He’s not a usual suspect. He’s known for having won a Nobel prize for economics, and for writing the international bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, rather than for manning the barricades or wielding a placard. But this week, I spoke to Daniel Kahneman, who soon turns 89, and was shocked to hear the despair in his voice.
“It’s just a horror,” the Israeli-born professor told me. “This is the worst threat to Israel since 1948,” the year of the state’s founding, he said – worse even than the Yom Kippur war of 1973, when Israel’s survival seemed to hang in the balance – because this time the damage “may be impossible to repair”.
Kahneman was not speaking about a foreign army massing on the country’s borders, an Iranian nuclear bomb or the gathering prospect of a third Palestinian uprising (though we’ll get to that), but rather something Israel is doing to itself: what Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gently calls his “judicial reform” plan, but what others describe as the evisceration of the Israeli courts, handing unchecked power to the government.
This week, the visiting US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, delivered a milder, diplomatic version of the same warning, giving Netanyahu a civics lesson on the importance of an independent judiciary and the rule of law. Meanwhile, hundreds of notables, Kahneman among them, signed an “emergency letter” denouncing the proposed changes, while the head of one of Israel’s biggest tech companies announced he was leaving the country in protest.
Their objection is to a plan that would limit the supreme court’s power to strike down the decisions of politicians, allow Netanyahu or any future prime minister to override a court ruling by a simple majority in parliament, and make judges the handpicked appointments of politicians. As things stand, the supreme court is the only major curb on government power in Israel: the country has no written constitution and no second chamber. If the court is gutted, that will let Netanyahu rule unrestrained – and let him off the hook, as he stands trial and faces the possibility of jail on corruption charges. Kahneman says Israel will join a club whose charter members are Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey: “Israel will be a pseudo-democracy.”
Of course, plenty will say Israel has been a pseudo-democracy for nearly 56 years, ever since it became the military occupier of the Palestinian territories gained in the 1967 war. For them, the current gloom of Israel’s scholars and tech entrepreneurs might seem a welcome sign that the whole Israeli edifice is about to come tumbling down.
But that fails to reckon with an obvious truth: the losers of the changes now afoot will include dissenting Israeli Jews, to be sure, but among those to suffer most directly will, inevitably, be Palestinians.
That’s true in ways both obvious and not. Start with the obvious. By serving as a brake on the tyranny of the majority, the supreme court has regularly protected the rights of minorities – including the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian Arab. The judges’ record has been far from perfect, but if these reforms go ahead and the courts are reduced to toothless creatures of the government, things will be far worse.
One example: Netanyahu’s far-right, ultra-nationalist coalition partners are itching to ban Israel’s Arab parties from standing in elections and sitting in the Knesset. If the supreme court is stripped of its powers, there will be nothing and no one to stop them.
The Israeli prime minister’s latest power grab should prompt his opponents to turn to an unlikely ally
But this goes wider. At that Jerusalem press conference, Blinken reiterated Washington’s longstanding support for the two-state solution: the hope that the conflict will be solved by a secure Israel existing alongside an independent Palestine. That’s been the boilerplate position of the international community for decades. It goes back nearly a century, ever since the Peel commission first proposed partition when the British were in charge, back in 1937. Its advocates see it as the only possible answer to the Israel-Palestine conundrum. There’s just one problem: it is all but dead.
Talk to those on the ground and they describe not a two-state solution, but a one-state reality. The green line between the Israel established in 1948 and the post-1967 occupied territories has been steadily erased, with settlements, roads and infrastructure ensuring the two are so entwined that any future disentanglement – necessary for the creation of a Palestinian state – is practically impossible.
The result is that de facto single state, in which the Israeli government is the master (a picture that will only become starker if, as many predict, the Palestinian Authority collapses). In this situation, the removal of the last restraints on Israeli executive power through “judicial reform” becomes all the more alarming. At Netanyahu’s side are ministerial allies who don’t hide their determination to make life ever more unbearable for the Palestinians who inhabit the one-state reality. One is moving to make even harsher the conditions in which Palestinian prisoners held on security grounds are kept, another to confiscate an increased chunk of funds owed to the Palestinian Authority.
A future looms in which the kind of violence witnessed last week – 10 dead Palestinians in Jenin; seven Jews killed leaving a synagogue in Jerusalem; the arrest of a Palestinian shooter aged just 13 – is repeated in endless, degenerating bloodshed.
Is there any way out? No one talks about talks any more. There is no desire or capacity for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; the two sides are too far apart. The US has apparently abandoned its role as would-be broker: in a revealing exchange last week, the state department spokesman refused to even use the word “occupation”.
And yet, there is one move that could be made, one weapon the opponents of Netanyahu have barely picked up. Look at the results that brought this far-right government to power: in terms of votes cast, the Netanyahu bloc’s victory was narrow. The trouble was, Netanyahu’s opponents were split among themselves and failed to draw in enough of the constituency that could make all the difference: the one fifth of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian Arab. Overall turnout in the November election topped 70%, but among Israeli Arabs it was just 53.2%. Had Arabs voted in the same numbers as Jews, Netanyahu would not be prime minister.
To remedy that will require, first, a wholesale change in mindset on the part of the mainstream Israeli left, one that at last listens to Palestinian demands for equality inside the green line and an end to occupation beyond it. That could, in turn, prompt a sea change among Palestinian-Israelis, a recognition that a de facto boycott of Israel’s political institutions might have made sense when a separate Palestinian state seemed on the horizon, but makes no sense now. It only strengthens those bent on making their lives worse.
Netanyahu is on the brink of a power grab that will destroy Israel’s oft-repeated boast to be the only democracy in the Middle East. That may be too late to avert, but it would be one of history’s great ironies if the only people who can save Israel from itself turn out to be the Palestinians.
By Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist