The debate over Israel’s High Court once again came to a head last week with Education Minister Naftali Bennett declaring his intention to push forward a bill allowing a simple majority of 61 MKs to overturn annulments made by the Court, thereby reinstating the bill in question. Given that the average coalition has well over that number, critics of the bill believed the requirement of 61 MKs to be a cynical formality, and that such a law would effectively nullify the Court’s power altogether. While in the past there was only moderate worry that such a bill would make it into the Knesset, due to a confluence of factors—Netanyahu’s criminal investigations, anxiety over possible elections, a dominant right-wing force driving the coalition with the intent to sideline the judiciary, an obsession to see the expulsion of African asylum seekers through—it seemed this time it might have a real chance of passing.
Despite making it past a Ministerial Committee vote on Sunday, the bill has now been stopped in its tracks by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who has declared since the beginning of his term he would prevent any legislation that harmed the independence of the High Court, and had instructed Kulanu party members to vote against it, thereby robbing it of votes necessary for its passage. The harm that such a law would inflict in the short term—the ability of the coalition to pass whatever theoretical law it sees fit without any kind of judicial oversight—seemed fairly obvious. But a sidelining of the Court poses other problems that may not seem apparent to those so eager to see its demise.
The phrase “the only democracy in the Middle East” has become grating, not least of all because too many on the right have weaponized the state’s bona fide democratic credentials in order to deflect criticism. But it’s not just a buzzword exploited for the sake of burnishing Israel’s image. The High Court has long been a source of admiration for many outside observers, particularly in regards to its activist leanings, first adopted under the aegis of Justice Aharon Barak, a self-styled judicial activist who led that the courts had the right to annul legislation inconsistent with its Basic Laws, upholding certain norms taken for granted in democratic societies drawn from a yet-to-be codified constitution.
Seemingly unfair criticism aimed at the government’s actions notwithstanding, it is understood by many foreign observers that the Court, and more broadly the Israeli government at large will, if not always engage in a satisfactory way to ameliorate certain problems relating to wide array of rights, at least recognize the need for oversight in the face of criticism. The optics of a neutered Court are bad enough, but they pale in comparison to the long-term effects that an unchecked legislative and executive branch will have on Israel’s ability to navigate in the international arena. The likely casualties of an empowered Knesset would be those sectors of society most critical of the government’s actions: NGOs both foreign and domestic, outspoken members of the opposition and academia, and media outlets the state deems unfriendly. In short, those groups that have provided and championed this oversight and thus contribute to the state’s credibility in which the Rule of Law is at least viewed as an aspirational goal.
The truism that critics disproportionately single out the Jewish State for greater condemnation exists in part because of these aforementioned checks on the government’s actions and the likelihood there is in fact an appetite to confront seeming violations. Contrary to what many on the right believe, a weakening of the Court and subsequent crackdown on domestic critics will not remove the Palestinian conflict from the purview of the international community, but rather confirm the worst suspicions of those who were already skeptical of Israel’s democratic character. Worse still, it will leave those individuals who have traditionally trusted the state to carry out its own internal review few options but to turn to outside sources to intervene.
International organizations like the International Criminal Court are often vilified by the political right as hostile entities cynically exploited by unfriendly states as a form of so-called “lawfare.” This may be true in venues like the UN Human Rights Council, which has long been tainted as a forum for obsessive Israel-bashing. But the ICC is different; its job is not simply to prosecute individuals it deems guilty of crimes against humanity, but to act as a warning and a deterrent, and to encourage states to undergo their own investigations, ones that will likely have far more of a domestic buy-in than those conducted by outside forces that risk being smeared as illegitimate by nationalist voices. Without the power of the Court and the symbolism of self-criticism it so strongly conveys, Israel will come under increased pressure from the ICC and like-minded organizations that are now more likely to scrutinize actions taken by the government vis-à-vis its presence beyond the Green Line.
Such a decision will not only have a negative effect on Israel’s standing in the international community, but may well continue to poison relations between the political camps and increase polarization. Pandering to the most extreme inclinations of constituents in fear of impending elections has always been a motivating factor in pushing for controversial legislation, and many on the right seem adamant on throwing as many obstacles in the way of their political opponents to keep them from returning to power. Liberal democracies, of course, have always benefited from a constant “changing of the guard” between political factions; they serve as a reminder that power is not absolute and cannot be taken for granted, and provide, at least theoretically, ample practice time for politicians sitting in the opposition to hone their skills against incumbent opponents.
Regardless of how hopeless the present situation may seem, the right and its more extreme allies won’t be in power forever; it’s simply been the natural order of things for the electorate to swing between political poles. We witnessed this phenomenon in the U.S. following Obama’s rise in the wake of fatigue with the Republican Party, and while Trump is no doubt an unusual candidate, his election too can be attributed to the electorate’s desire for change. As Israel operates within the parameters of a liberal democracy, subject to many if not most of the same dynamics, one can assume that sooner or later a center-left or centrist government will be cobbled together. This is especially true of a country such as Israel where politicians who don’t provide instant results are routinely dropped in favor the next up-and-coming political star (see Kahlon and Yesh Atid Chair Yair Lapid).
It’s therefore hardly farfetched to imagine a future scenario in which current coalition members Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked are reduced to snipping from the sidelines of the opposition. How then will they react if a center-left coalition decides to force all NGOs who receive funding from private donors–most of them right-wing in orientation– to wear a marked badge whenever they appear in the Knesset, and forfeit 40 percent of donations to the state? After all, they eagerly pursued legislation of the same kind, knowing full well (or at least feigning innocence) that the organizations being targeted were ideologically opposed to their worldview. Granted, it’s difficult to imagine, even theoretically, a future situation in which the current crop of center and center-left politicians including MK Tzipi Livni, Lapid or Labor Chair Avi Gabbay carries out some sort of legislative vendetta against members of the present coalition and more broadly with a deliberate attempt to harm or weaken a right-wing worldview.
But speculating about whether or not Livni would be willing to sponsor bizarre legislation misses the point. The attacks on the High Court are ostensibly dangerous due to the fact that those at the forefront of said attacks harbor explicitly anti-democratic tendencies, and to give them a proverbial inch will lead them demanding much more. More troublingly, these actions create a precedent for bad behavior in the future, further solidifying deeply entrenched partisanship and giving legitimacy to a political revanchism that encourages a reductionist, zero-sum worldview. Majoritarianism is often viewed in today’s political climate as the sole purview of the right, but there’s no reason to assume that its left-wing variant won’t take its place. Those right-wing politicians who eagerly exploit current populist trends should be prepared for a future scenario in which they find themselves powerless and lacking any goodwill to fight off legislation they find objectionable.
This isn’t likely the last we’ll hear on this matter. While Kahlon has, for the time being, put his foot down, he may be swayed by electoral considerations to come to some sort of “compromise” with the rest of the coalition and representatives of the High Court that would simply raise the threshold necessary to reinstate laws. Even in the event that the threshold is raised to a likely insurmountable number, the symbolism of such a law on the books should still continue to raise alarms. Ultimately, the ramifications of a hobbled Court constantly under attack from political forces will come back to haunt its detractors in ways they cannot foresee, or simply refuse to acknowledge.