Israel has made international headlines over the past year, following three consecutive inconclusive elections and increasing fears of prime minister Netanyahu’s autocratic tendencies. The state of democracy in Israel has been in a steady decline since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, and the prime minister’s reluctance to give up power has emerged as a source of apprehension. A worried opposition managed to secure a small majority in the Israeli parliament in the March elections, and if able to form a coalition, will be able to push the Israeli prime minister out of office. However, the recent COVID-19 outbreak seems to have worsened fears of democratic erosion in Israel, as the pandemic has interrupted the potential transition of power, and further allowed Netanyahu to take advantage of emergency powers to strengthen his grip on power and weaken the opposition’s ability to challenge his continued governance.
As early as in February, Netanyahu began enforcing strict measures to protect the country from the COVID-19 virus, having resulted in Israel being the safest country to be in during the ongoing pandemic. Netanyahu’s effective measures surged his popularity in Israel, forcing the opposition to roll back measures it had initially pursued to push Netanyahu out of power, among them a legislation proposed by the opposition leader, Benny Gantz, to make indicted politicians unable to form a government. Because Netanyahu is facing charges of corruption, the new piece of legislation would have made it impossible for Netanyahu to continue as prime minister. However, Netanyahu’s newfound popular support forced Gentz to withdraw his proposed legislation to avoid alienating large segments of the population.
While Netanyahu claimed to be taking measures to protect the Israeli population from COVID-19, it quickly became evident that the prime minister was pursuing a larger scheme under the protection of his emergency powers. On March 15th, the Israeli Justice Minister, Amir Ohana, declared a state of emergency in the Israeli court system in response to the global pandemic. As a result, the High Court in Israel postponed all hearings—including Prime Minister Netanyahu’s hearing on counts of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. Only a week prior to Ohana’s declaration, the Jerusalem District Court had denied Netanyahu’s request to postpone the hearing, and Netanyahu’s trial was originally scheduled to begin on March 17th. Many thus suspect that the decision to suspend Israel’s court functions was a deliberate move by the Justice Minister to secure Netanyahu’s continued governance, at least temporarily.
The judicial branch is considered one of the formal institutions that can function as a resistance mechanism to democratic backsliding because an independent judiciary can take active measures to respond to anti-democratic actions. However, based on recent developments, it is unlikely that the Israeli court system will be able to prevent democracy from eroding. Justice Minister Ohana, an appointee of Netanyahu and a vocal critic of the Israeli court system and the indictment of the prime minister, has effectively used the emergency power to suspend the judiciary. Doing this prevents the court from taking any action to oppose executive decisions and allows Netanyahu’s governing strategy to go unchallenged. This poses a significant challenge to countering continued democratic erosion in Israel.
Following the suspension of the judicial branch by the Justice Minister on Monday, March 15th, several efforts to undermine the legislative branch were pursued by Netanyahu and his party allies in the days that followed. On March 17th, Netanyahu introduced a new emergency measure that would allow the government to surveillance and track Israelis in quarantine, using their cell phone metadata. Such a measure is not only considered a serious violation of privacy, but its implementation was further pursued in an undemocratic manner—rather than allowing the Israeli legislature to vote on the proposal, Netanyahu used his emergency powers to make the Cabinet adopt the measure immediately. The following day, on March 18th, the speaker of the Israeli Parliament, Yuli Edelstein, refused a vote to elect the new speaker and further announced that the parliament would shut down for at least a week—effectively suspending the legislative branch.
Ultimately, within a few days, Netanyahu and his allies in the government were able to use their emergency powers to suspend both the judiciary and the legislative branch, while claiming to be responding to the global COVID-19 pandemic. The actions pursued by Netanyahu and his allies in the Likud party, fit the description of authoritarian officials as presented by Ozan Varol in his paper Stealth Authoritarianism. The emergency powers are a constitutional feature in Israel and as such Netanyahu and his administration are not undertaking any illegal measures. However, when the emergency powers are abused for undemocratic purposes they pose a significant threat to the state of democracy. Suspending the legislature and the judiciary leaves the executive branch in complete control of the decision-making process without any form of institutional checks to challenge its governance. Coupled with other mechanisms pursued by Netanyahu and the Likud party, such as using influence over the judiciary to avoid accountability, implementing surveillance laws, and employing rhetoric meant to cause fear and deflect attention away from the anti-democratic practices that are pursued, these proceedings pose a serious threat to Israel’s democracy.
The global outbreak of COVID-19 has led many countries across the world to declare a state of emergency in order to allow the respective governments to access less restricted powers to deal effectively with the crisis. The trend has heightened concern about the potential abuse of these unrestricted powers for undemocratic purposes. Israel is one of the countries in which there is increasing worry that democracy is being eroded under the cover of a global pandemic—the emergency measures meant to combat the spread of COVID-19 are increasingly perceived to be used by Netanyahu and the Likud party for undemocratic purposes, threatening the state of Israeli democracy. Fears remain that as long as the opposition parties remain fragmented and unable to unite, Netanyahu faces little challenge from within the formal institutions. The survival of Israel’s democracy may thus depend on the ability of civil society to organize. Learning from historical examples, such as those of Columbia and Senegal, we know that popular protest and a united opposition and civil society can play a critical role in determining whether a democracy is preserved or allowed to slide into authoritarianism. Using the ongoing global crisis to strengthen his grip on power, Netanyahu poses a significant risk to Israel’s democracy and it remains to be seen whether the Israeli civil society is able to effectively organize to save their democratic institutions from internal eradication.
Gamboa, Laura. 2017. “Opposition at the Margins: Strategies Against the Erosion of Democracy in Colombia and Venezuela.” Comparative Politics 49(4): pp. 457–477.
Kelly, Catherine Lena. 2012. “Senegal: What Will Turnover Bring?” Journal of Democracy 23(3): pp. 121-131.
Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4): pp. 1673-1742. Parts I, II and III.
Image: Keister, Cole. “Silhouette Photography of National Flag”. Unsplash.com. 23 January 2019. <https://unsplash.com/photos/pOCQuo4b-3E>.