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EU support is crucial for Israel's liberal democracy

Marta Mucznik , Carmiel Arbit

Date: 24/03/2023
In the face of threats to democracy, the EU must voice its unequivocal support for liberal democracy in Israel. If a growing divide between democracies and authoritarian regimes and a global battle for values defines modern-day geopolitics, liberal democracies must stand with pro-democracy movements when shared values are under attack.

The judicial reform and mass demonstrations

Israel’s new government, the most far-right and religiously conservative in Israel’s history, has put forward a series of controversial proposals for judicial reform that would upset the balance of power that has secured Israel’s democracy since its foundation. If passed, the proposed legislation would reduce judicial oversight of the parliament, or Knesset, while simultaneously granting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces corruption charges, and any future Knesset, unprecedented control over judicial appointments. Similar to Hungary and Poland’s illiberal playbook, these reform plans would undermine the independence of the judiciary and basic pillars of Israeli democracy.

Anger over the proposed reform has triggered unprecedented mass protests across Israel for over two months - attracting crowds of half a million nationwide. Polls indicate that a majority of Israelis oppose the proposed changes, and traditionally apolitical voices, including tech industry leaders, CEOs of major companies, senior economists, scientists, and perhaps most controversially, in a country for whom the military has consistently been above politics, IDF reservists, have joined in the resistance movement.

Most Israelis, and many of their supporters globally, are concerned. The proposals, and the ambitions of its far-right government, could not only undermine Israel’s democracy. It could also further exacerbate tensions with the Palestinians by removing the Supreme Court as one of the only, if rarely deployed, safeguards against unfettered settlement expansion

Israel’s President, Isaac Herzog, has called the proposed legislation “wrong and destructive” adding that “they undercut Israel’s democratic foundations” and warning of civil war. He has offered extensive calls for negotiations and depoliticising judicial reform. In consultation with academics and politicians on both sides, he put forward a detailed plan for judicial reform that sought to reform rather than demolish the judiciary's power. Israel’s right-wing government - long committed to curbing what it considers the leftist overreach of the Supreme Court - remains undeterred.

America reacts

The judicial reform efforts of Israel’s right-wing government - coupled with its ministers’ penchant for incitement to violence against Palestinians - positions the country on a collision course with democratic allies. Even the United States, Israel’s staunchest supporter, has been moved to react. The administration has slowly become more vocal in its concern over far-right leaders and policies in Israel. It privately expressed concern over self-proclaimed “fascists” receiving ministerial posts, then shifted to a more public stance applauding civil society and supporting shared democratic values, and ultimately offered a full-throttle endorsement of President Herzog’s efforts to prevent the denigration of the judiciary. For a country committed to a strong US-Israel relationship and at times reluctant to display tensions publicly, these responses are notable, however modest, given the scale of the crisis.

The EU’s tepid response

The EU has also been reluctant to speak out in the face of demonstrations on a scale never seen before in Israel. The EU’s tepid response comes amid pleas from Israeli civil society organisations for the EU to voice concerns over worrying developments in the country. 

With the exception of certain MEPs who have expressed concern and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s mild statements, EU senior officials have hidden behind a refusal to meddle in Israel’s internal affairs. At the same time, legislative developments are ongoing and no final decision has been reached. But the fact that such controversial proposals even reached the Knesset (having already passed a first reading) in a country that has historically taken great pride in its democratic achievements, should be sufficient cause for action.

The EU has been traditionally more forthright, albeit with limited success, in the face of democratic challenges elsewhere - including among its members. For example, last September, President Von der Leyen issued a veiled warning against the rise of Italy’s right-wing bloc ahead of legislative elections in the country - while the election campaign was still ongoing. More recently, amid the prospect of anti-democratic legislation in Georgia, EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, reacted forcefully within hours. Yet, Israeli civil society has been marching on the streets for months and is still waiting for the EU’s vocal support.

While Israel is neither an EU member state or even a prospective member, it is a part of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), and its long-standing relationship with the EU is based on shared democratic values and respect for the rule of law.

A complex relationship

The EU-Israel relationship has been a highly complex one. On the one hand, it has been among the deepest and most far-reaching relationships the EU has ever enjoyed with a third country. Cooperation extends across fields, ranging from science and energy to culture. Israel is a full partner of the Horizon 2020/Horizon Europe Research Programme and is set to receive millions of euros for research and innovation grants through 2027. Under the programme, Israel projects have received €1.3 billion in grants, positioning Israel among the top three non-EU countries- alongside the UK and Switzerland to receive the most funding from Horizon 2020. The advanced nature of the relationship starkly contrasts with other ENP countries due in part to Israel’s thriving economy.

At the same time, the EU has consistently made clear that a full EU-Israel partnership is contingent on shared values and progress toward peace. The EU’s linkage policy denies an upgrade of EU-Israel relations absent progress with the Palestinians. Furthermore, the EU’s differentiation policy, which distinguishes between the sovereign and democratic State of Israel within the 1967 borders and the occupied territories, has prevented EU-Israel relations from achieving their full potential.

This has not been without cost: the former Netanyahu Government cancelled the annual EU-Israel Association Council, the highest-level body responsible for furthering the relationship, which reconvened for the first time in ten years in 2022 under the short-lived Bennet-Lapid coalition government.  

Supporting democratic values is not meddling in internal affairs

The prospective democratic backsliding in Israel requires a clear and vocal stance from the EU that, at a minimum, reflects the posture of the United States, but it would be wise to go much further. The EU must state clearly that it supports Israel’s democracy. It should support protesters and affirm its commitment to strengthening democratic institutions, including supporting pro-peace and pro-democracy NGOs operating in Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

Like the US, it should embrace President Herzog’s plan for reform. In addition, it should also incorporate the “deterioration of Israel’s democracy” into the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council and the European Summit to identify a constructive role for Europe and send a clear message to Israel and the world that democratic backsliding - and not just the peace process - will remain a prominent feature of the European agenda.

Given the incentive-based approach of most of the EU's assistance and funding programs, Israel stands to regress on much of the progress made in EU-Israel relations during the previous coalition. The EU should not support efforts to boycott, divest or sanction (BDS) Israel. But it should be clear about the enticements Israel stands to lose out on. A further deterioration of Israel’s democracy, coupled with increasing incitement in the Palestinian territories, could compromise Israeli participation in the next Horizon Europe, a programme of strategic importance to Israel’s R&D sector. The EU may also be reluctant to engage a far-right government in furthering nascent partnerships on energy, climate change, and the cost-of-living crises.

Championing global democracy

At a time when the transatlantic community is facing unprecedented challenges - the strain of Russia’s aggression on Ukraine, the need to secure regional stability, and democratic backsliding on its own borders - the last thing it needs is for the only stable democracy in the Middle East to go rogue. As the Biden Administration and the EU further realign their strategic priorities as champions of democracy globally, they must unite to defend democratic principles and values when they affect not only their enemies but also their friends.

If the current Israeli protest movement manages to stop this illiberal trajectory, it could send a message around the world that democratic backsliding must be stopped and that vibrant, active civil societies in solid democracies can defy these trends. Perhaps, against all odds, Israel can serve as a model for other countries facing similar attacks. If and when this happens, the EU should not remain a bystander.

Marta Mucznik is a Policy Analyst in the European Politics and Institutions programme at the European Policy Centre.

Carmiel Arbit is a Nonresident Senior Fellow for Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.

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