the country’s downgrading in international democracy ratings, involve elite decisions about rejecting election results. — James N. Druckman, Professor of Political Science, Northwestern University, “Misperceptions, Competition, and Support for Democracy,” p. 24, Dec. 2020
If the copiously funded mob succeeds in compelling the Israeli government to back away from its much-needed policy of reining in the rampant legal establishment and the unbridled judiciary, it will be the end of an era in Israel.
If the mob succeeds, democratic rule will have been replaced by mob rule, in which a highly motivated and abundantly financed minority can impose its will on the elected majority and compel it to abandon a policy that, during the election campaign, it pledged to implement. Thus, the accumulating signs of the government buckling under the relentless pressure of the increasingly raucous and unruly street demonstrations are profoundly perturbing.
There are at least two remarkable aspects of the ongoing protests. One is how manifestly ludicrous their professed motivation is. The other is how astonishingly effective their well-oiled, well-executed and well-funded promotional campaign has been in hoodwinking well-off, well-educated echelons in Israeli society.
As for their alleged motivation—defense of democracy from descent into dictatorship—the demonstrators have yet to present a persuasive causal chain linking the proposed changes in the judicial system to the demise of democracy in Israel. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that they—or anyone else—could do so.
After all, it is plainly absurd to claim that a system in which a dozen or so unelected officials, with no accountability to the public, have the ultimate authority on matters of vital importance is more democratic than one in which authority is vested in the hands of 61 (or more) elected parliamentarians who are regularly answerable to the public.
‘Democracy is Dictatorship’: Descent into dystopia?
So, are the opponents of judicial reforms claiming that, if the reforms are implemented, Israel will become a “dictatorial democracy”… or is that “democratic dictatorship”? Indeed, the allegation is no less oxymoronic than “tolerant tyranny” or “treacherously trustworthy.”
Disturbingly, the opposition’s calculated abuse of language is strongly reminiscent of that chillingly depicted in Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. In it, a totalitarian regime run by “Big Brother” employs “Newspeak”—a controlled language—to circumscribe people’s ability to think. Typical of the elements employed in Newspeak is the juxtaposition of diametric opposites, as in the official motto of the totalitarian regime: War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.
In a similar vein, the promoters of the anti-reform protests are in effect asserting that “democracy is dictatorship” when decisions are shifted to accountable democratically elected forums from unaccountable, unelected ones.
Thus, although the opponents of the judicial reforms are in the opposition, their modus operandi is imposing a dystopian aura on the dispute over those reforms in which truth is cast to the wind—precluding any chance of sincere dialogue to reduce acrimony and reach some consensual resolution.
Brazen, blatant hypocrisy
Of course, the claim that the implementation of the proposed judicial reforms will imperil Israeli democracy is clearly the pinnacle of hypocrisy. After all, those who today vociferously oppose the reforms previously endorsed them.
Arguably, the most brazen, blatant display of barefaced double standards is that of opposition leader Yair Lapid. On Feb. 27, 2023, during a plenary debate on judicial reform, Lapid railed: “Stop this insane legislation.”
However, in a 2016 address to the Kohelet Policy Forum, the organization that played a pivotal role in the formulation of the proposed reforms, Lapid laid out his views on the legal system, which were almost identical to the reforms put forward by today’s coalition.
“I have opposed, and I still oppose, judicial activism of the sort introduced by [former Supreme Court President] Aharon Barak,” he said. “I don’t think it is right that everything is justiciable. I don’t think it is right for the Supreme Court to change fundamental things in accordance with what it refers to as the judgment of ‘the reasonable person.’”
“That’s an amorphous and completely subjective definition that the Knesset never introduced to the legal code,” Lapid added. “It’s not right in my mind that the separation of powers, the sacrosanct foundation of the democratic method, should be breached by one branch of government placing itself above the others.”
No accommodation possible
From the foregoing analysis, one thing should be depressingly clear: There can be no consensual resolution to the ongoing clash—because the clash itself is not only contrived but is, in fact, the objective of the demonstrators, rather than a means to achieve an end.
Paradoxically, there can be no consensual resolution to the dispute because there is no real substantive difference on the issues in dispute—as evidenced by the prior support for the reforms by those who now oppose them. See, for example, here, here, here, here and again here.
This absence of real substantive differences is underscored by the fact that, although opponents of the reform almost uniformly concede that the judicial system does need some form of overhaul, they assiduously refrain from stipulating what measures they have in mind—thus averting any chance of comparing what the differences are between their proposals and those of the current coalition.
Democratic rule was replaced by mob rule
It should be clear that this ongoing dispute, allegedly about a substantive difference of opinion, is nothing but a façade, a stage prop in a visceral fight for control of the reins of power, in which there is no place for any rational debate. Nothing will be acceptable other than abject surrender. (For greater detail on this, see my recent article here.)
This is why the government must not and cannot back away from the reform proposal. For if it does, there will be no point in any elections in the future. Indeed, every time the elected government decides on something of which the opposition disapproves, it will take to the street until the government yields to opposition demands—and democratic rule will have been replaced by mob rule.
Martin Sherman spent seven years in operational capacities in the Israeli defense establishment. He is the founder of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a member of the Habithonistim-Israel Defense & Security Forum (IDSF) research team and a participant in the Israel Victory Project.