The struggle for democracy brings Israel to the brink of the abyss

The hundreds of thousands of Israeli demonstrators who, week after week, have come out to defend the values of democracy in the face of Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government's offensive have to be seen to be unveiled. At a time when a general disorientation is evident, caused in large part by the collapse of these values, we must recognise and take heart from the fact that at least one redoubt of citizens in one corner of the world are resisting tooth-and-nail to be turned away.  

Since its creation, one of Israel's main marks of pride has been that it has been a democratic state, all the more difficult because since its inception it has had to withstand a sustained attack on its existence. This has forged a national character of resistance, effort and sacrifice, all characteristics that are also found in other peoples under similar threats. But, in my view, what makes Israel special is that the vast majority of its people, despite their origins and diversity of thought, are firmly attached to the fundamental values of democracy, namely freedom in all its facets and the separation of powers.  

Netanyahu, urged on by the religious and most ultra-conservative sector of his government, is determined to "rebalance" these powers, stripping the judiciary, and in particular the Supreme Court, of the main prerogatives to control the executive and the legislature. An endeavour in which personal interests were also apparent, as the Prime Minister is still involved in several court cases. Tailor-made laws to prevent his automatic dismissal, as well as establishing the Knesset as a higher power than the Supreme Court, have ignited the fuse of popular protest. A rejection in which, in addition to a crowd of committed intellectuals, executives of Israel's leading technology companies, practically all the trade unions and dozens of mayors have joined in, threatening an indefinite hunger strike.  

It is therefore unusual nowadays to see such a widespread protest among a people with the very high level of general and specialised education of Israelis, and who are so aware of their civic duties, among which is precisely to ensure that the democratic system in which they live and work does not turn into an authoritarian one that is closer to autocracy. None of those who have protested can be accused of being traitors or of endangering the country's security, a tic that totalitarians often resort to when faced with those who refuse to accept impositions by force. The dismissed defence minister, Yoav Gallant, who had called for a pause in the justice reform process, said goodbye with a resounding reaffirmation that he would continue to serve as a citizen in "the mission of my life, which is none other than the security of Israel". The minister knew first-hand that this deep-seated democratic conscience is embedded in his armed forces, and most especially in his fighter pilots, the true spearhead of the country's security.  

Netanyahu, who had also ignored the conciliatory plan put on the table by the head of state, President Isaac Herzog, has finally compromised with a three-month postponement of this reform, supposedly agreeing to negotiate such drastic reform with the opposition. However, the public is not buying that this truce means an abandonment of his ultimate intention to curtail the powers of the judiciary. So much so that the main winner of this truce is the Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben Gvir, who had demanded that the prime minister push through reform at all costs, only to concede in exchange for a major spoil: the creation of a National Guard, under the authority of his ministry.  With such a concession, it seems increasingly clear that Ben Gvir is fast becoming Israel's real strongman.  

Netanyahu, whose qualities as a political animal are undisputed, has thus been dragged by the most extreme wing of his coalition to embark on a path that will lead to a change in the country's political and coexistence model. It is more Ben Gvir's model than his own, but as prime minister he seems to have fully embraced it, in exchange for having removed the sword of Damocles of his hypothetical imprisonment, should he be tried and convicted, and without a law that would allow him to avoid such an unpleasant situation. 

The most positive thing in any case is that, far from being riots or violent actions as nihilistic as those in France over pension reform, the Israeli protest demonstrations are a real wake-up call to all Western democratic societies, numbed by the feeling that democracy, "the worst system of coexistence to the exclusion of all others" (Winston Churchill), is indestructible. Some, fortunately, have realised that it must be defended every day, on pain of finding ourselves one morning living in a dictatorship we thought unexpected.