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David Horovitz: Israeli democracy battered, not broken

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David Horovitz, founding editor and CEO of the Times of Israel.

British-born journalist, author and speaker David Horovitz is founding editor and CEO of the Times of Israel. He is the former editor of The Jerusalem Post and The Jerusalem Report. He has lived in Israel since 1983.

Horovitz was in Toronto recently to help launch the Jewish National Fund of Toronto’s 2018 Negev campaign. This year’s Negev dinner takes place on Nov. 18 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and will honour community leaders Julia and Henry Koschitzky.

In August, you wrote that Israeli democracy “isn’t broken but it is under assault.” Can you elaborate?

Israel is an amazing country, obviously. Among its most amazing features is its democracy. It’s a democracy where a quarter of the population who are not Jewish are largely from a non-democratic background, and much of the Jewish population, from the Middle East and North Africa, do not come from a democratic tradition. And yet, we cling to this democracy. And when I say it’s battered but not broken, [it means] you need to protect it.

The Times of Israel has done a lot about financial corruption. We have this wonderful start-up nation and it does incredibly good things. It’s innovative and has medical and scientific breakthroughs. At the same time, there’s a bit of a dark side, a layer of financial corruption. White-collar crime makes it sound too sophisticated. It’s sometimes quite crude – Internet-perpetrated – and [includes] other relatively sophisticated crimes. But basically, it’s stealing people’s money. There’s a blight known as binary options, which, after our reporting, the Knesset passed a law to ban. But the second, related concern is that our law enforcement is not as robust as we would like. Nobody’s ever been prosecuted for any crimes in an entirely banned [binary options] industry. And I think all police forces, not just in Israel, are being tested in an era where you can do a great deal online and be very hard to trace.

I don’t think our police are corrupt. I think they’re out-resourced. I think our judiciary is honest. Most of our politicians are honest. But I fear that some of them are in thrall to dishonest forces. I have a lot of time for [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. He’s kept Israel safe in a very, very difficult period. He increasingly attacks the opposition – that’s what politicians do – [but] he also attacks the media, which resonates in North American because [U.S. President Donald] Trump does the same. I don’t think he’s called us the enemy of the people yet, but he’s very critical of the media and brands it as left wing. He’s been increasingly discrediting of the police, who are investigating him for corruption. I find that troubling. The track record is strong. You could say it’s terrible – we had a president and prime minister who went to jail – but we’ve had a police and judiciary that’s shown nobody is above the law. Our democracy is an amazing achievement. It’s not broken, but it’s being battered.

How does the nation-state law figure into all this? Is there popular support for it?

It’s not a front-burner issue for Israelis, at all now. When it was going through the Knesset, it was big news. But it doesn’t affect anybody’s life. I don’t think the Supreme Court will strike it down. It’s a declarative statement. My difficulty, and that of many critics, is that it essentially tries to sum up the nature of Israel in the closest thing we have to a constitution. It asserts our rights to Israel as the Jewish homeland, our nation-state. I wish it had another phrase about equality for all of Israel’s citizens. It doesn’t have that additional clause.

It can be credibly argued that the provisions for equality are enshrined in existing legislation, and that’s one reason I don’t think the Supreme Court will strike down the nation-state law. But the absence of that clause was a political act. It was a law pushed through by a government that wanted to assert that it is more patriotic than more dovish people in the opposition, who would have wanted that additional clause. I think if we’re going to enshrine a basic law about the nature of Israel, we couldn’t have done better than the Declaration of Independence, which most certainly asserts the Jewish right to a homeland, but does commit to equality for all our citizens. They wrote that in a rush, at a time of war, and did a pretty good job of it. This [nation-state] law took years to go through and I think they did a deliberately disappointing job of it.

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In 2015, you described yourself as a member of the “confused middle ground of Israeli politics.” Are you still there?

Oh sure, yeah. Israelis generally define themselves on the regional security/diplomacy front, and especially the Palestinian front. I don’t want us to be running the lives of the Palestinians, to the reduced extent we do now since we pulled out of the major cities. I would like us to be able to separate. I don’t think it’s good for them or good for us. I also insist that Israel remain a democracy and a majority Jewish state, and that requires us to somehow separate from the Palestinians, because between the [Jordan] river and the [Mediterranean] sea, it’s about 50-50 now [Jews versus Palestinians]. Within Israel, it’s 75 [per cent Jews] and 25 [per cent Palestinian]. If we were to annex the West Bank, we would either lose our Jewish majority or we would have to subvert our democracy. I don’t want us to do any of those. So that’s my left-wing perspective, I suppose.

My right-wing perspective  is that I think it’s very dangerous to withdraw from territory at the moment. We left Gaza, and Hamas took over. It’s only because of Iron Dome that the country was not reduced to rubble by thousands of rockets. We have lots of misgivings about [Palestinian president Mahmoud] Abbas, but even if we placed all our faith in him, who can guarantee that after he goes, somebody would honour any agreement we make with him? The message is, it’s really complicated. Anybody who tells you it’s actually very simple and all Israel has to do is A, B and C. If it was so simple, we would have done it because we’re not a stupid people.

You have also said that “the longer one lives in Israel, the less certain he can be about anything.” Do you stand by that?

The reality is very complicated. I’ll give you an example: the head of the Mossad and Shin Bet and the chief of staff of the army, not long before the Syrian Civil War, were urging the political echelon to examine the possibility of a deal with Syria. That would have brought us peace with Syria, Lebanon and isolated Iran, so you can see what the prizes were. But it would have meant relinquishing the Golan Heights. Israel’s non-ideological security chiefs were advocating that it be considered. Then you flash forward seven or eight years later: hundreds of thousands of people dead in Syria and millions displaced. Nobody in their right mind who cares about Israel would say, “what a shame we didn’t make a deal with Assad and relinquish the Golan Heights.” So even things that appear correct and advisable to the smartest people in the context of their roles can turn out to look very different as time passes, and therefore it’s very hard to be certain.

While I’m quite critical of Netanyahu, he’s kept the country intact and thriving through unpredictable and a very difficult period. He’s now the longest-serving prime minister in Israel. I don’t see anybody challenging him at the moment, and that’s because I don’t think Israelis love him but they certainly respect him. In the months ahead of elections, people [talk about] the economy and social issues. Really, they care about security. He has won much kudos on that front from many Israelis in the last few years, and certainly including myself.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.