How Israeli Attitudes Toward Democracy Have Changed Under Benjamin Netanyahu

Apr 4, 2019
Originally published on April 4, 2019 8:06 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Israeli elections are on Tuesday, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is running for another term. He's already been in office for 10 years. NPR's Daniel Estrin is reporting on how Israel has changed in that time. Here he looks at how Israeli attitudes toward democracy itself have changed.

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DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: An uproar at Israel's Supreme Court - a far-right politician is on the stand accused of racism against Arabs. In a matter of days, the court would ban him from running in elections. One of his supporters shouts at the judges, the game is rigged. His group storms out of the courtroom. In the hall, they meet a group of Palestinian Arab politicians, citizens of Israel, also running in the election.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: They call the Arab politicians trash, traitors, murderers. Koby Matza, a lawyer for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party, is also at the court, and he joins in. I ask him what he was yelling.

KOBY MATZA: What I was saying is that if they would do they're we're doing here, doing everything they can to hurt the state of Israel, in another country, they would be in jail for treason.

ESTRIN: Many Israelis feel the same way, pointing to a few examples - a former Arab lawmaker accused of conspiring with Hezbollah, another jailed for smuggling phones to Palestinians in prison. Matza says democracy has its limits, and he wants to disqualify Arab parties from running for office.

MATZA: I think the Supreme Court should put an end sometimes to Democracy because when you squeeze the democracy till the end, you have to say enough is enough.

ESTRIN: Polls have shown that trust in Israel's Supreme Court has decreased under Netanyahu. Yedidia Stern is with the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute.

YEDIDIA STERN: How can we live together when we do not have the trust in the court? This is a real threat.

ESTRIN: The court often sides with Palestinians, and Netanyahu's government has tried to reduce its powers.

STERN: The court is trying to help Israel to become what the court thinks is right for Israel, which is a liberal society which comes with human rights. They push equality in the face of people that people are not so sure that equality is so important here in Israel.

ESTRIN: Netanyahu has also singled out left-wing Israeli groups, especially those advocating for Palestinians. Debbie Gild-Hayo is with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. She showed me footage from a Parliament hearing she attended that almost made her cry. She was there to oppose a bill targeting liberal groups for accepting money from European governments.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

DEBBIE GILD-HAYO: If you can see this guy sitting here, he's working with the justice minister. And you can see that he's, like, giggling deliberately. The whole point of this kind of thing is the delegitimization, painting the NGOs as working for foreign interests, et cetera.

ESTRIN: Netanyahu's pitch to the country is that things have never been better than under his leadership. Unemployment is down. Incomes are up. The country scores well on the U.N.'s World Happiness Index. Here's what he said recently about Israel's cybersecurity industry.

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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: We are one-tenth of 1 percent of the world's population, and we have 20 percent of the share of the global markets. We're punching 200 times above our weight. Something big is happening in Israel.

ESTRIN: But some observers say there's a tradeoff between economic success and democratic values. Stern from the Israel Democracy Institute.

STERN: Now, I must say that from physical point of view, Israel is in a golden age right now when you talk about the economics, when you talk about security - and all these to his credit. So why is it a tragedy - because while he was doing such great things for us, in order to sustain his position, he was dividing society as a strategy.

ESTRIN: That division is seen sharply when it comes to the 20 percent of the country who are Arabs. Netanyahu's government has prioritized Israel's Jewish character and wrote it into law.

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NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Netanyahu said everyone has equal rights, but, quote, "Israel is the nation state not of all of its citizens but only of the Jewish people." That makes sense to Ron Vainshtein, a young tattooed Israeli cutting salmon for sushi at an upscale Tel Aviv market.

RON VAINSHTEIN: Jewish is more important because especially when we're all surrounded Arabs countries. It's more important. It's going to be - still going to be a Jewish country and not democratic.

ESTRIN: Another Israeli at the market, Gabi Gold, is here on a visit. She says she left Israel for London because of Netanyahu.

GABI GOLD: I left because he's very - he likes to instigate. He likes to create racism. There's an atmosphere of hate and fear, and I'm not like that. I don't want that.

ESTRIN: When Netanyahu ran for re-election four years ago, he warned that masses of Arab citizens were showing up to vote. He later apologized for the comment, but it's credited with helping him win. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.