As the Knesset reconvened for its summer session, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his far right-wing government wasted little time renewing their illiberal policy agenda. A plethora of concerning legislation has passed, but two particular pieces of legislation are in the cards at the moment that threaten Israeli democracy. The first is a proposed bill to override the power of the High Court, sponsored by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party.
The judiciary has been a popular target for many on the Israeli right, but this specific bill emerged after the High Court struck down legislation to forcefully remove asylum seekers to a third country in Africa.The proposed legislation, however, is not limited to the asylum seekers; it includes a clause that allows the Knesset to reenact any law struck down by the High Court with a simple majority. A senior court official said that such a clause would essentially “assassinate High Court’s independence, power, and jurisdiction.”
The majority of Israelis views the move as an attempt to help the Netanyahu government consolidate power. In a survey published by the Israel Democracy Institute, 65 percent of Israelis believe that if such a law passes and the Knesset can strike down any legislation, it will be granted “unlimited power,” while 59 percent think the bill would raise the risk of political corruption. Only 28 percent of Israelis believe the law is in Israel’s best interest.
The second law, which passed a first reading on Tuesday, is the “Nationality Law.” The language of the bill was significantly watered down due to pressure from within the coalition; the current version seeks to define Israel as the Jewish and democratic nation-state of the Jewish people, Jerusalem as its capital, with Hebrew as its official language (Arabic, currently an official language, will be knocked down to a “special status.”) It’s not clear why such legislation is even needed as if it’s not already obvious that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.
A significant concern is that the bill omits any mentions of ensuring equal rights for Israeli citizens. This matter was echoed by veteran Likud MK Benny Begin, who said “My guess is the Nationality Bill that does not afford equal rights to all of Israel’s citizens will not pass its third reading, but in the meantime those annulling such a statement have the upper hand, making the bill faulty. I, therefore, cannot support it, both for what it omits and for what it includes.”
Opposition MKs were even more critical. Tzipi Livni declared that “defending our Jewish and democratic state from enemies is a task for the highest order, but the country should also be protected from the actions of its current government. A government that thinks, says, and tells that democracy means the majority rules alone.”
It doesn’t end there. On Monday night, a Knesset vote passed that dramatically changed the circumstances in which Israel can declare war, letting the Prime Minister virtually decide on his own – without cabinet approval whether or not to go to war. This is all the more dangerous given escalating tensions with Iran as Michael Koplow highlighted in his weekly column. Not to mention, the flurry of West Bank annexation proposals that will inevitably come in the near weeks and months.
Elections are looming and Netanyahu – who remains in serious legal trouble – is desperate, making him more liable to be dragged by right-wing coalition partners into legislation that seriously jeopardizes Israel’s democracy. Netanyahu’s priority is to stay prime minister, and whether it is escalating the Iranian issue, facilitating anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset, or attacking the media – Netanyahu is doing everything he can to do just that.
By passing laws that relegate the ability to declare war to one-to-two people and limiting the power of the courts, Israel’s current coalition is consolidating power in the highest echelons of government. Netanyahu and his partners in the Knesset are setting a dangerous precedent that could seriously harm Israel’s democracy.