The war on Israeli democracy

On a cool November night in the West Bank, Murad Shteiwi walked me through the streets where he had been shot.

Shteiwi is an activist leader in the town of Kufr Qaddum, a quiet village near the northern city of Nablus. Israel closed the road between Kufr Qaddum and Nablus during the second intifada in the 2000s to prevent Palestinians from getting too close to the nearby Israeli settlement Qadumim. A drive to Nablus that should take 15 minutes takes closer to 40.

On Fridays, the residents of Kufr Qaddum stage demonstrations — which they say are peaceful, though protesters have been known to throw stones — calling on Israel to open the road. Shteiwi, a kind-faced, middle-aged man with a thin mustache, says he’s been shot twice by Israeli soldiers during these protests and jailed five times.

He insists that he’s not opposed to Israel’s existence — he describes his hope for ending up with “two states, neighbors” — but will not tolerate the continued presence of Israeli settlers on what he sees as his people’s historical land.

“We are human beings. We like life,” he says in fluent English. “Life with them, the man who steals my land, is impossible.”

Murad Shteiwi in the West Bank village of Kufr Qaddum.
Shteiwi leads a weekly demonstration against the expropriation of Palestinian land and against the closure of the main road connecting Kufr Qaddum to the city of Nablus.
Kufr Qaddum residents, protesting nearby Israeli settlements, throw stones toward an Israeli bulldozer.

In democracies, these disagreements are supposed to be settled through the ballot box. But Murad Shteiwi will not get to vote in Israel’s upcoming elections on March 2. The West Bank’s Palestinian residents, who live under the grinding realities of occupation, are not Israeli citizens and don’t have a voice in the policies that profoundly shape their lives. The Israeli settlers, many of whom moved to the West Bank with the explicit ideological purpose of seizing control of Palestinian land, do.

Israel is a democratic country within its internationally recognized borders, but it maintains a military occupation of land on which millions of people live while denying those people the right to vote. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this inherent instability has started to tip toward outright authoritarianism throughout the territory under Israeli control. In a 2019 poll conducted by the nonpartisan Israeli Democracy Institute, a majority of Israelis (54 percent) said their democracy was “in grave danger.”

Since Netanyahu took office in 2009, the nationalist right has mounted an assault on liberal institutions and eroded democracy in Israel. The Israeli parliament has passed a bill formally defining Israel as a state for its Jewish citizens, implicitly slotting the sizable minority of Arab Muslim Israeli citizens into a form of second-class citizenship.

Another recent law, promoted as a funding transparency effort, makes it tougher for human rights groups to work in the country. A third allows Israeli officials to bar foreigners who advocate a boycott of Israel from entering the country. Last fall, the law was used to deport Omar Shakir, an American citizen and the director of Human Rights Watch’s Israel-Palestine division.

Netanyahu’s government has launched an attack on the court system. It has cultivated allies in the private sector, NGOs, and the right-wing press (funded by in part by wealthy Americans) that aim to stifle and delegitimize dissent. It has corrupted the mainstream media: Netanyahu allegedly struck a deal with a major newspaper to exchange political favors for favorable coverage.

When this scandal was exposed, Netanyahu was indicted on bribery charges; his response has been to attack the media that reported on the scandal, demonize the prosecutors who brought the case, and attempt to pass a law immunizing himself from prosecution while in office.

Israel is heading down a path already trod by countries like Turkey, Hungary, and Venezuela: former democracies whose elected leaders have, gradually and through mostly legal processes, twisted the state’s institutions to the point where the public no longer has a meaningful choice in who rules them. The signs are subtle, but I found them striking during my trip last fall (sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting).

The Jewish state is not so far gone as Hungary; it still has competitive elections and a free press. But the past 10 years have put new strains on these core institutions. A country that has long prided itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East” seems to be doing its damndest to give up its claim to being a democracy at all.

Some of the causes of this anti-democratic drift are uniquely Israeli. No advanced democracy maintains anything like the occupation of the West Bank. The foundational Zionist vision, a state that’s both meaningfully “Jewish” and “democratic,” leads to a constant high-wire act in a country whose citizens are around 25 percent non-Jewish.

A resident of Kufr Qaddum carries a Palestinian flag through a cloud of tear gas fired by Israeli forces during weekly demonstrations.

But while these difficulties are particular to Israel, the Israeli experience also resembles that of other imperiled democracies — most notably the United States. Like Israel, the United States suffers from a bedrock tension between its nominally egalitarian founding vision and its deep historical commitment to the supremacy of a particular ethnocultural group. In both cases, revanchist ethnonationalism has handed power to a political faction willing to demolish democratic institutions in pursuit of maintaining the majority group’s power.

There’s a reason Donald Trump and Netanyahu get along so well — and why we should be worried that both men stand a good chance of winning their 2020 reelection bids.

What it means to call Israel a democracy — and how it came under attack

After my visit to Kufr Qaddum, the last stop on a trip across the West Bank that nearly spanned the length of the territory, I spent a few days in Israel’s two major cities: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

I’ve done this trip before, and the contrast is always jarring. The wealthy Jewish neighborhoods in those cities are leafy and vibrant, places where the routine clashes in places like Kufr Qaddum seem unimaginable. In Tel Aviv, I spent a lovely afternoon at a craft beer bar embedded in a sprawling Middle Eastern market. When I got bored, I walked a handful of blocks to a Mediterranean beach, where a group of fit young Israelis were playing paddleball.

Israelis cross the recently opened Yehudit Bridge, the first pedestrian bridge over the Ayalon Highway, in Tel Aviv, Israel.

One night, I walked down Rothschild Boulevard, a sprawling thoroughfare bisected by green space and bike paths, to the artsy Neve Tzedek neighborhood. I was going to meet Yehuda Shaul, one of Israel’s most prominent left-wing activists, at an organic vegan restaurant not far from Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot’s home.

Shaul is a large man with a gigantic bushy beard, which one might easily mistake as a symbol of Orthodox Jewish faith. He did in fact grow up both religious and conservative, attending a yeshiva (religious school) in a West Bank settlement.

But in high school, he started questioning the politics suffusing his life, asking himself why Jews deserved their own state and Palestinians didn’t. He spent several weeks hiking the length of Israel, coming to terms with his liberal awakening, before beginning his mandatory military service in the early 2000s.

It was a rough time, one of the most violent in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shaul volunteered to serve in a combat unit, believing he’d treat Palestinians more humanely than someone else in that job. The experience was harrowing. Shaul covered his squadmates while they dragged a barefoot preteen boy through the streets of Bethlehem. In the city of Hebron, he fired indiscriminately on areas populated by Palestinian civilians.

He left the military determined to do something about the horrors he had been complicit in. In 2004, he founded a group called Breaking the Silence, which publishes testimonies from Israeli soldiers who have served in wars and the occupied territories. It is one of the most prominent and controversial human rights organizations in Israel, and Shaul is its best-known face.

After leaving the Israeli military, Yehuda Shaul co-founded the humanitarian organization Breaking the Silence. He’s pictured here at their offices in Ramat Gan, Israel.
According to Shaul, Breaking the Silence’s offices and activists have been attacked by Israelis and demonized by agents of the state.

For this work, he tells me, he and his group have been relentlessly attacked. Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed a law barring specific kinds of human rights groups from speaking in schools — a bill so obviously targeted that Israeli media called it the “Breaking the Silence law.”

A cabinet minister once wrote a letter to a local venue scheduled to host one of the group’s events, demanding that it be canceled. A settler once punched Shaul bloody during a visit to Hebron; his staff has been repeatedly harassed by both ordinary Israelis and agents of the state.

“Our offices were attacked a few times. Our activists were attacked,” he says. “The police caught [a man] with gallons of gasoline on the way to torch our offices. They found, on his computer, private information on some of our activists. … When the prime minister says you crossed the line, the defense minister says you’re a ‘spy,’ and the tourism minister says you’re a ‘traitor,’ people answer the call.”

Understanding how someone like Shaul, a peaceful activist who works within Israeli law, could become such an object of hate and state repression in a purportedly liberal democracy requires understanding Israeli politics at a deeper level.

Formally, Israel has all the features associated with an advanced democracy: competitive multi-party elections, a vibrant free press, strong individual rights protections, and the like. It consistently scores highly on quantitative measures of democracy used by political scientists.

Yet despite that, Israeli society has always been deeply unequal, stratified along religious and racial lines. The problems can be traced back to its 1948 Declaration of Independence, a document that, like America’s 1776 equivalent, is fraught with tensions and contradictions.

On the one hand, the country’s founders hold to the Zionist vision of Israel as a Jewish state, declaring the “natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.” On the other, it also commits Israel to upholding the “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

These tensions became particularly acute after 1967, when Israel conquered the overwhelmingly Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel found itself ruling over a noncitizen population that had no interest in being part of a Jewish state and would likely vote to remove the state’s Jewish character if given a choice.

The result has been more than 50 years of military occupation with no end in sight. Palestinians have been given limited capabilities for self-determination but no voice at all in the Israeli policies that set the contours for their existence.

These basic facts — and they are facts, not a slanted anti-Israel litany — have led many observers to conclude that the very idea of liberal democracy in Israel is a sham. There might be competitive elections and free speech, but apartheid South Africa had those things too — for whites.

A public bus in Tel Aviv with a campaign ad for the country’s Blue and White party. The message next to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz reads in Hebrew “Looks after Israel.” The message next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reads “Looks after himself.”

Israelis understand this contradiction, and Israeli governments over the decades have spent a tremendous amount of time and effort managing it. The most ambitious such attempt came in the early 1990s, when Yehuda Shaul was still a boy. Back then, the Knesset passed two new Basic Laws — the Israeli equivalent of constitutional amendments — that for the first time formally limited the powers of the legislature to restrict individual rights.

Aharon Barak, a justice and then later president (chief justice) of Israel’s Supreme Court, used these new Basic Laws and some creative legal theories to radically reorient the Israeli political system toward the democratic side of its Jewish-democratic identity.

Barak argued that the essence of Israel’s status as a Jewish state rests not in religion, but in its immigration policy — the policy of aliyah, its unconditional willingness to accept any Jew from any country as a citizen — and certain symbolically Jewish elements like the official use of the Hebrew language.

But beyond that, he argued, Israel cannot and should not give its Jewish identity pride of place and should instead function as a secular liberal democracy.

This vision, that Israel is not a religiously Jewish state but rather a secular democracy with a few key features aimed at protecting the Jewish people, represents the first key component of what’s known as “liberal Zionism.” The second connected component is a dovish approach to the Palestinian conflict.

The early 1990s were the high-water mark for this vision. The left-wing Labor Party, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, concluded the Oslo Accords in 1993 and 1995 — agreements that gave Palestinians self-governance through the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority, a transition mechanism designed to shortly give way to a full Palestinian state.

But it fell apart soon after. In 1995, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing fanatic who opposed giving away what he saw as land divinely granted to the Jews. Later high-profile peace summits failed, at Camp David in the US in 2000 and Taba, Egypt, in 2001.

Thousands of Israelis line up at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 5, 1995, to pay their respects to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who was killed in Tel Aviv by a Jewish extremist.
Eyal Warshavsky/AP

Then came the second intifada, the bloodiest conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the modern era. Though some Israelis like Shaul held fast to their peacenik commitments during this tumultuous time, frequent Palestinian suicide bombings on Israeli civilian targets, like nightclubs and buses, convinced many Israelis that they had no partner for peace — and that taking the Palestinians seriously was what had brought them to this point.

This damaged not only the notion of a peace process but the liberal Zionist ideal. The Israeli left has not won an election since 1999; in the September 2019 election, Labor barely won enough votes to make it into the Knesset at all.

Since 1999, Israeli politics has tilted measurably and dramatically rightward. Political scientists have found that the second intifada’s terror attacks caused more Jewish Israelis to vote for right-wing parties and made supporters of those parties less likely to support extending political freedoms to minority groups inside Israel’s borders. Religious nationalist and pro-settler parties, campaigning on a platform that amounted to “I told you we couldn’t trust the Arabs,” have surged in popularity.

Netanyahu’s party, the formerly center-right Likud, has become a hard-right party — and currently governs with support from even more extreme factions, like the pro-settlement New Right. Their main opposition is the center-right Blue and White party, taking over from the emaciated Jewish left. A coalition of Arab factions called the Joint List is the third-largest party in the Knesset but is largely marginalized by both major factions.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud party election rally in front of picture of him with President Donald Trump, on February 13, 2020.
Gili Yaari/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The country has shifted away from the liberal Zionism that once served as Israel’s political anchor, keeping it from drifting too far in the direction of “Jewish” over “democratic.” Aharon Barak himself is now warning that Israel is so far from what it once was that democracy itself is at risk.

And Yehuda Shaul? He’s so concerned about Israel’s direction that he barely paused to eat during our three-hour dinner, offering up story after story about the occupation and the corruption of Israel’s public institutions.

“I believe what we see now,” he said, “is only the beginning.”

The legal assault on Israeli democracy

I met Omar Shakir 10 days before he was deported.

Shakir is an American citizen of Iraqi descent who has, since October 2016, worked as the Israel-Palestine director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the world’s most respected and best-known international human rights organizations. When he arrived in Israel in April 2017 to begin on-the-ground work, an Israeli right-wing legal group called Shurat HaDin filed a lawsuit calling for Shakir’s removal.

The suit argued that Israel should not have given Shakir a visa because he was in violation of a brand new law passed by the Netanyahu government that bars supporters of boycotts targeting Israel from entering the country. Shakir had repeatedly endorsed such boycotts while in law school, and his critics claimed his work with HRW constituted an extension of that; he and HRW both claim not to have a position on boycotts currently.

Shurat HaDin is widely seen as an ally of the current government: Its social media coordinator until recently was Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s Donald Jr.-esque son. Its suit prompted Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs to open an investigation into Shakir, after which it determined that he was in fact a boycott activist.

In May 2018, they revoked Shakir’s work permit and gave him 14 days to leave. After protracted litigation, finalized in a Supreme Court ruling issued in November 2019, the government decided that it was lawful to deny Shakir the ability to work in Israel and force him to leave.

Just a few days after his deportation became a done deal, Shakir and I met at a cafe in north Tel Aviv. He sipped tea and reflected on being forced to leave his friends in Israel behind. The last time Shakir had been kicked out of a country, it was authoritarian Egypt in 2014, in retaliation for an HRW report on the military government’s massacre of protesters. And now he was being removed again in supposedly democratic Israel.

“Democracies don’t deport rights defenders over their peaceful expression. Democracies don’t impose a political litmus test over who can enter the country and who can’t,” he told me. “What’s happening to me is part of a larger picture. It is just the latest in a wide-ranging assault on basic democratic values. And it should ring alarm bells across the world.”

Shakir’s deportation is a case study in what Israeli experts call “shrinking the democratic space,” a process by which Israeli civil society loses its freedom to operate and contest government narratives. This shrinking is part of a broader incremental process, taking place through legal and democratically authorized means, that has undermined the very idea of self-government in Israel.

It is a process of slow state capture by the ascendant Israeli right, bending core institutions against democracy through the passage of new laws and attacks on checks and balances. Arab Israelis have been increasingly marginalized as a matter of law, while both Jewish Israelis and diaspora Jews critical of the government’s policies have had their freedoms attacked.

The boycott law, the justification for Shakir’s deportation, bars anyone who advocates any kind of boycott activity targeting Israel from entering the country. It has been used to deny entry to two American members of Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, as well as Jewish American peace activists. It theoretically could have been used to deny entry to me for this reporting trip, as I’ve written about my personal decision to boycott settlement-made goods in the not-too-distant past.

Another recent bill sought to redefine Israel’s self-understanding as a democracy. In 2018, the Netanyahu government enacted a new Basic Law defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” The constitutional amendment had little immediate practical upshot and, according to its defenders, serves foundational principles of Zionism: that Israel is a Jewish state.

Tens of thousands of members of the Israeli Druze community and their supporters rallied in central Tel Aviv against the “Jewish nation-state law,” which they say makes them second-class citizens, on August 4, 2018.
Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

But comments on the new Basic Law by Ayelet Shaked, a member of the Knesset (MK) from the pro-settlement New Right party who served as Netanyahu’s justice minister from 2015 to 2019, gave the game away. “There are places where the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish state must be maintained — and this sometimes comes at the expense of equality,” she said. It’s a naked assertion that Israel’s most fundamental legal structures ought to grant Jews special privileges.

“The [nation-state] law says very clearly that a Jewish American has a better position in the state of Israel than me,” Aida Touma-Suleiman, an Arab member of the Knesset from the Joint List, tells me. “We are not second-degree citizens. We are maybe fifth or sixth degree.”

There are many other such laws. Adalah, a group that focuses on Arab civil equality in Israel, maintains a database of more than 65 discriminatory Israeli laws dating back to the country’s 1948 founding. Of these, roughly half have been passed since Netanyahu’s current stint in office began in 2009.

One such law allows members of the Knesset to vote to expel other MKs on the basis of “incitement to racism” or support for an enemy’s “armed struggle.” The meaning of those terms will, of course, be determined by the Jewish and right-leaning parliamentary majority. The law is, as one Israeli political scientist put it, “designed to enable the Knesset to expel Arab MKs…the addition of the grounds of incitement to racism, which could easily apply to Jewish MKs who systematically incite against the Arabs, is merely a fig-leaf.”

Jewish left-wing groups have also been targeted by law. There’s the aforementioned Breaking the Silence law, which bars groups from speaking in schools if they either support prosecution of Israeli soldiers abroad or have worked with international organizations to elicit political moves against Israel.

The first provision allegedly applies to Shaul’s group, though it denies supporting such prosecutions; the latter provision seems targeted at Hagai El-Ad, the (Jewish) head of the widely known B’Tselem human rights group, who called on the United Nations to put pressure on Israel shortly before the bill’s passage.

Israeli left-wing NGO presidents (from left) Hagai El-Ad, Reut Michaeli, Yuli Novak, Tania Hary, and Jafar Farah hold a press conference addressing a law that targets left-wing human rights groups in Tel Aviv on February 5, 2016.
Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

Another new law forces nongovernmental organizations that receive more than 50 percent of their funding from foreign governments to prominently disclose that fact on their website. This is cleverly written to apply only to left-wing human rights groups; they tend to get funding from foreign governments, while their right-wing peers get significant contributions from foreign individuals. Such rules may not seem onerous, but in the context of Israeli public opinion — where many Jewish citizens feel besieged by a hostile world — it allows the government to effectively paint human rights groups as traitorous.

And the above examples are just new legislation. The current government has used existing laws to muffle dissent from Arabs and Jewish leftists — including, for example, a politically motivated police investigation of a Breaking the Silence spokesperson.

There’s also regular rhetoric from government officials delegitimizing both Arab political participation and left-wing Jewish activism; Netanyahu, for example, infamously tried to rally his backers in the 2015 national election by warning that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls — left-wing organizations are busing them out.”


But it’s not just dissidents outside the government that have been under attack. The independent institutions of state that are supposed to constrain abuses by elected officials have also been undermined — including, most importantly, the court system.

During Ayelet Shaked’s four years as justice minister, she appointed a record 334 new judges (about a third of all judges in the Israeli court system) including multiple high court justices — appointments of an overwhelmingly conservative bent.

She stripped the high court of its jurisdiction over West Bank land issues, handing it to a Jerusalem circuit more friendly to the interests of settlers. She proposed a bill that would allow the Knesset to override a court ruling by majority vote; in 2019, she bragged about having “broken” the basic structure of Israel’s legal system. These are the courts that repeatedly upheld the legality of Shakir’s deportation.

Shaked billed her judicial counterrevolution as, of all things, a defense of democracy. She has argued that the Barak-era court crammed a left-wing agenda down the throat of Israelis, and that she was restoring democratic control over the political system. Yet in actuality, she has remodeled the court system to limit oversight of illiberal legislation and eliminate constraints on West Bank settlement growth.

Ayelet Shaked (center), New Right party member and former Justice Minister, takes selfies during an election campaign tour in Jerusalem on August 31, 2019.
Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz poses for a selfie with supporters during an election campaign event for Israeli-Russian supporters of the party in Tel Aviv, Israel, on February 20, 2020.

The allegation of authoritarianism has been so often leveled against Shaked by Israeli observers that she once released a campaign ad attempting to rebut them — a deeply strange commercial in which she puts on a perfume labeled “fascism” and says, “Smells like democracy to me.”

When you talk to Israeli and Palestinian human rights advocates, they strongly caution against idealizing Israel’s courts. They point out that while the legal system has an important bulwark in safeguarding rights inside Israel proper, it has done relatively little to check Israeli behavior in the Palestinian territories.

Yet despite the legal system’s failings, they agree that the Shaked-Netanyahu campaign to rein in judicial review is dangerous. The court’s limited rulings against the occupation, as well as its more ambitious decisions protecting rights west of the Green Line (the demarcation between Israel’s internationally recognized borders and the West Bank), make it one of the few institutions in Israel today helping to hold the democratic line.

“Here I am, a human rights lawyer, needing to defend the Supreme Court even though we lose there often,” says Sharon Abraham-Weiss, the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the country’s equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s erosion of the checks and balances, erosion of the separation powers, [and] the administrative branch taking over.”

And there’s another entity that’s helped the Israeli right engineer an anti-democratic revolution: a vibrant civil society sector pushing a right-wing agenda. Organizations like Shurat HaDin — the group that first raised concerns about Shakir to the Israeli authorities — or NGO Monitor, which compiles dossiers of dirt on left-wing organizations and lobbies to cut off their sources of funding, have been key players in the attacks on Israeli democracy.

Amal Jamal, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University, calls groups like these two “bad civil society.” These relatively new organizations — the big ones were founded in the 2000s — use the tools of a free society, like court filings and free speech, to attack and shut down people and groups that disagree with them. “These [NGOs] view differences in perceptions of society and the state as being sufficient justification for silencing or delegitimizing others,” as Jamal puts it.

Such “bad civil society” groups are well-funded allies of the right-wing parties in power; they sometimes even share personnel. One prominent far-right MK, Bezalel Smotrich, is a co-founder of the pro-settlement group Regavim. They perform tasks that official members of government can’t or won’t, helping to hollow out Israeli civil society while claiming to be part of it.


This machinery of undemocracy can only operate in a world where the prime minister himself is okay with anti-democratic drift. And Netanyahu is more than okay with it: He has done perhaps more than any other individual to contribute to Israel’s democratic decline.

Netanyahu had served as prime minister once before, from 1996 to 1999. His defeat after his first term convinced him that he needed to make Israeli society more pliant to his interests — specifically, that he needed to bend the press to his will. “I need my own media,” as he put it at the time. His comments almost directly parallel a set from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who lost power in a free election and subsequently concluded that democracy was the problem. He then systematically dismantled Hungary’s free institutions after he was once again elected to the top job.

In 2007, right-wing American billionaire Sheldon Adelson began putting out a daily free newspaper called Israel Hayom (Israel Today) that served up fawning pro-Netanyahu coverage. Research shows the paper’s rise in circulation has helped Netanyahu hold power since winning the country’s 2009 election, but it apparently didn’t provide enough influence over the media landscape for his tastes.

During his most recent time in office, he allegedly attempted to trade political and regulatory favors for favorable coverage in two other outlets, the leading daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth (Latest News) and the popular news website Walla. He seems to have succeeded with Walla, allegedly reaching a secret deal to approve a merger that its parent company wanted in exchange for favorable coverage.

From a democratic point of view, the idea of the head of government attempting to suborn the independent media by handing out favors is obviously troubling. Indeed, Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, a conservative appointed by Shaked, found Netanyahu’s behavior troubling enough to indict the prime minister last year, including on bribery charges that could carry serious prison time.

President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive for an announcement of Trump’s Middle East peace plan at the White House on January 28, 2020.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Netanyahu’s response has been right out of an authoritarian playbook. He’s denied all the charges and claimed there’s a conspiracy among the liberal elite to get him (one Israeli I met jokingly called them the “deep shtetl,” a play on Trump’s “deep state” conspiracy theories). Most worryingly, he has demanded that the Knesset grant him immunity from prosecution while in office — making it his central demand for coalition partners after Israel’s most recent election in September.

Netanyahu’s efforts against the free media and prosecuting authorities are similar to the attacks on the court; they both represent efforts to remove constraints on the government’s power. But they differ in motivation. The goal of Netanyahu’s recent behavior is not primarily ideological; it’s simple power-seeking. He wants to stay in office and avoid prison and seems willing to suborn the media and undermine the independence of Israel’s law enforcement agencies to do it.

The intersection of these two axes of authoritarianism — ideology and self-interest — is quite dangerous. Netanyahu is a conservative leading a right-wing party, and he needs the help of even further-right parties to stay in office and pass an immunity bill. The most hardline right-wingers, in turn, need Netanyahu and his devoted base of supporters to implement their pro-settlement, anti-democratic agenda.

Partisanship, ideology, and personal ambition are all inclined to unite Israel’s broader political right behind a comprehensively anti-democratic politics: restricting minority rights, demolishing institutional checks on the prime minister’s power, and muzzling critical voices in the media and civil society. If Israel continues down its path, its elections will cease to be meaningful choices — the playing field will be so unlevel that Arab parties and the center-left will never really have a fair chance.

The twinned fates of Israeli and American democracy

This litany of anti-democratic abuses should feel distressingly familiar to American readers.

It’s easy to overdo the comparisons between the United States and Israel. The Israeli occupation’s nature, using military force and a separate-and-unequal legal regime to suppress the rights of Palestinians, puts pressures on Israeli democracy that no other society at a similar level of development faces. Trying to extrapolate too many direct lessons from Israel’s democratic crisis to the problems facing other democracies is a mistake.

But the points of resemblance between Israel and America are worrying. Both countries have political histories that are, at their core, defined by ethnic struggle and stratification: the most significant American political realignments all center on conflict over slavery and its legacy of anti-black racism. Both countries are dealing with an ascendant strain of right-wing populism that aims to roll back progress toward a more egalitarian society.

Likud party election banners featuring Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with President Trump seen in Tel Aviv. The caption above reads in Hebrew: “Netanyahu, in another league.”
Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

Both countries’ conservative elites take a worryingly cavalier approach to democracy, prizing certain core political objectives — tax cuts and judges in the United States, the occupation in Israel — and showing a willingness to run roughshod over the democratic institutions they claim to value in order to get what they want. That includes protecting leaders, Trump and Netanyahu, who have proven themselves willing to corruptly recruit core state institutions in service of their own interests.

In this sense, Israel’s more advanced state of democratic decay should be a warning to Americans. Neither country has suffered democratic collapse, but Israel is demonstrating more severe symptoms of a foundational anti-democratic rot both have contracted.

Looking forward — to the elections next week in Israel and the November elections in the United States — it’s hard to see a cure on the horizon. Neither Israel’s Blue and White party nor the Democratic Party in the US has a plausible plan for curing the deeper causes of its country’s drift. The problems began before Netanyahu and Trump came on the scene, and they won’t disappear if they’re voted out. But they will almost certainly get worse if both men retain power.

There’s another dynamic here too: If both Trump and Netanyahu triumph, the decline of one’s democracy will exacerbate the other’s.

For all its military and economic might, Israel is a relatively small country. The Israeli center left has long argued against staying in the West Bank on the grounds that the rest of the world will not tolerate indefinite occupation. But in a world where right-wing revanchism is on the rise globally, the calculus changes.

The new international right does not care about universal human rights; it sees Muslim immigration as a civilizational threat to their society, and Israel as being on the front lines of the West’s struggle with Islam. Politicians like Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán don’t find the Israeli right objectionable; they see it as a kind of kindred spirit in Islamophobic populist nationalism.

“Geopolitics have opened possibilities for Israel to get away with undemocratic behavior and exclusionary behavior that would have been unthinkable, I think, a generation ago,” says Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist and the co-author of How Democracies Die.

President Trump welcomes Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House on January 27, 2020.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The most important such leader is, of course, Donald Trump. As Israel’s most important ally, the United States has the capability to push Israel to moderate its behavior — or to give it freedom to indulge its worst instincts. The Trump administration has chosen the latter option, as seen by its release of a “peace plan” that gives Netanyahu nearly everything he wants.

The result has been a deepening of the occupation, a right that feels free to pursue its maximalist ambitions for remaking Israel, and a prime minister unconcerned about taking a wrecking ball to Israeli democratic institutions in pursuit of his own political survival.

Perhaps that’s what Israel’s decline should help Americans understand: that the consequences of its democratic backsliding are not limited to the home front.


Toward the end of our very long dinner, focused on Israel’s democratic decline, Yehuda Shaul sounded a rare optimistic note.

“After all of what I said, I really believe that there are fundamental liberal foundations in our society,” he told me.

It was a poignant declaration. After all Shaul has been through — the persecution and the attacks — he still has faith in Israel. He still believes that Aharon Barak was right, that there could really be a state that’s both Jewish and democratic. Maybe Murad Shteiwi can get the road to Nablus reopened; maybe Omar Shakir will be allowed to work in Israel again.

Maybe. But with Israeli liberal Zionists at their weakest point in the state’s history, and even the opposition to Netanyahu voicing support for annexing part of the West Bank, it’s hard to see a pathway from here to Shaul’s better future.

Palestinian cars and an armored Israeli military vehicle drive past an election billboard for Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party, near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Karnei Shomron, on February 21, 2020.

In Jerusalem, I visited the headquarters of B’Tselem, the leading Israeli group documenting human rights abuses in the West Bank. It was perhaps the most fortified human rights office I’ve seen in a democratic country, requiring you to pass three layers of security to get inside.

This extensive security seems necessary given the way they’re targeted by the government and its allies: In 2018, a Likud MK named Oren Hazan put a photo of B’Tselem’s executive director, Hagai El-Ad, on a poster that said “Wanted: Dead or Alive.”

When I sat down with El-Ad, he described Israel as a country thoroughly and foundationally corrupted by the occupation — Shaul’s “liberal foundations” so rotted that it was hard to see how Israelis could dig out of it on their own.

“You can talk as much as you want, when you’re trying to educate kids, of equality before the law as a basic principle,” he told me. “In reality, there’s no equality … but for most people here, that’s totally invisible and totally normalized. Because that’s the only reality that they know.”


David Vaaknin is an Israeli independent photojournalist based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.