The future of democracy is not at stake in Israel’s—or America’s—upcoming elections

Claims that a victory for Netanyahu would destroy Israel’s democratic system are partisan smears.

Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu attends the Kikar HaShabbat conference at the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem Hotel, Sept. 12, 2022. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu attends the Kikar HaShabbat conference at the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem Hotel, Sept. 12, 2022. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

For all of the enormous differences between Israeli and American politics, there is one great similarity between the elections that will be held in both countries next month. According to those on the left in both Israel and the United States, the results will largely determine the future of democracy.

In the U.S., this takes the form of accusations that Republicans are “election deniers”’ and proto-authoritarians. In Israel, a not dissimilar claim is being made against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his potential coalition partners: that they are seeking to overthrow the justice system (to allow Netanyahu to evade prosecution for corruption charges); implement racist policies against the state’s Arab citizens; and to make peace with the Palestinians impossible.

All of the above is false. There is no war on democracy in either country, or at least not one being waged from the right. Assertions to the contrary stem essentially from the same impulse on the part of the left to delegitimize its opponents.

The disgraceful Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot and the inability of former President Donald Trump to move on from disputes about the 2020 election have given Democrats an opening to treat him and those who voted for him—nearly half of the country—as “insurrectionists.”

Yet, by attempting to portray the riot as a failed coup d’état, and forgetting all the times in the recent past when they treated elections they lost as “illegitimate” or stolen (including the hoax about Russian collusion in 2016), Democrats have overplayed their hand.

Republicans are not plotting the end of democracy. But they do have a right to be concerned on two points in particular.

One is the way that the guardrails for election integrity were ignored during the coronavirus pandemic. The other is the way that the mainstream press and Big Tech social-media companies silenced reporting about legitimate stories pointing to corruption in the family of President Joe Biden, which led to unfairly distorted public discourse.

The narrative about conservatives simply seeking to overturn results they don’t like is pure hypocrisy. The attitude of both parties toward close elections has always been and continues to be a willingness to do everything they can to manipulate the system so as to get the outcomes they like.

What’s happening in Israel is also linked to the delegitimization of the right.

The main issue in the four rounds of Knesset elections that were held from 2019 to 2021 was Netanyahu himself. Or, rather, whether his long reign as prime minister—he served from 1996 to 1999 and then again from 2009 to 2021—would go on indefinitely.

After his having reached the status of the longest-serving premier in their country’s history, many Israelis were ready for a change. Among these were members of his own party, Likud, who were tired of waiting for a chance to become its leader. Others were former political allies weary of dealing with a figure whose ego and double-dealing turned many friends into foes.

Included in the mix were the four corruption charges on which Netanyahu was indicted and for which he is now standing trial in a proceeding that has already lasted for years.

The charges in some ways reflect the complacency that comes with any administration going on indefinitely, as well as the intersection between money and political power in any democracy. But they are also flimsy and largely political in nature, demonstrating a willingness on the part of prosecutors to find any excuse to take down Netanyahu. Given the way that the system has been stacked against him from the start, it is impossible to guess at the trial’s outcome, but no one should confuse this process with justice.

Still, the talk of Israeli democracy’s being in danger has less to do with the shaky case against Netanyahu than it does with a belief that the right-wing/religious coalition he leads is itself a foe of democratic values. It is also a function of resentment at the left’s inability to win elections.

This situation reflects a broad consensus about there being no Palestinian peace partner for the foreseeable future. The consensus has been blunted, however, by the fact that some politicians and factions previously considered on the right side of the spectrum are either opposed to another Netanyahu-led government or wish to keep the haredi religious parties out of any coalition.

Built into this is a natural tension between those who want Israeli society to highlight liberal and secular values and those who wish to prioritize the Jewish nature of the state. There are legitimate concerns about haredi influence, but that has been a consistent theme of Israeli politics for decades.

What is really angering Netanyahu’s opponents are two other factors.

One concerns the determination on the part of Likud and its allies to reform the judicial system. This is represented by interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid as an attempt to “destroy Israeli democracy, to cancel all the authority of the courts, to destroy the separation of powers in Israel.”

The other concerns the Religious Zionist Party and the fact that the second on its list of Knesset candidates is Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ex-Kahanist with a record of past extremist stands and provocative statements. Putting him in a position of influence in the next government would, the right’s rivals say, enshrine racism as official policy.

Both of these talking points are based on a false premise.

Israel’s judiciary has long been in desperate need of reform. The courts are unaccountable and, far from respecting the separation of powers, have arrogated to themselves a position of superiority to the legislature that is antithetical to democracy.

The inability of parliamentary majorities to impact the composition of the judiciary—as they do in the U.S.—also leads to a self-perpetuating leftist Supreme Court majority dedicated to imposing its own agenda on the nation. The distorted system that produced the shameful political circus of the Netanyahu indictments and trial also needs to be fixed.

As for Ben-Gvir, it’s easy to view him solely as an expression of extremism. But for those who advocate for the inclusion in the government of Islamist and secular anti-Zionist Arab parties that had done far less to renounce their past extremist stands than Ben-Gvir, this notion is rich.

While Ben-Gvir might be a disruptive force, the same is true of many far-left Knesset members who oppose the state’s existence and/or wish to erase its Jewish nature. The anger about Ben-Gvir also fails to take into account that his popularity is a function of outrage about Palestinian terrorism and a justified demand that the government take action. His efforts to defend Jewish rights on the Temple Mount—which Lapid and his allies appear ready to abrogate—are similarly neither extreme nor wrong.

This election is not merely another referendum on Netanyahu. It’s also one on Lapid and the ramshackle coalition that has run the country since June 2021. The notion that it has been less dysfunctional or divisive than Netanyahu’s governments is dubious. Lapid’s recent surrender to the Biden administration about negotiations with the Hezbollah-dominated government of Lebanon, as well as his talk about a Palestinian state for the terror-funding Fatah kleptocrats who rule in Ramallah, constitute an argument for Netanyahu’s return to power that may prove decisive.

What isn’t in question in Israel, any more than it is in America, is the future of democracy. For all of the differences between the two countries, one thing they have in common is a belief on the part of their left-wing politicians and followers that opposition to their rule isn’t so much wrong as it is anti-democratic. That’s a partisan smear that journalists ought not to regurgitate as impartial analysis.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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