I have many reasons to visit Israel. Fleeing Nazi persecution a large part of my family found security and prosperity in the land that would become the modern State of Israel. More recently, I am the co-founder of two tech start-ups with major R&D centers in Tel Aviv. Both personally and through my venture capital fund I have made many investments in Israeli companies. I have many wonderful friends in the country. And across the last quarter century of frequent visits, I have met prime ministers, finance ministers, bank governors, military leaders, and a collection of brilliant scientists, educators, bankers, founders and investors too numerous to count.
Covid interrupted my regular visits to Israel; this Netanyahu government has, for now, ended them.
What is at stake is a battle for the soul of the country. Will Israel, despite its shortcomings, continue to be the beacon of liberal democracy and the rule of law in the fractious Middle East or will it enter the long slide toward authoritarianism and corruption? This existential struggle is being played out against a more global choosing-of-sides between the axis of totalitarianism (Russia, China, Iran, North Korea) and democracy (fortunately, still too numerous to list). In between lie the strongman states towards which Israel is veering (Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela, Nicaragua).
For those who don’t follow news from Israel closely, the increasingly right-wing Netanyahu coalition government has introduced legislation in the Knesset that would, among other things, give this legislative body the power to overturn decisions of the Israeli Supreme Court by simple majority vote (61 of 120 members). It bears mention that Israel does not have a constitution and that as a practical matter the prime minister can expect Knesset support of his cabinet’s proposals (since he depends on a Knesset majority to govern). Historically, the Israeli judiciary has functioned as the only institutional check and balance on a powerful prime minister. This is why the proposed reforms go to the heart of the democratic system in Israel and effectively eliminate any judicial review of legislative or administrative action.
Other pernicious provisions of the proposed judicial reforms would give the ruling coalition control over the committee responsible for the appointment of judges at all levels of the judiciary and the power to hire or fire the legal counsel formerly free to monitor and institute legal proceedings to oppose administrative and legislative action. It is no wonder that the Israeli Shekel has fallen to a three-year low against the US Dollar — the rule of law being vital to a strong and stable economy. Major Israeli companies and institutional investors have also begun off-shoring their assets.
There are plenty of other reasons to abhor and oppose the policies of this, the most extremist religious and right-wing cabinet Bibi has organized across his multiple terms as prime minister. An express policy of limiting the rights of women and the LGBTQ community, a concomitant expansion of the influence of the Haredim (ultra Orthodox) in education and daily life, and a desire to deploy police and security forces without legal review — to name but a few. However, none set the country on as irreversible path to religious totalitarianism as the proposed judicial “reforms.”
In short, Israel is headed on a course towards becoming Iran. One day I hope to visit Teheran once the Mullahs and Revolutionary Guards are gone. Were I religious, I would pray that this Netanyahu government changes course before it turns Israel into its worst existential enemy. I shall return on that day.