Opinion: The biggest lesson from Israel’s political crisis

Opinion: The biggest lesson from Israel’s political crisis

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.


Israel is far from the only country facing political maneuvers to weaken its democracy, or the only nation led by a clever politician seeking to manipulate the system for his own benefit. And Israel’s citizens are far from the only ones pushing back to defend their democracy.

But the electrifying events of the past few weeks across that small but pivotal Middle Eastern country offer one of the sharpest rebukes to date to those who may believe democracy is a moribund system. Indeed, the trajectory of Israel’s crisis is filled with lessons for democracy’s supporters across the globe.

Opinion: The biggest lesson from Israel’s political crisis

Embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces a slew of charges against him – mostly centered on allegations of fraud and bribery, which he denies – managed to put together a governing coalition by bringing in extremist right-wing parties who demanded enormous power in exchange for providing the necessary votes for Netanyahu to become prime minister.

A key demand was a judicial overhaul that would, among things, allow the Israeli Parliament – the Knesset – to overturn certain Supreme Court rulings with a simple majority vote and to give the ruling parties control of judicial appointments.

For Netanyahu, the plan was convenient. It created the possibility of escaping his own legal woes, since one of the controversial bills recently passed would make it more difficult for a prime minister to be declared unfit for office and would make the Knesset, now controlled by Netanyahu’s allies – not the Supreme Court – the arbiter of his fitness to serve. Netanyahu denies the judicial overhaul has to do with his legal predicament.

It might seem an arcane issue to trigger a massive popular uprising, but Israelis promptly concluded their democracy was at stake, and what followed was one of the most far-reaching, disciplined and determined waves of protests inside a democratic country in recent memory.

On Monday, under nearly unbearable pressure, Netanyahu agreed to postpone the overhaul – which was being rammed through the Knesset – until the next legislative term. The crisis, however, is not over.

Netanyahu and his supporters deny the law would end Israeli democracy, arguing that the legislation is a legitimate effort to bring more balance to a system where the courts are too powerful. Some, like President Isaac Herzog, have proposed compromise.

The US, Israel’s vital ally, is watching closely, too. President Joe Biden has maintained a careful relationship with Israel, working hard to reaffirm US “unwavering support” for what is America’s principal ally in the Middle East, while keeping disagreements private. In a recent call with Netanyahu, he urged him to compromise with the opposition. He pointedly told him that democratic values lie at the heart of the US-Israel relationship.

Like others, he was implicitly suggesting that if Israel’s democracy weakens, its ties with the US could do the same. That should give Netanyahu much to think about. It certainly does for most Israelis, who understand that Israel’s democracy is fundamental to the country’s identity, to its security and to its prosperity.

Israel’s individual circumstances are unique, but the struggle resonates in many countries. Noting that the controversial legislation was demanded by several religious parties, former Prime Minister Yair Lapid – a centrist and the opposition leader – vowed to protesters, “They will respect our values! What is holy to us is no less sacred than what is holy to them.” He was referring to democracy, freedom, separation of powers and, of course, independent courts.

According to a poll released by the Israel Democracy Institute last month, only a minority of Israelis support the controversial reforms, and the vast majority want a compromise. Many agree with the assessment of the renowned historian Yuval Noah Harari. “History,” he wrote in a column for the Guardian, “is full of dictatorships established by people who first came to power through legal means. It’s the oldest trick in the book: first you use the law to gain power, then you use your power to distort the law.”

The law, he said, would allow the government “to completely destroy our freedom.” Harari concludes, in an echo of the US Declaration of Independence, that when the government breaks its commitment to respect the basic liberties of its citizens, citizens have a right to resist.

And resist they have. For 12 weeks Israel has seen the largest demonstrations in its history. The streets exploded Sunday night, after Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant one day after Gallant said he couldn’t support the law because it’s endangering the country’s security, creating a “rift within our society [that] is widening and penetrating the Israel Defense Forces.”

The US National Security Council further expressed concerns about Israel’s military readiness.

As the sun rose on Monday, it revealed a changed horizon. The country’s main labor union had called for a national strike. Schools were closed, flights were grounded, even one of the Netanyahu’s lead attorneys said he would no longer defend him if he pushed ahead.

The modern State of Israel has faced many crises in its short 75-year history. But nothing like this.

Netanyahu had been caught in a vise. If he agreed to the protesters’ demands, his extremist coalition members might leave him, potentially ending his premiership. But Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, of the radical Jewish Power party, agreed to postpone the legislation.

In exchange, Netanyahu agreed to create a national guard under Ben Gvir’s control – a very dangerous idea. Granting what amounts to a separate militia to a radical government minister at the center of this dispute could turn non-violent clashes into something much worse.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about three countries where the people were pushing back against anti-democratic maneuvers: Mexico, Georgia and Israel. In all three, the pro-democracy forces are scoring victories, at least temporarily.

The battle, however, is far from over. After all, democracy has been on the defensive across the globe for nearly two decades, and it has been losing ground.

Netanyahu, like politicians in other countries – including in the US, has shown a willingness to compromise the nation’s values to serve his own ends. He has indelibly tarnished a legacy that many Israelis had seen in a positive light. A talented politician, a gifted man, has fallen victim to his own hubris.

Until now, pro-democracy protests, bringing out more than 600,000 people – over 6% of Israel’s population – have been overwhelmingly, remarkably peaceful.

Israelis have demonstrated their passion for democracy and their unbreakable willingness to defend it. In the process, they may just be writing the new playbook for people in other democratic nations seeking to defend the system against power grabs by calculating politicians.