Distinguished guests, Honorable Prime Minister Yair Lapid, government ministers, and members of Knesset,
Thank you very much for attending the Israel Democracy Conference. Forgive my bluntness, but what kind of democracy are we actually talking about?
We are all familiar with the concept of “democracy, but…:” Elections, a parliament, and courts, but a few kilometers from here, day in and day out, soldiers routinely break into the homes of disenfranchised Palestinians who have no rights to decide their own fate, who have no say in the decisions that affect them, whose homes are raided in the wee hours without a court warrant, whose children are taken into custody on the whim of an Israeli colonel.
Democracy, but…: Women are second-class citizens, or at least that’s how we are seen by dozens of MKs and elected officials who want to send us back to the times when “a woman is acquired in three ways.” Two political parties forbid women from running at all. An organization funded by foreign oligarchs is exerting huge pressure on ministers and MKs to prevent the government from signing the Istanbul Convention, a treaty that aims to prevent domestic violence and the murder of women. It’s not that they are for violence, perish the thought, it’s just that they are against.
Democracy, but…: A couple wishing to get married must submit to rabbis or some other religious institution, and cannot simply register as a married couple. The personal status of all of us is determined by men with dark ideas. International indicators repeatedly state that religious freedom in Israel is equal to that in Saudi Arabia and Iran: zero.
Democracy, but…: Israeli citizens go to elections. Indeed, we have had five of them in the last four years.
Democracy, but…: I could go on, but I’m sure you can do it without me and think of examples yourselves. I did not come here to read a catalog, but to warn that our democracy has an inherent flaw, which has existed since the foundation of the state and requires urgent correction.
Israel was born as a democracy, but…. Zulat for Equality and Human Rights recently published a comprehensive and incisive report written by Attorney Eitay Mack, Pseudo Democracy: State of the Regime in Israel, which accurately states that our so-called “democracy” as never been a liberal democratic regime but rather a hybrid model of authoritarian elements alongside liberal ones.
The clearest and most forgotten example is that the first Knesset was not supposed to be a parliament at all, but rather a constituent assembly whose role was to present a constitution for Israel. There was even a deadline: “No later than 1 October 1948.” But Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had other plans and a constitution would have tied his hands.
Ben-Gurion’s long reign teemed with flagrant authoritarian elements. He suppressed a strike by sailors by calling up their leaders for military reserve duty; the leaders of the Herut and Mapam parties were under surveillance by the Shin Bet; and most importantly, between 1948 and December 1966, Israel’s Palestinian civilians were governed by a military regime. In fact, Israel has not operated a military regime only during six months of its existence: between December 1966 and June 1967.
Indeed, there have been bright spots too. These originated primarily with the courts, which occasionally restrained the government. Thus, freedom of occupation for many years hinged on a ruling by the Supreme Court. Our freedom of the press still hinges on two Supreme Court rulings. Consecutive governments have refused to recognize the principle of equality and anchor it in basic laws.
It’s hard to recover from childhood illnesses, but we did. The Left’s fall from power in 1977 and the rise of the Likud, along with a series of events ranging from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the rise of a professional civil service unindentured to Mapai led to 20 years of liberalization, mostly in the 1980-1990s. This trend came to a screeching halt upon the rise to power of Binyamin Netanyahu, who used the deep-rooted precedents set by Mapai and Ben-Gurion to promote a turbocharged authoritarian policy, which he is pursuing to this day. Netanyahu and his partners are constantly undermining the democratic regime and draining it of content. In recent days we have seen a plan presented by Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich, with Netanyahu’s silent blessing, to turn the Knesset into a haven for criminals. Netanyahu also gave us Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is steadily getting stronger as his racism is normalized and becoming legitimate. In the last two weeks we have also seen an attack on soldiers and peace activists in a direct extension of the hundreds of nationalistic crimes by Jewish terrorists against Palestinians that establish facts on the ground and deepen the occupation. A false propaganda campaign against the Central Elections Committee is afoot to prepare the ground for claims of forgery in the upcoming elections.
To free itself of Mapai’s legacy, Israel needs a constitution with equality as its cornerstone, but this is not enough. Last week, Zulat sent to all the party leaders who declared their commitment to protect liberal values a series of reforms and legislative proposals aimed at saving democracy: to anchor the principle of equality, fight fake news, protect freedom of expression and protest, restore nonpartisanship, strengthen the mechanisms for the protection of human rights, and strengthen the independence of civil society. I would like to use this stage to call on all elected officials: Adopt our reforms, stop strengthening the authoritarian trends that Netanyahu and his partners are trying their utmost to reinforce!
If we fail to anchor these protections, Israeli democracy will wither away and we will be left with a regime similar to Orban’s in Hungary, not coincidentally supported by the Right in Israel. All that will remain is the empty shell of elections, which the regime will not let change.
Go out and vote! Thank you.