Is Israel democratic? The new talking point for Netanyahu abroad

Op-eds / Israel and Europe

Those who have closely monitored Israel-France relations over the years often conclude that understanding them requires psychological rather than political science expertise. The relationship is rich and varied, sometimes emotional and stormy, occasionally reflecting mutual anger and a sense of insult but also rising to moments of transcendence.

A psychological evaluation may be required these days specifically to explain why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose France as the destination of his first foreign travel since taking office in late December. In the midst of an intensifying domestic storm over the country’s essential nature and democratic values, borne on the fumes of an intoxicated coalition that reduces the concept of democracy to the tyranny of the elected majority, Netanyahu chose to travel to Paris, with inexplicable urgency.

France is the birthplace of human rights and prides itself – not always justifiably so – as a role model and custodian of democratic values in the most expansive sense of the term, including minority rights, separation of powers, separation of church and state, freedom of expression and creativity, and other liberal values considered an unnecessary evil by Netanyahu and his partners.

Before entering the courtyard of the Elysee Palace where rows of sword-bearing Republican Guard soldiers were lined up to honor him, Netanyahu’s office sought to ensure that his host would not embarrass him on this painful issue of the regime reform taking place under his watchful eye. President Emmanuel Macron was circumspect in his public statements and his spokesperson made do with a boilerplate statement about the need to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and the importance of maintaining regional stability.

But Netanyahu paid a price. Contrary to accepted practice, the sides did not issue a joint statement at the end of the visit, nor did they hold a joint news conference. Macron may be willing to preserve the dignity of his guests, but he is not willing to lie for them in public.

Inside the room, around the dinner table, as leaked to the newspaper Le Monde, Macron was quite clear in suggesting that if the legal reform passes as is, Paris will have to conclude that Israel is moving away from the concept of democracy shared until now by both countries.

With the leak of Macron’s position clouding the smiling photographs, Netanyahu’s people were quick to explain in a somewhat dismissive tone that Macron was “not well versed in the details of the reform.” French presidents have at their disposal a kind of private in-house foreign ministry called “la cellule diplomatique,” comprising skilled diplomats carefully selected according to their geographic specialization.

France also has a large and highly professional embassy in Tel Aviv, which presumably knew how to prepare the president for the meeting with Netanyahu, including on the subject of the legal reform. On the other hand, one cannot rule out the possibility that if Macron had known even more details of the planned upheaval, his reaction would have been harsher.

Perhaps a psychologist can determine whether Netanyahu’s appearance alongside the president of France in hopes of obtaining a seal of approval in the cradle of human rights was the result of a sober calculation or of his subconscious playing tricks on him.

A similar question can be asked about the slightly pathetic attempt to arrange a meeting for him with representatives of the business community of the world’s seventh largest economy, in a transparent attempt to contradict the forecasts of JPMorgan and the best Israeli economists regarding the danger to our economy due from the legal reform.

Even if the business leadership in France wanted to stand up and declare loyalty to the start-up nation, the hasty and amateurish way in which this meeting was organized made it a hopeless attempt. According to participants, no more than 10 mid-level businessmen were present in the room, while the rest were representatives of the French Jewish small-business world.

In other words, this attempt to gain legitimacy also backfired, forcing the Prime Minister’s Office to conceal the list of those present and settle instead for throwing about baseless numbers about the foreign investment of billions pouring into Israel.

The nature of Israel’s regime will be a new permanent talking point

Be that as it may, not only did Netanyahu come out empty-handed, but after United States Secretary of State Blinken’s visit and the puzzling trip to France, it is already quite clear that the usual agenda items for discussion between the prime minister and his counterparts, the heads of liberal democratic countries, will now include a new, permanent and particularly burdensome topic: the nature of Israel’s regime.

Macron’s efforts to promote the establishment of a “European Political Community” to examine the EU’s partnership with its neighbors, based inter alia on their commitment to liberal-democratic values is a good example, albeit sometimes inconsistent, of this new parameter. Israel, it must be said, has always been under the watchful eye of the world, one might even say disproportionately so.

But members of the club of world democracies focused on controversial Israeli actions, never on its essence. The community of liberal-democratic countries is even more watchful and critical given the global polarization between liberals and anti-liberals exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

My former colleagues, Israel’s ambassadors around the world throughout the ages understood that membership in the club of liberal democracies is a valuable asset, not only in terms of Israel’s image, but also of its strategic interests. It is a small club, with only 30+ countries of almost 200 members of the UN but its economic, political and military clout is enormous.

EVEN IN the eyes of many non-members, the club holds the status of a moral compass and serves as a role model. Israel has managed to shelter in the shadow of this exclusive club thanks to its birth as a democracy as anchored in its Declaration of Independence and its preservation of these features despite wars, occupation, terrorism and more. Israel is certainly not a typical member of this club, but the others have accepted it nonetheless.

However, if real damage is caused to the foundations of Israeli democracy and Israel adopts the Hungarian model of democracy according to Orbán, there will likely be a price to pay. Hungary and Poland have been relegated to the sidelines of the club precisely because of the same type of reforms planned in Israel and it is experiencing heavy pressure from other EU members.

If it were not for the EU’s cumbersome structure and the need for consensus on almost every decision, Hungary would have already found itself under heavy sanctions or even suspension of its membership.

Israel is not a member of the EU but it enjoys many of its perks. It would be wise to avoid being sanguine about its prospects. In many ways, we are much more vulnerable than Hungary and Poland because we are a small country in a state of ongoing conflict and in dire need of strategic partners, a diplomatic umbrella and economic partners. This umbrella is provided in large part by the democratic camp.

In his previous term, Netanyahu often preferred the company of illiberal populist leaders who did not make demands and confuse him with talk about human rights and the two-state solution. However, Vladimir Putin is no longer someone to be seen within decent society, Jair Bolsonaro has fled to Florida after losing the election, and the future of another Florida resident, Donald Trump, is shrouded in a thicker fog than before.

Yariv Levin and Simcha Rothman need to understand that the legal reform they are concocting will have implications far beyond the status of the High Court of Justice or the political future of Arye Deri. At stake is Israel’s place in the community of nations and it would behoove those who espouse the biblical promise about “a people that shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations” to be careful about what they wish for. The line between membership in the most prestigious club of nations and the status of a pariah among them is much thinner than one thinks.

The prime minister himself needs to understand that the carte blanche he has given them will make Israel’s international integration much more difficult than it has been in the past and that dinner with Macron was just a non-appetizing first course.

This article is from “JPost“, from February 16, 2023.

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