An American object lesson for Israel
By Suzanne Rosenberg
The day after President Donald Trump was inaugurated, the Pink Hat movement was formally born. Some three hundred thousand demonstrators showed up on streets in the United States and around the world signaling their fears and anticipation of changes in affirmative abortion legislation, general fears of an assault on democracy, and anticipating American isolationism over the next four years of a Donald Trump presidency. Similarly, the day after Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition was sworn in last month, tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets demonstrating against the incoming government’s attitudes toward LGBTQ rights and fears of a further erosion of democratic values during his term. While it took the United States some time to fully understand the nature of the Trump administration’s extreme intentions; in Israel, the country has been moving toward a more clerical and authoritarian state for many successive governing coalitions. When Donald Trump was elected president, and even more pointedly, by the time President Trump left office, opposition leaders, legal scholars, and citizens were alarmed at the tenuous and fragile state of American democracy. Abortion rights in the United States and LGBTQ rights, in Israel, are being attacked on moral and religious grounds. In both countries, culture war issues and changes to the Supreme Court are the greatest threats to an open society. Weaponizing cultural and personal issues and conflicts regarding judicial independence might never occur in a truly open liberal society, where appropriate checks and balances and healthy separation of powers exist. In neither the United States nor Israel, even with the political strife concerning minority and voting rights as well as the Palestinian issue; challenges to the status quo of each of these democratic structural issues and norms were never a major factor in either society previously. This appears to have changed in both countries dramatically.
There are still other commonalities between Former President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu and their leadership. Both are facing serious electoral, tax evasion, and corruption allegations. As a result, both may face indictments and trials on these allegations. (Netanyahu has already been indicted and is being tried in at least two of these areas) We can see from their deliberate manipulation of judicial institutions in both countries; their desperation to stay in power. In both cases, the charges against them may even have been an incentive for them to run for high office again to avoid possible consequences for their actions. Netanyahu is actively supporting a bill that would allow anyone convicted of a crime to be considered for a cabinet post as well as proposing other changes to the court that would diminish its independence by increasing the legislative and executive powers over the court. Trump also clearly assumes that if he is in “high office,” he may not be held accountable for some of his actions, as has been the pattern. In addition, there are some charges for which a “sitting president” may not be tried. Another term of President for Trump may allow him to wait out specific statutes of limitations and hope that the urgency with which people regard his falsehoods and actions will dissolve the more time passes. In both countries, the independence of the Judiciary and separation of powers is at stake.
In the United States, the Trump administration did manage to appoint to the Supreme Court a majority of judges who came from the ranks of the “Federalist Society” and regardless of confirmation-hearing assurances of the importance of stare decisis in judicial decision-making, this majority appear to be dead set against any federal regulation of abortion whatsoever, regardless of precedent. The concrete result of this is the Dobbs Decision, (July 2022) upending Roe v. Wade, and making it virtually illegal in a huge swath of the country for women to obtain an abortion or for doctors to perform them. The independence of the judiciary in Israel is also threatened under the latest Netanyahu coalition. One of the first specific challenges put to the court and legislature is to decide whether a convicted felon, in the case of former Minister Aryeh Deri, a convicted former cabinet official may become a cabinet official once again. This ruling has import for Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, since he has been indicted on numerous tax, bribery, and corruption charges and one of his trials is ongoing. Prime Minister Netanyahu has also proposed that the legislature and executive have a greater role in the court by being allowed to appoint judges to sit on the high court. In both cases, judicial challenges to the country’s Supreme Court puts in jeopardy the independence of the judiciary. These and other attempts to alter legal and governmental institutional norms regarding the separation of powers and checks and balances, remind even the casual observer of international affairs of the “illiberal” administration of Hungarian President Victor Orban.
In both the United States and Israel, the “base” of the GOP and the extreme religious and hawkish coalition partners respectively; the two leaders are ringleaders of diverse, extreme, and even radical elements among their supporters. The unfortunate impression perpetuated by both leaders is that they are the only leaders capable of bringing these disparate groups together in order to make a supportive legitimate government, thereby making it appear as if their election is imperative. This is unfortunate in another way in that they both appeal to voters as the “liberal” alternative when contrasted with their base. The extent to which either Trump or Netanyahu as individuals, believe in the principles of their “base,” is questionable and begs the question of whether their positions are merely an opportunistic route to power. Both leaders tend to focus on the short-term interests of their base or members of their respective governments. In the United States during the Trump administration, these issues became anti-abortion, isolationism, and efforts to erode trust in “big government.” In Israel, the issues tend to be “who is a Jew, “school curricula, service in the military by the religious, and gay pride. In both cases, the focus on “cultural” value issues often makes for tense, short, and, unstable governments. This is Netanyahu’s 6th government and Israel’s fourth election in the last two years. Netanyahu faces the danger of no confidence and new elections over his administration’s every position. Cultural, religious, and racial issues in both countries, crowd out unresolved substantive issues. Important issues such as the secular and religious divide, settling the West Bank, and the two-state solution are left on the table and marginalized in Israel. Both countries need to focus and concentrate on very basic (and similar) issues such as housing, the increasing gap between the haves and have-nots, poverty, inflation, and the challenge of ensuring steady economic growth. International issues such as Ukraine may disrupt effective day to day leadership in American politics and in Israel, the constant threat of the Palestinian issue bubbling up to take center stage at any time.
While the United States and Israel are certainly not alone in their drift toward illiberal and semi-authoritarian governance in the western world; the similarities between these two allies and their recent reckless leadership, have resulted in heightened international scrutiny, animosity, and distrust toward them both. Both countries’ actions have had foreign policy consequences. The United States under President Trump and his America First isolationist position eroded the trust that Europe and NATO members for many years had put in the United States security umbrella resulting in a severely broken alliance. It took considerable effort for the incoming President to recreate goodwill enough among NATO and European nations adequate to put together a united western bloc with the ability to counter Russian advances into Ukraine. In addition, President Biden inherited the previous Presidents’ policies and withdrawal schedules in Afghanistan. As a result, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was clumsy and more difficult and deadly than it needed to be.
Israel’s actions toward the Palestinian status quo and the Occupation, are not likely to change anytime soon under the current leadership, in fact, the status quo may get worse. These positions have made Israel a pariah state in the eyes of many and isolated many potential allies, even Jewish ones in the US and elsewhere. Israel’s alienation from many countries further isolates it in the United Nations. It also has had another very real impact on Jewish people around the globe. Israel’s position on the Palestinians and the Occupation has also led to considerable confusion between the anti-Israeli positions (anti-Zionism) and antisemitism. (anti- Jewish sentiment) Israel is even further, “odd man out” due to its reluctance to fully get on board with the European opposition to Putin and in support of the democratic goals of Ukraine. This further alienates an already isolated Israel from the rest of the western world. Additionally, Israel’s reluctance to assist Ukraine militarily by disallowing the use of its Iron Dome technology has been noted widely. The Israeli stance on Ukraine is especially interesting given that there is a large Ukrainian population already settled in Israel, and the country has been welcoming Ukrainian and Russian refugees into the country since the War began.
The United States example may be an object lesson for Israel’s future and perhaps even prophetic. Although he suggests that he will run again, Donald Trump has watched his popularity sink. Even his support among his “maga” base is waning. He has largely left the Republican Party in disarray without ideology, and philosophy and although many party members have consistently supported his “stop the steal,” position in the last election; there is the sense that many would like to move on from Trump and his positions for pragmatic political reasons. The extreme appointees to the Supreme Court that were responsible for the Dobbs Decision, managed to galvanize increased voter turnout against Donald Trump in the latest Presidential election. The opposition to Donald Trump brought out one of the largest voter turnouts in American history and encouraged new, independent, and young voters as well as anti-Dobbs women (even those registered Republicans) to vote in large numbers. So, what should have been a “red wave” in an off-year election was actually a gain for the democrats. Applying the Donald Trump example, the longer the extreme Netanyahu coalition remains in power, the larger the opposition will become. Perhaps the Netanyahu coalition’s policies, like Trump’s will even breathe new life into Israeli opposition parties. The more radical the coalition and its policies, the more the risk of bringing back to life a moribund labor party and a coalition of left-leaning and Arab parties. The behavior of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition may indeed end with a complete shift of power. Netanyahu’s partners and their actions will determine how long the growing anti-government demonstrations go on and the degree to which voter turnout may finally draw new names and even apathetic voters back into the next election cycle. The more fragile the democracy becomes, the more alarming the populace will become, thereby encouraging new elections in Israel.
In neither case did the thousands, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the United States or in Israel, appear to derail the objectives of their respective administrations. Based on the US example, however, it does appear that the same group of demonstrators who showed up post Trump inauguration, showed up to vote years later. Regardless of Trump’s defeat in 2020; his presidency has permanently rocked the establishment. Scholars and others never predicted the damage one misguided administration can achieve after so short a period. Institutional changes to the judiciary, gutting civic rights, and personal freedoms may have all been changed forever. Even now the “long tail” of the Donald Trump wing of the GOP is alive and obstructionist in 117th Congressional session. Israel too, must be on guard for permanent institutional, social and religious changes. Israel’s whittling away of democratic norms and policies and increasing theocratic tendencies resemble other countries in its neighborhood, especially Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. This puts the Arab détente with Israel in a new light, especially since the most notable Arab embassy in post-Trump Israel is the Saudi Arabian.
Democracies in both the United States and Israel are fragile. This is especially true in terms of the rights and privileges of ordinary citizens and their civil liberties. The future of the rule of law, privacy, and separation of powers is questionable. It appears that civic society and classical liberal values are being tested in both countries. Repair work on American democracy continues in the year after the Trump administration was voted out of office. During these early months of the current Netanyahu administration, demonstrations continue weekly while judicial, civic institutional representatives and even military leaders are becoming increasingly concerned and public about this concern. The stability and duration of the Netanyahu coalition is yet to be tested. The democratic core of the country hangs in the balance.
Suzanne Rosenberg currently teaches history at Bergen Community College and politics in the NJ Step Program that teaches inmates at NJ Correctional Facilities. She has an M.Phil. in Political Science from Columbia University, Masters in International Relations from Columbia’s School of International Relations and a Certificate in Middle East Studies, also from Columbia University. She is also beginning a web portal for any and all Americans on civic engagement, entitled CivicSources.com.