The Problem with Israel’s So-Called ‘Crisis of Democracy’

Photograph Source: Daniele Marcucci – CC BY 2.0

Since the start of the new year, reading about Israel in the Hebrew-language press has been an unnerving experience.

One article described a maternity ward in which a Palestinian woman from Nazareth was persuaded to move rooms after a Jewish woman complained about sharing the same space with a non-Jew.

Another article revealed that the Israeli military commander responsible for the West Bank recently distributed to his officers a messianic pamphlet – “The Secrets of the Land Redeemers, from Abraham our Father to the Young Settlers” – on how to seize Palestinian land.

A third reported that the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli military fire in the West Bank in 2022 has been the highest in 18 years.

A fourth explained how Israel’s Supreme Court approved the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in eight villages and the Israeli military’s demand to hold regular training exercises in that same area.

Domestic news stories like these, which inadvertently expose the grim everyday realities of Israel, seldom make it into international news bulletins. One likely reason why international media outlets do not cover these stories is that if they did, such reports would profoundly challenge the current narrative the very same outlets have long been peddling about Israel: that Israel’s otherwise well-functioning and robust democracy is being threatened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government.

Indeed, international coverage of Israel since the November 2022 elections has been more or less uniform. Article after article has warned us that the legislative changes proposed by the government would effectively enable it to annul Supreme Court rulings and decried legislation that gave National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir broad political control over the police, including those deployed to the West Bank, as a threat to the rule of law in the country.

These are, without a doubt, important issues that deserve extensive media attention. The laws and policies that are being introduced or proposed by the new government are clearly aimed at undermining the separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches – a separation that serves to protect democracies from the tyranny of the majority.

Since the inception of Netanyahu’s coalition, international media’s coverage of Israel centred almost exclusively on these issues. News outlets extensively reported on protests by Israeli citizens who perceive the new government’s policies as an “attack on democracy”. They published countless think pieces criticising the government’s proposed overhaul of the judicial system as an effort to “undermine democratic checks and balances” and covered extensively any criticism of the planned legislative changes coming from Western leaders. Israel, they explained repeatedly, is experiencing an unprecedented “crisis of democracy”.

This take is not necessarily wrong – after all the proposals being discussed are real and indeed extremely concerning. But news reports in the Hebrew-language press like the ones cited above, and the experiences of millions of Palestinians living under “Israeli democracy”, suggest it is highly misleading.

The dominant narrative about Israel currently circulating in the Global North is informed by the familiar trope that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East”. As such, reports that are seemingly criticising the new Netanyahu government as “undemocratic” are actually serving to whitewash the inherently undemocratic nature of Israel and its leading institutions, including its Supreme Court.

Sure, there is democracy in Israel – but it is more similar to the one that existed among whites in apartheid South Africa than it is to the democracy that currently exists in the United Kingdom or France.

Millions of Palestinians in the West Bank live under Israel’s effective control but cannot participate in the political process, while hundreds of thousands of Palestinians residing in annexed East Jerusalem are “residents” rather than citizens and consequently cannot vote in national elections. And even though Palestinian citizens of Israel can participate in elections, they too are subjected to a series of discriminatory laws. All this, according to many researchers, legal scholars, activists and respected international organisations such as  Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, means Israel is not a fully functioning liberal democracy but an “apartheid”. Put differently, the democracy that is currently “under attack” from the government in Israel is a democracy only for the Jews.

Similarly, the Israeli Supreme Court, portrayed in international media as a model of moral rectitude, is indeed a principled defender of democratic rights – but only for the Jews. As several studies have shown, the court has played a vital role in enabling Israel’s colonial project and legitimising the state’s abuses against Palestinians. Its rulings provided legitimacy to the expropriation of Palestinian land, and legal cover for extrajudicial executions, home demolitions, deportations, and administrative detentions targeting Palestinians. A few of its justices are themselves settlers and, as such, “criminals” according to international law.

Netanyahu’s proposed legislative changes are new insofar as they will allow his government to target Jews who do not agree with its political ideology and to undermine the judicial branch’s ability to fight corruption (which is another reason why Netanyahu, who is currently facing three corruption trials, wants to introduce them). But the claim that the new government is on course to destroy Israel’s democracy would be true only in a world where Palestinians do not exist.

First appeared in Al Jazeera.

Neve Gordon is a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies and the co-author of The Human Right to Dominate.