Guardian contributor doesn’t understand what “autocracy” means

(Editor’s note: We take no position on the judicial overhaul proposals of the current Israeli government, or any other political matter.  However, we will critically scrutinise British media coverage of the issue, as we would with any other such issue, in line with our mission of promoting accurate coverage of Israel.)

An op-ed by Guardian columnist Jan-Werner Müller (“Is the US going to stand by while Israel becomes an autocracy?”, Feb. 14) addresses the extraordinarily contentious issue of judicial overhaul in Israel.  As the headline suggests, Muller argues that the proposed legislation would turn Israel into an “autocracy”, a term used several times in the op-ed.

However, though there has been ferocious opposition to the changes being proposed by Justice Minister Yair Levin, reforms which don’t seem to have the support of most Israelis, the charge that Israel could become an “autocracy” – a term which refers to a undemocratic system of government by one person, or a few people, with absolute power – is inaccurate.

Tellingly, the Israel Democracy Institute, one of the organisations leading the fight against the proposals, doesn’t use such a term.  Their analyses, echoing the criticism of many thoughtful observers, has instead argued that the ‘reforms’ would erode the separation of powers and result in a less robust and less liberal democracy – but a democracy nonetheless.

Freedom House published a useful report titled The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule which helps explain what is meant by “democracy” and “autocracy”, and why Israel – regardless of whether the legislation becomes law – would remain a democracy.  In contrast with Israel, the Palestinian Authority has been recognised by democracy analysts as an authoritarian/autocratic regime.

The op-ed continues by calling out the putative reluctance, by the US Democratic Party, to criticise the judicial overhaul.

It is particularly disappointing that Democrats seem to be holding back. They have every reason – moral and political – to oppose Netanyahu’s autocracy-in-the-making.

In such a dire moment, Biden has only offered the most anodyne statement, reminding Netanyahu that both the US and Israel are “built on an independent judiciary”.

Perhaps Democrats are simply afraid of being called anti-Israel or even outright antisemites.

The Guardian contributor is wrong, as prominent pro-Israel Democrats in both the House and Senate, as well as officials within the Biden administration, have been publicly critical of Israel over the judicial proposals.

During his trip to Israel earlier in the month, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, during joint remarks with Netanyahu, offered the following: “The commitment of people in both our countries to make their voices heard, to defend their rights, is one of the unique strengths of our democracies. Another is a recognition that building consensus for new proposals is the most effective way to ensure they’re embraced and that they endure.”  His comments were widely interpreted as criticism of the government’s plans regarding the judiciary.

Netanyahu is “dangerously putting his own narrow political and legal interests…ahead of the long-term interests and needs of Israel’s democracy,” Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said. He went on to say that “President Biden is correct in highlighting the importance of democratic checks and balances, strong institutions, and an independent judiciary in regards to the serious test currently facing Israel”.

Congressman Jerry Nadler, the longest-serving Jewish House member, warned in a Haaretz op-ed in late January that “These proposals dismantle the vital separation of powers and protections of civil rights and liberties, which Israel’s judiciary has courageously defended, from LGBTQ+ protections to women’s rights”.

While another longtime Jewish lawmaker, Congressman Brad Sherman, said, “Because I’m part of the US government, I’m a little reluctant to say what exact structure of government Israel should have. But to the extent I have an opinion, judicial review [which would be severely curtailed under the government’s proposals] is a good idea. It’s good to have basic democratic principles and a Supreme Court that can make sure you adhere to them.”

What we have here is yet another example of a Guardian op-ed about Israel with a pre-determined conclusion at odds with the actual evidence.

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