Israel’s Crack-Up and Democracy’s Endgame

Malcom Kyeyune

Israel’s political turmoil has reached a fragile détente, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delaying his divisive proposed reform of the judiciary in the face of nationwide protests. There is no obvious path to a resolution of the crisis. Compromise with protesters’ demands will doom Netanyahu’s governing coalition, while forging ahead with the plan will ensure further unrest. Israel’s institutions, it would seem, can no longer outrun or paper over the country’s internal divisions and contradictions. This impasse has lessons for the rest of the Western world.

The question at the center of the crisis, the Israeli Supreme Court and its broad powers of judicial review, is a stand-in for a dilemma that all democracies face: Just how democratic are they actually willing to be? Judicial review, the process by which the judiciary may overrule the executive and—more controversially—the legislature is an anti-democratic institution by design, especially when, as in Israel, the appointment of judges is insulated from popular pressure.

In this sense, Netanyahu is threatening to overturn a mechanism over which the Israeli voter has no direct influence that can void the actions of elected lawmakers. Nonetheless, his opponents accuse him of attempting to undermine or even destroy Israeli democracy. This sort of doublespeak is nothing new. When Western politicians and pundits speak of the need to preserve “democracy,” they more often than not mean a system that maintains sufficient separation of powers in order to safeguard against too much democratic influence on politics.

Among the nations we call “democratic,” Israel has an especially broad system of judicial review. Lacking a constitution, it is instead governed by a set of “basic laws”; this situation has allowed its judiciary to unilaterally claim ever greater jurisdiction and privileges of judicial review. Many of those who oppose the current government’s plans still recognize a need for some sort of reform, because the current system cannot really be defended on principle. Even so, the proposed reforms have provoked an unprecedented backlash. What has gone so wrong?

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