Will the U.S. Still Love Israel When Our Shared Values Aren't Shared? | Opinion

The "special relationship" between the United States and Israel has been defended on the grounds of "shared values." While not everyone agreed the values merited all the specialness, only the unkind ever doubted they were shared. That's what may be now about to change.

Apologists aiming to diminish the violence being done to Israel by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government will focus on details like whether it is reasonable for judges to determine if politicians have acted reasonably. But what's really at stake sits on a major fault line of world affairs today: Are you a liberal democracy—with guaranteed rights and freedoms, checks and balances and so on—or an elected dictatorship?

Examples of the latter, of course, include Turkey, Poland, and most famously (because Steve Bannon admires its leader Viktor Orban) Hungary. (Russia was there until it became a full dictatorship, illustrating the slipperiness of the slope). They see democracy as little more than majority rule, and variably free elections. When the judges are compliant, the civil service cowed, and the media is in your pocket, elections can be engineered without being rigged.

In Israel's case, an illiberal regime would have unique related characteristics that would stem from the occupation of the West Bank and the strong connection between illiberalism and the rapidly growing hyper-religious minority.

A lost cause?
Police officers use water cannons to remove protesters from a main road on July 24, in Jerusalem. Amir Levy/Getty Images

Israel has been running a disgraceful regime in the West Bank since 1967. In that territory it effectively controls some 3 million Palestinians who do not have the right to vote in Israeli elections. Critics have long warned the stench would eventually seep into Israel.

This is what the Netanyahu government started on Monday with a bill that was passed by a vote of 64-0, because the 56 members of the opposition left the Knesset in disgust. The one-sentence law removed the ability of courts to rule against any government actions based on "unreasonableness." It is a move that opens the door to every conceivable type of corruption and chicanery.

The reasonableness standard, which was inherited from British colonial rule and is shared with many Common Law countries, was used sparingly but offered an important deterrent by its very existence. In a country that (unlike the United States) does not have a constitution, a bill of rights, a bicameral parliament, or individually elected lawmakers, it was critical to checking a hugely powerful executive. It was essentially the only thing preventing an Israeli Caligula from appointing his horse as consul.

It is central to the idea of politics, promoted by John Locke and other philosophers, that the sovereign must be limited in its power to harm the individual.

The almost 200 laws the government has prepared (many of which appear to be for the moment shelved) make a mockery of that notion and are straight out of the authoritarian playbook. They include measures to install full coalition control over judicial appointments and parliamentary powers to easily override the courts should puppets forget to be puppets.

The new setup would eliminate the few protections afforded still to the Palestinians, would enable massive special dispensations for religious Jews, and could badly hobble the sanctity of contracts, or private property, or freedoms. The currency, stock market and investment numbers have correspondingly floundered.

Anyone wondering whether the government would be so gauche as to abuse the extensive powers of illiberal democracy should consider that the proposals also mooted the removal of fraud and breach of trust from the list of crimes officials can be indicted for. Those are two of the three charges facing Netanyahu in court today—the other being bribery.

Moreover, anyone confused about where this may practically be headed might note that one of Netanyahu's religious coalition partners tabled a bill the day after the vote that would equate the status of seminary students to soldiers, sparking more outrage and dissent. Such a law—which the party claimed had been promised—could no longer be invalidated, obviously, as "unreasonable."

Government supporters say they have a huge "mandate" to do all this. But all the parties of the coalition won a combined 49 percent in a November 2022 election; it was a popular-vote tie in which 12 percent of the opposition vote was disqualified due to its idiotic splintering. Moreover, Netanyahu's Likud party had no platform and did not advertise the planned authoritarian overhaul. Polls now show perhaps two-thirds of the public oppose the proposals and the coalition would get crushed in a new election.

The massive, multifaceted, grass-roots protest movement that has arisen has the support of the vast majority of the business, tech, academic, and security establishment. And in a country as threatened as Israel has been, the latter is an electric factor.

Hundreds of top security figures have urged an end to the madness and thousands of important reservists—including key pilots—have warned that they would no longer show up for duty. The security types are not knee-jerk liberals; chief among their concerns is the idea that Israel's world-class and widely respected legal system is the reason why they are not being hauled before alternative global courts like the one in The Hague.

Before Monday's vote, the defense minister, and the heads of the Mossad spy agency and Shin Bet security service all issued warnings, and the military chief arrived at parliament hoping in vain to dissuade Netanyahu, who refused to meet. Key security figures have suggested that should the court annul the new law—and should the government ignore the court—they will side with the court.

Government supporters argue that it's problematic to give security figures undue power—it smacks of banana republics and military coups. They're right about that. But such niceties apply only in a real democracy.

They also charge that the court has been "elitist" in imposing liberal democracy values, and there is some truth to this as well. But in a country in which a quarter of the effective population (the West Bank Palestinians) are disenfranchised and always ready to explode, a fifth (Israel's own Arab citizens) are restive, and at least a sixth (hyper-religious Jews) don't believe in the supremacy of secular law, the court has been an irreplaceable part of keeping a lid on things.

Or maintaining the narrative of shared values.

In coming months, since the Knesset is going into recess, we will hear a lot from the government about the need to "compromise" on the rest of the package and to "negotiate" and to "dialogue." Few in Israel will buy any of it; it will be aimed at foreign ears, and especially at securing a much-prized invitation to the White House.

But really, if Israel continues to march down the path that has been set by Netanyahu, what kind of values will it be able to claim to share with the Biden administration, which had sent Israel every conceivable signal that it should desist? With the U.S. Democratic Party? With American Jews, who overwhelmingly are liberal?

Down this path lies an end to the U.S. veto of anti-Israel resolutions at the UN Security Council, and an end to the billions in aid that America hands over to a country that has been richer per capita than France and Germany. If the Democrats stay in power, it could even get much worse than that.

Israel can also expect its special relationship with the European Union—its main trading partner—to also undergo revisions if this continues. None of it is about interference in another country's business: no one is under any obligation to be a friend. Israelis may be about to learn that choices have consequences.

Dan Perry is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. He is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press. Follow him at danperry.substack.com.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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