The Elusive Silver Bullet of Democracy

By Ari Heistein

Ari Heistein served as chief of staff and a research fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Following that, he worked in business development for a cyber intelligence company. Today, he works to bring innovative Israeli startups into the U.S. federal market.

OPINION — According to a White House statement last March, “President Biden has called the struggle to bolster democratic governance at home and abroad the defining challenge of our time.” This has long been a foreign policy objective of Democratic and Republican administrations alike, who view democratic values as an essential ingredient of American foreign policy. But all U.S. Presidents have faced a similar challenge: there is no silver bullet for effectively promoting democracy abroad.

As if on cue, the Government of Israel attempted a “smash-and-grab.” In an abstract sense, this meant that the right-wing coalition pushed to rewrite the country’s social contract as much and as quickly, as possible with only a simple majority in parliament (Knesset).

In a literal sense, this also included redistributing wealth from the taxpayers to the ultra-orthodox, many of whom receive stipends from the state for their religious studies. But what has sent the country into a downward spiral is the effort to weaken the checks and balances of the judicial branch on the other branches of government.  This is believed to be an effort to pave the way for policies and political appointments that would have previously been disallowed by the courts.

After receiving massive pushback domestically and abroad, the Netanyahu-led government unilaterally passed only a single component, the “reasonableness limitation bill,” of the larger planned overhaul. Israel’s parliament is now headed to a summer recess for several months, and there are two critical questions on the table: What will be the impact of the bill that has already passed? And what legislation will the coalition try to pass when it returns? As for the former, Netanyahu acknowledged in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that this narrowly passed bill could send Israel’s government into a loop where the legislative branch’s effort to limit the power of the judiciary is then struck down by the judiciary – and what happens afterwards in anybody’s guess. Regarding the latter, the coalition is now speaking out of both sides of its mouth, as some are taunting Israel’s anti-reform protestors that this was just the “appetizer,” while others are making promises (presumably coordinated with but not publicly endorsed by Netanyahu) that these unilateral steps will not be repeated.

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The right-wing coalition is not alone in its belief that judicial reforms are necessary– some member of the opposition agree– but the combination of the modus operandi for designing and implementing these reforms as well as the character of the elected officials leading the charge has elicited a major backlash. Given the far-reaching nature of these changes, that the coalition is pushing them through a vote with a simple majority is viewed by most Israelis as illegitimate. In addition, the fact that the Prime Minister and many of his coalition partners have been indicted or convicted of a variety of different crimes makes the government’s preoccupation with overhauling the judicial system is particularly concerning.

Over the past several months, the judicial reform has become a wedge issue, dividing the Israeli public against itself. Thousands of reserve soldiers from Special Forces Units, the Special Operations Division, the Air Force, and Military Intelligence have declared they will no longer serve if the reform goes forward; after the “reasonableness limitation bill” passed early last week, many have already given notice to their commanders. Protests and “days of disruption” against the reform have paralyzed the country on a weekly basis in recent months. Repairing the damage to Israel’s social fabric, economy, and national security, if it is possible to do so, will take far longer than the six months that the current government took to cause it.

From Washington’s perspective, the crisis in Israel presents a serious challenge. It could be a thankless task for the U.S. to interfere in the internal affairs of its democratic ally.  The White House’s best efforts to bring about an end to the judicial blitz might cause more unnecessary friction in an already-strained relationship without achieving the desired outcome. That is precisely what happened in U.S.-Egypt ties when the Obama Administration pressured the Sisi regime on human rights by withholding foreign assistance – Obama ultimately unfroze the aid without seeing much improvement because it was deemed to be in the interest of national security to do so.  

Indeed, previous U.S. efforts to promote democracy in the region have failed for a variety of reasons. In some instances, like Iraq, the U.S. supported the overthrow of an authoritarian leader only to discover that the lack of a pre-existing democratic society made it impossible to establish a functional democracy however much blood and treasure was expended for “nation building.” In other instances, where countries had a stronger culture and history of democracy, exerting pressure after the fact often failed to reverse the entrenched autocrat who came to power as a result of the country’s democratic backsliding.

Israel does not require nation building or dislodging an entrenched authoritarian, but halting a downward spiral that seems doomed to end in either a backslide of democracy or worse. In fact, despite its current challenges,  Israel has a lot working in favor of the resilience of its democracy: a long democratic tradition, a very energetic public debate, a large middle class, and GDP per capita comparable to many European states.

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Biden offered Israel’s Prime Minister off-ramp from this crisis by warning Netanyahu to slow roll the legislation and saying he’d like to meet. After the call, the Prime Minister could have notified his coalition partners that he is unwilling to imperil Israel’s relationship with the U.S. and that the legislation will have to wait until he speaks with Biden in-person – at the risk that his far-right coalition would collapse. Instead, Netanyahu rushed to publish a readout of the conversation which Biden felt was so distorted that he took the unusual step of briefing an NYTimes columnist to set the record straight.

There are no textbook solutions for this uncharted territory in the U.S.-Israel relationship.  When Washington sees Israel heading in a dark direction, it should remain engaged with Jerusalem and encourage it to slow down and hold the necessary dialogues in a manner that does not risk irreversibly tearing the national fabric. Biden should continue to emphasize that his gripes are with the leadership that has taken the country to the brink of catastrophe, and that he is speaking in the interest of U.S. national security – not the desire to interfere in the internal affairs of an allied democracy.  If nothing else, Netanyahu’s rushed and distorted readout of his call with Biden and his PR blitz for U.S.-based media indicates his sensitivity regarding his standing in the U.S. (or at least how it is perceived in Israel).

While Washington sitting on the sidelines as Israel’s political and security establishments crack may result in a difficult period for Israel, it could also have significant negative second-order effects for U.S. interests in the region. Bolstering democracy abroad has proved an elusive goal for many administrations, but preventing backsliding in Israel may prove a more manageable and beneficial task as it avoids the previously identified points of failure in the democracy promotion agenda.

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