You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 66: Netanyahu and Democracy in Israel

Netanyahu and Democracy in Israel

In this episode, Guy Ziv, School of International Service professor and associate director of American University’s Meltzer Schwartzberg Center for Israel Studies, joins Big World to discuss democracy in Israel, the political longevity of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and current protests over Netanyahu’s attempts to limit the power of Israel’s highest court.

Ziv, who teaches courses on US foreign policy, international negotiations, US-Israel relations, and Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, begins our discussion by explaining how Netanyahu is a “political magician” (2:02). Ziv also analyzes the parallels between Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial and the indictments against former US President Donald Trump (6:03) and discusses the results of Israel’s November 2022 election, in which Netanyahu led a far-right coalition to win the majority of the 120 seats in Israel’s legislature, the Knesset (11:44).

Why was the judicial overhaul plan passed by the Knesset in July so significant (14:19)? How are less conservative segments of the Jewish population in Israel responding to Netanyahu’s efforts to weaken Israel’s judiciary (19:18)? Ziv answers these questions and discusses recent tensions in Israel’s military caused by the judicial overhaul plan (25:22). To close out the discussion, Ziv gives our listeners a preview of his upcoming book titled Netanyahu vs the Generals: The Battle for Israel’s Future (28:41).

In the “Take 5” segment (22:17) of this episode, Ziv answers the question: What are five policy recommendations for the Biden administration in terms of its response to the Netanyahu government’s controversial actions?

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. The modern state of Israel dates back to just 1948, but the nation has long been regarded as the only functional democracy in the Middle East. Democracy, however, isn't a fixed state. It must be maintained by its people. When that doesn't happen and the democratic qualities of a political regime decline, observers call it democratic backsliding. The list of democratic nations thought to be backsliding is long, and, it must be noted, includes the United States. Israel though has always faced unique challenges to its democracy, including its hostile security environment or the so-called tough neighborhood of the Middle East and inhabits, the intrinsic role of religion to its politics and its ongoing struggles to balance the rights of the nation's sizable Palestinian minority.

1:02      KS: But blames for recent claims that Israel is a democratic backslider are typically laid at the feet of one man, Benjamin Netanyahu. At this point, at least to outsiders, his political identity seems almost inseparable from the nation he leads. So today we're talking about Israel, Israel's Prime Minister and Israel's democracy. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Guy Ziv. Guy is a professor in the School of International Service and the associate Director of American University's Meltzer Schwartzberg Center for Israel Studies. He teaches US foreign policy, US-Israel relations and Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. And he writes and researches foreign policy decision-making, civil military relations in Israel, and the role of leaders personalities in foreign policy change. Guy has also worked in policy at the US Department of State and on Capitol Hill. Guy, thanks for joining Big World.

2:00      Guy Ziv: My pleasure. Happy to be back.

2:02      KS: Yes. Guy, the last time you were on the podcast, we spent a lot of time talking about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's upbringing and his political career through the early days. Listeners, the episode is titled The Netanyahu Effect, and if you haven't listened to it, it's a great starting point to better understand Netanyahu's career. Guy, despite earlier signs that Netanyahu's career might have been in trouble, he was reelected again in November of 2022. What do you think explains Netanyahu's incredible political longevity?

2:35      GZ: Well, I may have said this on the previous podcast, I don't recall, but Netanyahu is a political magician. This is something that's been said about him for decades, and I think it's true. He's a consummate politician with a killer instinct. He wants this job more than anyone else in Israel. He's always in campaign mode. In his campaigns, there are no red lines, so any and all means are acceptable. Even the first time he ran for Prime Minister in 96, he was challenging the incumbent Shimon Peres. And he came up with a slogan, "Peres will divide Jerusalem," which had no bearing in reality. And then in 2015, he came up with a different, it wasn't actually a slogan, it was a robocall to his supporters where he announced that the Arabs are voting in droves, come to the polls, which also was not the case. And President Obama called him out on the racist implications of that line at the time.

3:44      GZ: So he's always in campaign mode. And he more recently brought into the Knesset and into his cabinet extremists like Itamar Ben-Gvir, who otherwise would've been left on the margins of Israeli society. But he felt that he needed to bring all of these elements in order to have a shot at forming a coalition, which of course we know he was able to do. He also has long had an obsessive focus on the media. He has this ability to manipulate the media as no one else can do. And in fact, that's one of the sources of his corruption scandals is precisely that. It involves the media. It involves allegedly bribing, blackmailing, and manipulating various media outlets for favorable coverage. And he has managed to create a solid religious right block. This alliance that despite periodic tensions and various threats, has meant that his Likud party can pretty much automatically count on the ultra-Orthodox parties as coalition partners, as well as the other religious parties.

5:08      GZ: But aside from Netanyahu the politician, he also has some significant structural advantages working for him. So most Israelis identify as right wing, and this has been the case ever since the Second Intifada over two decades ago. He is dealing with a situation in which the Arab dominated parties have long refused to join any Israeli government. And so that further narrows the options, the coalition prospects for any of his central left opponents. And also, we know that right-wing and religious voters do tend to vote in higher numbers than their secular and liberal counterparts. So these are built-in advantages, structural advantages that he has for him.

6:03      KS: There definitely seem to be some similarities between the far right religious voters in Israel and those in the US. And something else that perhaps one of our figures has in common with Benjamin Netanyahu. Let's talk about indictments. In Israel, Netanyahu is currently facing a litany of charges including fraud, bribery, and breach of trust charges. He's denied these allegations. His trial began in 2020 and it remains ongoing, and he was reelected regardless of that.

6:34      KS: In the US, former US President, Donald Trump, has been indicted on four different occasions with charges ranging from falsifying business records to illegally retaining and storing classified documents and including charges of conspiring to defraud the US by overturning the results of the 2020 election and his various trials may start next spring. In Trump's case, these various indictments against him seem to spur his base of supporters to more ardently support and fund him. And so far, his support among GOP voters seems unaffected. And obviously, Netanyahu was reelected in the midst of his own legal troubles. So I'm wondering if you can give us some context for how Netanyahu's situation is similar or different from Trump's, both in terms of the substance of the charges, but also how the charges and trials have impacted Israel's democracy and how the Israeli public has reacted to these charges. Do they care?

7:39      GZ: Well, I think the parallels here are striking, and of course the substance of the charges are somewhat different. But what we're seeing in both cases is a cult of personality. Both men have a hold on their respective political parties. They are both strongly attuned to their political base. They continuously engage in populace, then divisive rhetoric. And they've effectively used their criminal investigations and indictments to rally support, and they seek to portray themselves as victims of the deep state. And neither men, as we've seen, has hesitated to undermine democracy and the rule of law as they see fit. And so as with Trump in the US, none of this has really impacted support for Netanyahu from his ardent backers, at least as far as ardent backers are concerned. And I think the same goes with Trump in the US. So despite developments of the investigations and the ongoing trial, in Netanyahu's case, most Israelis have by now made up their minds about Netanyahu. And there's really little that can be revealed at this point about Netanyahu's alleged corruption that's going to sway either his supporters or detractors.

9:05      KS: That's kind of interesting, that sort of locked in opinion that people have and it seems to be something that happens when you have leaders who have been around this long or when you have personalities who have been around this long in the public consciousness, it's almost as though nothing that they might be accused of could affect anybody's opinion of them. It's kind of, I don't know, but that feels like a pretty late breaking type of opinion. We can picture a time 40, 50 years ago when charges, like the charges that have been laid against either of these leaders would've been career ending.

9:50      KS: Do you have any thoughts on the similarities, whether it's in the media landscape, as you mentioned, Netanyahu's who's really good at demonizing the media as Trump is? What is it that has changed in Israel at least to allow people who say they are voting on the basis of religion and morality to so ardently support someone who's accused of serious crimes?

10:15      GZ: A lot of this is kind of a cultural battle and again, we see similar patterns here in the States with a very polarized voting population and in Israel, that's been the case for a while. Netanyahu actually thrives in terms of using divisive political tactics to rally his supporters and we've seen, of course, Trump do the same here in the US. So I think that that's really what solidifies their supporters. It's not the majority, but it is a substantial, sizable minority that is loyal to their leader. Now, in the case of Netanyahu, that's changed in the last year. I think that all the polls I've seen at least show that he would have practically impossible time forming a coalition, but these changes result not from the corruption investigations, nothing to do with the trial, nothing to do with the allegations against them and everything to do with the ongoing split in society over the judicial overhaul plans that he has been pushing. That's really kind of changed the minds among more independent voters and even among close to a third of the Likud party voters and that's his party, of course.

11:44      KS: Okay. Yeah. I want to get to that judicial overhaul really quickly. Guy, despite Netanyahu's legal woes, as we said in November, last November, 2022, he did lead a far right coalition to win the majority of the 120 seats in Israel's legislature, The Knesset. So you mentioned that there are lots of parts of his campaigning that have to do with being against things, being against the deep state, being somebody who's against the media, being anti-this and that, this far right coalition that his Likud party has put together. What is it about the coalition's platform or stance on policy issues that is attractive to Israeli voters? Is it being against things or are there things that they are for?

12:35      GZ: His victory last November I think was less about his policy stances, less about Likud's positions and more about the electorate just having grown tired of the political instability that's paralyzed Israeli politics and society for years now. I mean, this was the fifth election in three and a half years, in less than four years and so they witnessed the caretaker government that was led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lipid, and it lasted longer than I think most pundits thought it would last, but still it was unstable from day one because it was such a diverse coalition with disparate voices, but only had a razor thin majority. So it was only a question of time before it would collapse.

13:25      GZ: Also, when you look at the last election, we see that more voters from the periphery voted and that favors Netanyahu and their religious right block. You had a higher turnout in the last election than in the other four rounds and another difference was the failure of the small left-wing parties to unite, despite all the advice they were given, they decided to kind of run separately. This was a decision made by the Labor Party leader and so that split the votes and left one of the left-wing parties, the Meretz party out of the Knesset for the first time and so that also played to the right's favor. I mean, had Meretz made it into the Knesset and they were very close, it would've been the same kind of stalemate that we had seen in the previous four rounds.

14:19      KS: He did get that majority and this past July, the Knesset, as you mentioned, passed a judicial overhaul plan that abolished the reasonableness doctrine, which the Israeli Supreme Court used to evaluate government policies and Guy, I know that the Israeli government is set up differently than the US government. We have the three branches and the Supreme Court has a very specific role. It's different in Israel. So if you could just give us a little explanation of the role of the Supreme Court in evaluating government policies to begin with, why this overhaul is so significant and why the legislature was pushing for this?

14:56      GZ: Yeah. So this is really the issue, the issue that's tearing Israeli society apart, and this is the issue about which the president of Israel is worried could even lead to a civil war. So proponents of the judicial overhaul, so Netanyahu and his coalition partners essentially, they believe that the high court of justice, which is Israel Supreme Court, has disproportionate power in Israel, that it is stronger than the US Supreme Court, stronger than other supreme courts elsewhere, and they tend to espouse a majoritarian view of democracy, we were elected by the people and therefore we've been given a mandate to do as we see fit. And they view unelected institutions, such as the courts—but that can extend also to media outlets and NGOs, for example—

15:55      GZ: They view that as these unelected institutions as less legitimate and so they subscribe to a much more illiberal form of democracy that disregards proper checks and balances that disregards the importance of safeguarding minority rights, and so that's where opponents of the judicial overhaul come in because they see the Supreme Court as a pillar of Israeli democracy and the only real check on the elected officials. There is no constitution in Israel, there is a unicameral legislature. So it's a very different system without the sorts of checks and balances that we have in the US and so the Supreme Court is the major check on the government and the Knesset.

16:45      GZ: And so opponents of the judicial reforms see these judicial reforms as nothing short of a judicial coup, and they're concerned about minorities such as the Palestinians and the LGBTQ community and other minorities that need the Supreme Court to back them up in many cases. There have been cases, for example, where the Supreme Court struck down laws that legalized settler homes built on privately owned Palestinian land. That's something that the government is clearly interested in preventing, which is why they want to weaken the court. So demonstrators have been out there 37 consecutive weeks where we've seen as many as 200,000 protestors out on the streets week after week, defending the court and trying to prevent Israel from becoming another illiberal democracy like Poland and Hungary or worse.

17:48      KS: And those demonstrations, it also seems like something from a previous lifetime where demonstrations of that magnitude and a democracy would've had some effect on the leaders,

18:00      KS: That they would've at least thought about it, whether or not, "Oh, so many people really, really think that we are trying to destroy democracy. Maybe we should take a step." But that's not happening, is it? How is the government responding to those protests over time, over 37 weeks?

18:19      GZ: Well, Netanyahu the other day said that, I think he might've said this to Elon Musk, but he said this in the last 24 hours, that the initial reforms, the initial plan was a mistake or was poorly done. But he backed that initial plan himself. I think now he realizes that he really needs to halt, or at least attenuate the way in which they've been doing this. But his key coalition partners and ministers are absolutely intent on going through with these reforms. So I'm not sure if he's going to be able to withstand the pressure from within the coalition itself. He doesn't have an alternative. So if he's not able to retain his coalition partners, he won't have a government. So I think that's very problematic for him.

19:18      KS: Well, and as you said, he's sort of the ultimate political animal, political operator, and he's been able to figure out ways to keep himself in power, including with this far-right coalition. But if the people begin to turn against that, it's sort of like where does he land? As you and I have talked about before, in Israel, politics and government are inextricably linked with religion. So when we talk about the various segments of religious and secular Jewish Israelis, we talked about the far right. But how are the other segments of the Jewish population in Israel aligning, or not, with Netanyahu's efforts to weaken the judiciary?

20:09      GZ: Well, among the demonstrators, there are definitely some religious demonstrators, and there are definitely various groups including some Druze and others. But for the most part, it's a secular population. And when you look at the primary supporters of these judicial reforms of the judicial overhaul, i.e. Netanyahu's coalition, each sector has its own vested interest in seeing these reforms through. So for the religious Zionists who make up much of the settler community, they want to build freely in the West Bank in East Jerusalem. They don't want the restrictions that have been imposed on them by the court, which they see as a nuisance. For the Haredi population, those are the ultra-Orthodox, they object to the Supreme Court having struck down legislation that would exempt them formally from the draft. And so at least up until recently, now they're indicating that they're willing to suspend some of the more controversial elements of the judicial overhaul package. But they have, until now, at least supported these reforms for their reasons.

21:33      GZ: And then Netanyahu himself has a personal interest in weakening the judiciary, given his own corruption trial. And I would note that in the past, he was a fierce defender of the Supreme Court and gave interviews not just to the Western press, but to the Israeli media doubling down on his support and commitment to preserving a strong and vibrant supreme court. So what we're seeing today is very different than the policies and rhetoric that we heard from Netanyahu in a previous era.

22:17      KS: Guy Ziv, it's time to take five.

22:19      KS: You, our esteemed guest, get to daydream out loud with five policies or practices you believe would change things for the better. We know Israel is an incredibly important US ally, but the relationship hasn't always been the smoothest when Netanyahu overlaps with a Democratic US President. So, what are five policy recommendations for the Biden administration in terms of its response to the Netanyahu government's controversial actions?

22:47      GZ: Well, first, since the US' relationship is based not only on shared interests, but also on common values, it's vital that the administration continues to remind at Netanyahu, both privately and publicly, that democratic values are a pillar of a US-Israeli relationship.

23:06      GZ: Second, the administration should compliment this rhetoric by conditioning a White House invitation on suspending the contentious judicial overhaul legislation, as well as a commitment by the Netanyahu government to honor the decisions made by the Israeli Supreme Court.

23:23      GZ: Third, the White House should also call out extremists in Israeli government, making it clear that any government minister who makes racist pronouncements will be barred from visiting the United States.

23:35      GZ: Fourth, building on the momentum of the Abraham Accords, by encouraging normalization between Israel and the Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, yet without avoiding the question of self-determination for the Palestinians.

23:50      GZ: And finally, although resuming Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is probably unrealistic at this time, the administration should make it clear that the US continues to back the two-state solution and urge both sides to refrain from hateful rhetoric, as well as unilateral actions such as the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, which undermine the solution.

24:14      KS: Thank you.

24:18      KS: What about the role of Israel's Arab minority, the Palestinians, in this protest movement, or in speaking out against this reform? Where have they been?

24:30      GZ: Well, they haven't really been out there at the demonstrations, because the Arab community and Palestinian citizens of Israel feel largely marginalized and neglected by the rest of the population. And by Israeli society, not just the government. They have a more ambivalent view towards the Supreme Court, because at times the Supreme Court has actually sided with the settlers. They don't always side with the Palestinians. So they've felt left out of this entire debate.

25:07      KS: That's a pretty large slice of the population to feel like they either don't have a stake in it or to feel that there's no way for them to exercise that stake, to feel that disenfranchised.

25:21      GZ: That's right.

25:22      KS: You mentioned the population of Orthodox Jews who have tried to become exempt from military service. It is pretty well known, I think, that national military service is mandatory for all Israeli citizens over the age of 18. I think for a lot of people who didn't know that, the actress who played Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot, Israeli; it was known that she had done her service in the Israeli military. So I think a lot of people may have heard that, younger people, for the first time. But lately, relations between the military and Netanyahu's government have been tense. We saw tensions escalate after the judicial overhaul was passed, as you mentioned. So in a country where national military service is mandatory, how is the tension impacting morale in the military? And what does that mean in a country where everyone has to serve and everyone has served, that tension? And are there concerns mounting over national security in Israel? Which still has its location, that it always has to be aware of to protect its national security. How's all this impacting the military and those relations?

26:37      GZ: Very significantly. We have seen many, many, many reservists at these demonstrations. There was a 60 Minutes episode the other day, focusing on one of the groups that is composed of elite reservists who are protesting these judicial reforms. But it's definitely affected morale, we've never seen this before. Over 10,000 reservists have threatened to stop showing up for duty, and hundreds of reserve officers from the most elite units, intelligence units, including cyber intelligence units, Air Force pilots, other special operations units, have announced that they're not going to report for duty. And so all this affects not just morale, but the IDF's operational readiness.

27:37      GZ: And these are pilots, for example, who are sent on the most dangerous missions in Gaza and elsewhere. And so it does leave Israel vulnerable to its enemies like Hezbollah and Lebanon. And that is very worrisome to the heads of the intelligence community and the IDF Chief of Staff. And so tensions are very, very high at the moment. And Netanyahu's own defense minister has expressed great concern over this. That half a year ago, Netanyahu fired him after he expressed concerns, reservations about the reforms, the judicial reforms. And then he had to reinstate him after massive spontaneous demonstrations broke out in support of the Defense Minister.

28:29      GZ: So this is very, very problematic as far as the IDF is concerned and its readiness to deal with the ongoing threats Israel's facing.

28:41      KS: Guy, sometimes for the last question I ask our guests to try to tell the future, which isn't fair. But for you, fortunately, you have a book coming out that's titled Netanyahu Vs the Generals: The Battle for Israel's Future. So you sort of have a jumpstart on the premise of trying to discern the future for Israel. Can you give us a sneak preview of your book, just a little bit about what we could expect? What is Netanyahu Vs the Generals?

29:09      GZ: So ever since entering politics, Netanyahu has cultivated a self-image as Israel's Mr. Security. And this is a reputation that until this past year actually, resonated with large swaths of Israeli public. And that includes even many of his critics. And that's really enabled him to remain prime minister, to become Israel's longest serving prime minister. Yet paradoxically, the security community in Israel has long questioned Netanyahu's leadership style and his approach to national security.

29:50      GZ: And so I find this kind of an intriguing paradox and I explore it. And I also explore the underlying reasons behind the public's inattention to the collective judgment of hundreds of ex generals and former spy masters. I interviewed many of them for this project, and many of them spoke pretty freely about their concerns over Netanyahu's policies towards the Palestinians, towards Iran and its quest for nuclear weapons. And what I found really resonated among, well, what is now resonating among the general public that wasn't resonating until this year was this kind of question over whether Netanyahu is looking out for the nation's interests, or whether he's looking out for his own interest.

30:50      GZ: And I think many among his own supporters, or his former supporters, are now reaching the conclusion that the security community reached a while ago, which is that he tends to place his personal and political interests above the national interests. And that I think is of deep concern of them as is their primary objective, which is to maintain and realize the Zionist vision of an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic. And they feel that that is under threat, in large part because of Netanyahu's leadership.

31:34      KS: And you mentioned earlier that Netanyahu was reelected and there was almost a sense of fatigue or weariness on behalf of the Israeli public because they'd had such instability. They had a caretaker government. And it almost seems as though it was like, okay, whatever. You've done it before, do it again. Just be in charge. And I know it wasn't that simple, but that's kind of the sense of we just want some stability. So at some point, Israel does have to have a future that doesn't include Benjamin Netanyahu. So what, in your book, can we expect to learn about not just Netanyahu's future, but also Israel's future?

32:15      GZ: Well, I think that one of the areas that I focus on in the book that I think is relevant obviously to Israel's future is this kind of notion of having a state that is secure and that is democratic, and that is also still Jewish. And here we're entering also the demographic question, and we're also thinking about difficult questions about territory and what it means to retain territory at the price of remaining a state that is Jewish and democratic.

32:57      GZ: And this is kind of at the heart of the debate in Israel, or at least was at the heart of debate in Israel. Although the Palestinian topic has largely subsided from public discourse, it still is very much foremost on the minds of retired senior members of the security community who want to see some variation of the two state solution, and want to see Israel take steps that can at least keep the two state solution alive, even though it is unrealistic to expect peace talks to resume anytime soon. But this kind of notion that their goal, their mission is to fight for Israel's democracy, has an entirely new meaning this past year, given the judicial overhaul plans of this current government. And so that ties in to the general theme that I emphasize in this book.

34:02      KS: Guy Ziv, thank you for joining Big World and helping me understand what's going on in Israel. As always, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you.

34:11      GZ: My pleasure.

34:11      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, and wherever you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or a review, it'll be like a Starburst bag that only has pinks and reds. Our theme music is It Was Just Cold by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guests

Guy Ziv,
professor, SIS

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