Is Israel’s hasbara bubble about to burst?

For decades, Israel's Western allies have nodded along as it professes to be 'the only democracy in the Middle East.' What happens if they stop?

Israelis protest against the current Israeli government and its planned judicial reform, Tel Aviv, January 28, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israelis protest against the current Israeli government and its planned judicial reform, Tel Aviv, January 28, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

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“Why are our nations such great allies?” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wondered aloud to French President Emmanuel Macron in 2018 during an event in Paris marking 70 years since Israel’s founding. “I suppose the answer might be summed up in three words — words with which you all are familiar: Libertè, egalitè, fraternitè!” Netanyahu continued. “Like France, Israel is a proud democracy — proud of our record of preserving liberty in the heart of the Middle East. This is truly a remarkable achievement because in these 70 years there was not a single moment, a second even, in which Israel’s democracy was put into question.”

Yet, in the eyes of Macron, this moment in which Israel’s democracy is in question seems to have arrived. According to “Le Monde,” Macron told Netanyahu during their latest meeting in Paris earlier this month that if the far-right government’s plan for judicial overhaul comes to fruition, France will “be forced to conclude that Israel has broken away from the prevailing perception of democracy.” That is, if Netanyahu marketed Israel as a bastion of “freedom in the Middle East” in order to prove to countries like France that they have “shared values,” it seems that today, fewer people are buying what the prime minister is peddling.

Of course, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, Israel was never a democracy — from the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians during the Nakba and denial of their right to return, through military rule over Israel’s Palestinian citizens that lasted until 1966, to the occupation of 1967 and its systematic violation of Palestinian rights until today. Macron, like other world leaders, is surely aware of this. But as long as sovereign Israel operated more or less with all the trappings of democracy, it was convenient for the French leader and others in the so-called Western world to turn a blind eye to what was happening beyond the Green Line, and to see Israeli occupation and apartheid in the territories as a bug, rather than a feature of Israeli democracy.

Its self-styled image as “the only democracy in the Middle East” served for decades as Israel’s strategic asset, not only during the Netanyahu era, and is one of several reasons that explain how Israel enjoyed international immunity with regard to the occupation. Its relatively independent judicial system, the appearance of a free press, its ostensibly liberal policies toward its LGBTQ community, and the aggressive marketing of Tel Aviv as one of the hippest cities in the world all served this image. Even the concept of the “Start-Up Nation” helped paint Israel as a free and creative country that is an integral part of the West.

Immediately following the Le Monde report, a source close to Netanyahu hastened to clarify to Israeli journalists that Netanyahu “was under the impression that Macron was not familiar with all the details of the reform.” But this is a dubious claim, given that the reform — the first part of which passed the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee on Monday and may reach the Knesset plenum for a preliminary vote in the next week — is not that complicated.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poses for a picture with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, January 22, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poses for a picture with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, January 22, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

It took Justice Minister Yariv Levin exactly three-and-a-half minutes to explain it when he announced it a month ago: an override clause that would allow 61 members of Knesset to overturn Supreme Court rulings, giving members of Knesset a greater role in appointing Supreme Court judges for the government to appoint judges, and turning legal advisers into personal appointments. I am convinced the reform could have been explained to Macron in even less time with one simple sentence: from now on, the Israeli government will do what it wants, and no court will be able to stop it.

Macron is one of the most prominent European leaders to speak out against Viktor Orbán’s anti-democratic revolution in Hungary. When France took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2022, Macron explained that promoting the “rule of law” in Europe would be his main task. “We are a generation that is discovering again how democracy and rule of law can be made fragile,” he said. The rule of law, Macron added, is not an “invention of Brussels,” but part of European history. “The end of the rule of law is the beginning of authoritarianism.”

Although he didn’t mention them by name, the Hungarian government understood very well who the president was speaking about. “We expect the rotating French presidency of the (European) Council to stop applying double standards and political blackmail,” said Tamás Deutsch, a member of the European Parliament for Orbán’s Fidesz party, in response to the EU’s freezing on the transfer of billions of euros to Hungary after it failed to implement democratic reforms. In December 2022, the EU agreed to release some of the money, but these payments are still conditional on further reforms.

Israel is not a member of the EU, and therefore Macron cannot exert the same kind of pressure on Netanyahu that he does on Orbán. But this ongoing confrontation between Macron in particular, and the European Union in general, on one hand, and Hungary on the other, shows the importance of what once were considered strictly internal affairs, such as the rule of law or the quality of democracy in a particular country, in countries that ostensibly have “shared values.”

Thousands of Israelis, who are participating in a general strike, demonstrate in front of the Knesset against the government's proposed judicial reform, Jerusalem, February 13, 2023. (Oren Ziv)
Thousands of Israelis, who are participating in a general strike, demonstrate in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem against the government’s proposed judicial reform, February 13, 2023. (Oren Ziv)

‘The frontline of the West in the East’

Like other settler colonies, such as the United States, Canada, and South Africa, Zionism boasted that it had established a “model society” in Palestine — for the settlers, of course, not for the indigenous population. One of the manifestations of this “model society” was the internal democracy that the Zionist movement established between the river and the sea. This included democratic procedures inside the Zionist parties, elections for the Assembly of Representatives, the lawmaking body that preceded the Knesset and represented the Jewish settler community in Palestinian during the British Mandate, elections in the World Zionist Organization, and, of course, elections to the Knesset after 1948. “Rule of law” and the independence of the court were, and remained, part of this democratic “package” for Jews.

This “model society” was an important instrument for creating cohesion among Jewish settlers under the British Mandate, and later in Israel. But from the first moment, it was also of enormous importance to the relations between the Jewish community in Israel and the “West.” The fact that Zionism established a free and democratic society in the Land of Israel served as proof that it is part of the West, that it represents the West, and that it is the bearer of “freedom, equality, brotherhood” in the wild and dangerous Middle East, as Netanyahu explained to Macron.

This perception runs particularly deep in the Netanayhu family. “Zionism has always been the frontline of the West in the East,” said Benzion Netanyahu, the prime minister’s father, in an interview with Haaretz in 1998. “It is the same today: it stood against the natural tendencies of the East to penetrate the West and enslave it.” His son Benjamin said strikingly similar things in 2017 during a meeting with the heads of the Visegrád Group — Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. “Europe ends in Israel. East of Israel, there is no more Europe,” Netanyahu reportedly said during a closed conversation with the leaders.

One of the central claims of the opponents of the current judicial reform attempt is that the business community cannot operate in a country where the government is strong and the courts are weak, and therefore corporations will leave Israel and investors will be wary of putting their money into the Israeli economy. On the other hand, supporters of the reform claim that it will actually encourage “economic freedom” — and they are not necessarily wrong; in Chile, capitalism flourished after democracy was shot dead by the Pinochet regime, while in China capitalism thrives without a hint of democracy. When the government has no limits, it can suppress labor unions and let capital thrive without pesky issues like human rights or the freedom to strike getting in the way.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, May 25, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, May 25, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/GPO)

But the “shared values,” in the name of which countries like France and the United States have turned a blind eye to the Israeli occupation and the systematic violation of Palestinian rights, go far beyond economic liberalism. They concern the very ability of Western countries to see Israel as one of their own. When U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met with Netanyahu during his visit to the country in late January, he explained what the “shared interests and values” of Israel and the United States are: “Respect for human rights, the equal administration of justice for all, the equal rights of minority groups, the rule of law, free press, and a robust civil society.”

It is true that both Blinken and Macron’s remarks should be taken with a very large grain of salt. The U.S. maintains its “special relationship” with Israel, even though there has hardly been a single day in Israel’s history that it respected the rights of the Palestinians. Netanyahu was also quoted after the meeting with Macron saying that the complaints about the lack of democracy in Israel will become a “mantra” like the complaints about Israel failing to advance a two-state solution.

We are in an unprecedented moment, in which Levin, Netanyahu, and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman Simcha Rothman are determined to pass the reform at any cost, while hundreds of thousands of protesters, the attorney general, the president, and the Supreme Court are determined to oppose it. Should the Supreme Court rule the reforms unconstitutional, we could be headed toward a violent collision in which a state of emergency is declared, the Supreme Court is shut down by decree, and protest leaders are arrested en masse.

If this happens, and the government goes after the courts and the few remnants of liberal values that still exist in Israel, perhaps then Western countries will go a step further in their criticism. And if they do, the immunity from criticism of the occupation that Israel has enjoyed for decades may also begin to crack. After that, we’ll be playing a whole new ballgame.

A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.