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Israel's Netanyahu Facing Off Against The Supreme Court And Proposing To Limit Judicial Independence — And 3 Other Threats To Israeli Democracy

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Israelis protest the new government – the most far-right, religiously conservative in history – on Dec. 29, 2022, outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Eyal Warshavsky/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Democracy is not just about holding elections. It is a set of institutions, ideas and practices that allow citizens a continuous, decisive voice in shaping their government and its policies.

The new Israeli government, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu and sworn in on Dec. 29, 2022, is a coalition of the most extreme right-wing and religious parties in the history of the state. This government presents a major threat to Israeli democracy, and it does so on multiple fronts.

That threat has not passed unnoticed. Tens of thousands of Israelis protested in Tel Aviv during the first weeks of January 2023 against the government’s proposed reform policies. Smaller demonstrations took place in other cities, and organizers promise to keep the heat on.

Perhaps the most important front in the battle is the Israeli Supreme Court. On Jan. 12, court President Esther Hayut gave a highly uncharacteristic public speech in which she warned that the Netanyahu government’s proposed reforms are “meant to be a mortal wound to the independence of the judiciary, and to turn it into a silent institution.”

The clash came to a head when, on Jan. 18, the justices ruled 10-1 against the appointment of Aryeh Deri as a senior minister in Netanyahu’s Cabinet because of what the court said was his “backlog of criminal convictions.” Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, served time in jail, and the judges’ ruling said that he should not be in the government. The ruling means that Netanyahu will either face a coalition crisis or else find a way to circumvent the court’s ruling, which will place the government above the law.

The conflict between the Supreme Court and Netanyahu’s government illustrates one of the four ways that Israel’s democratic institutions, customs and practices are endangered by the new government. Here are those threats, based on policies and legislation that have been proposed or are already in process.

1. Hostility to freedom of speech and dissent

Prime Minister Netanyahu has been working for years to consolidate his grip on Israeli media. The new government plans to accelerate the privatization of media in the hands of friendly interests and brand as anti-Israeli and treasonous media outlets its leaders deem hostile. The signs of this delegitimization are already here.

A dozen and a half people standing in three rows for a photo.
Ministers of Israel’s 37th government wait to have their group picture taken with the president and prime minister at the president’s residence in Jerusalem on Dec. 29, 2022.
Photo by Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images

Even before the newly appointed minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, took office, the police briefly arrested and interrogated journalist Israel Frey after he posted a controversial tweet hinting that the Israeli military may be a legitimate target of Palestinian attacks. The police claimed the tweet incited terrorism, and the arrest showed journalists who favor an open and free press that they might face retaliation.

Ben-Gvir, the head of the Jewish Power party and now overseer of the police, was convicted in the past for supporting Jewish terrorism and for racist incitement against Israel’s Arab minority. In his inauguration speech on Jan. 1, the new minister branded “Jewish anarchists” – a code he often uses for leftists and human rights organizations – as threats that “needed to be dealt with.”

2. Diminishing equal rights

The Netanyahu government appears poised to allow discrimination against the LGBTQ community and women, thus undermining equality before the law, an important democratic principle.

Incoming National Missions Minister Orit Strock said in an interview in late December, “If a doctor is asked to give any type of treatment to someone that violates his religious faith, if there is another doctor who can do it, then you can’t force them to provide treatment.”

Netanyahu condemned Strock and other coalition members who stated that gay people could be denied service by businesses if serving them contradicts the business owner’s religious beliefs. Yet, journalists report that Likud and other coalition partners agreed in writing to amend the law against discrimination to allow exactly such a policy.

During early coalition negotiations, ultra-Orthodox parties demanded new legislation that would allow gender-based segregation in public spaces and events. Netanyahu has reportedly agreed, which means these laws are expected to pass the Knesset. Segregation in educational spheres, public transportation and public events is often translated into exclusion of women and weakening of women’s voices, and hence contradicts basic democratic principles such as freedom and equality.

3. West Bank annexation and apartheid

The new government’s intention to de facto annex the West Bank will turn hollow Israel’s claims of being the only democracy in the Middle East.

In a Dec. 28 tweet, Netanyahu announced that his government’s guidelines will include the principle that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel,” including the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967 and populated by a Palestinian majority.

These guidelines, combined with new nominations of far right politician Bezalel Smotrich as the minister responsible for Jewish settlements and Ben-Gvir as the minister in charge of the border police, could provide justification for annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories.

Based on much of the rhetoric of right-wing leaders such as Smotrich, Palestinian residents of these lands will have neither equal rights nor voting rights. This means apartheid, not democracy.

4. Erasing the separation of powers

In the Israeli system, the executive and legislative branches are always controlled by the same coalition. The courts are the only institution that can check the power of the ruling parties and uphold the country’s Basic Laws, which provide rights in the absence of a formal constitution.

But the new government wants to erase this separation of power and explicitly aims at weakening the courts. On Jan. 4, after less than a week in his role, new Minister of Justice Yariv Levin announced the government’s plan for a radical judicial reform, which will include the “override clause.” That clause will allow a simple majority in the Knesset to re-enact any law struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

A dark-haired woman with glasses in front of an Israeli flag, talking into some microphones.
The new Israeli government plans to allow a simple majority in the Knesset to ignore any action by the Supreme Court to strike down a law as unconstitutional. Esther Hayut, pictured here, is the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images

This would, in effect, remove all barriers placed upon the power of the majority. The coalition could legislate policies that are not only unconstitutional, but which clearly contradict ideas of human rights and equality that are enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

The government’s plan also includes reforms that would allow the coalition to control nomination of judges. In a small country that does not have a strong constitution and in which there is no separation of power between the executive and legislature, this move, again, would weaken the authority of the court and make judges beholden to politicians.

These so-called reforms “threaten to destroy the entire constitutional structure of the State of Israel,” said Yair Lapid, head of the opposition and former prime minister.

The danger of Netanyahu’s woes

All of these threats to Israeli democracy are more likely to materialize because of Netanyahu’s current personal problems.

Netanyahu is an experienced politician who in the past managed to quell the most extreme elements of his coalition partners, and his own Likud party, by paying them lip service while being more cautious on actual policies.

Many analysts do not believe this time will be the same.

The prime minister is facing corruption and fraud trials in three separate cases and is focused on protecting himself through whatever legislative and executive power he can muster. Netanyahu is beholden to his coalition for this task, which makes him vulnerable to their ultra-Orthodox agenda and demands for laws to perpetuate Jewish supremacy.

Any one of these changes present a serious democratic erosion. Together, they pose a clear danger to the existence of Israeli democracy.

Israel will continue to have elections in the future, but it’s an open question whether these will still be free and fair. With no judicial oversight, with constant disregard of human rights, with annexation of Palestinian lands and the disenfranchising of their people, and with a media that normalizes all of these processes, the answer is probably no.

As in Turkey, Hungary or even Russia, Israel could become a democracy in form only, devoid of all the ideas and institutions that underpin a government that is actually of the people and by the people.

This story has been updated to reflect the Israeli Supreme Court’s recent actions regarding the Netanyahu government.

The Conversation

Boaz Atzili does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Chinese Spy Balloon Over The US: An Aerospace Expert Explains How The Balloons Work And What They Can See

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A Chinese surveillance balloon in U.S. airspace before it was shot down by the U.S. military. Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The U.S. military shot down what U.S. officials called a Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4, 2023. Officials said that the U.S. Navy planned to recover the debris, which is in shallow water.

The U.S. and Canada tracked the balloon as it crossed the Aleutian Islands, passed over Western Canada and entered U.S. airspace over Idaho. Officials of the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed on Feb. 2, 2023, that the military was tracking the balloon as it flew over the continental U.S. at an altitude of about 60,000 feet, including over Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. The base houses the 341st Missile Wing, which operates nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The next day, Chinese officials acknowledged that the balloon was theirs but denied it was intended for spying or meant to enter U.S. airspace. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the balloon’s incursion led him to cancel his trip to Beijing. He had been scheduled to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang on Feb. 5 and 6.

The Pentagon has reported that a second suspected Chinese balloon was seen over Latin America. On Feb. 4, officials told reporters that a third Chinese surveillance balloon was operating somewhere else in the world, and that the balloons are part of a Chinese military surveillance program.

Monitoring an adversary from a balloon dates back to 1794, when the French used a hot air balloon to track Austrian and Dutch troops in the Battle of Fleurus. We asked aerospace engineer Iain Boyd of the University of Colorado Boulder to explain how spy balloons work and why anyone would use one in the 21st century.

What is a spy balloon?

A spy balloon is literally a gas-filled balloon that is flying quite high in the sky, more or less where we fly commercial airplanes. It has some sophisticated cameras and imaging technology on it, and it’s pointing all of those instruments down at the ground. It’s collecting information through photography and other imaging of whatever is going on down on the ground below it.

A high-altitude Chinese balloon drifted over the U.S., entering over Montana and moving over the central portion of the country, causing the U.S. to send fighter jets into the air and triggering an angry response from the U.S. government.

Why would someone want to use a spy balloon instead of just using spy satellites?

Satellites are the preferred method of spying from overhead. Spy satellites are above us today, typically at one of two different types of orbit.

The first is called low Earth orbit, and, as the name suggests, those satellites are relatively close to the ground. But they’re still several hundred miles above us. For imaging and taking photographs, the closer you are to something, the more clearly you can see it, and this applies to spying as well. The satellites that are in low Earth orbit have the advantage that they’re closer to the Earth so they’re able to see things more clearly than satellites that are farther away.

The disadvantage these low Earth orbit satellites have is that they are continually moving around the Earth. It takes them about 90 minutes to do one orbit around the Earth. That turns out to be pretty fast in terms of taking clear photographs of what’s going on below.

The second type of satellite orbit is called geosynchronous orbit, and that’s much farther away. It has the disadvantage that it’s harder to see things clearly when you’re very, very far away. But they have the advantage of what we call persistence, allowing satellites to capture images continuously. In those orbits, you’re essentially overlooking the exact same piece of ground on the Earth’s surface all the time because the satellite moves in exactly the same way the earth rotates – it rotates at the exact same speed.

a black-and-white view from high above a seaport showing a submarine
A U.S. satellite photo showing a Soviet submarine in port in 1982.
National Reconnaissance Office

A balloon in some ways gets the best of those. These balloons are much, much closer to the ground than any of the satellites, so they can see even more clearly. And then, of course, balloons are moving, but they’re moving relatively slowly, so they also have a degree of persistence. However, spying is not usually done these days with balloons because they are a relatively easy target and are not completely controllable.

What types of surveillance are spy balloons capable of?

I don’t know what’s on this particular spy balloon, but it’s likely to be different kinds of cameras collecting different types of information.

These days, imaging is conducted across different regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Humans see in a certain range of this spectrum, the visible spectrum. And so if you have a camera and you take a photograph of your dog, that’s a visible photograph. That’s one of the things spy aircraft do. They take regular photographs, although they have very good zoom capabilities to be able to magnify what they’re seeing quite a lot.

But you can also gather different kinds of information in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Another fairly well-known one is infrared. If it’s nighttime, a camera operating in the visible part of the spectrum is not going to show you anything. It’s all going to be dark. But an infrared camera can pick up things from heat in the dark.

How do these balloons navigate?

Most of these balloons literally go where the wind blows. There can be a little bit of navigation, but there are certainly not people aboard them. They are at the mercy of whatever the weather is. They sometimes have guiding apparatus on them that change a balloon’s altitude to catch winds going in particular directions. According to reports, U.S. officials said the Chinese surveillance balloon had propellers to help steer it. If this is confirmed, it means that its operator would have much more control over the path of the balloon.

What are the limits to a nation’s airspace? At what altitude does it become space and anybody’s right to be there?

There is an internationally accepted boundary called the Kármán Line at 62 miles (100 kilometers) altitude. This balloon is well below that, so it is absolutely, definitely in U.S. airspace.

Which countries are known to be using spy balloons?

The Pentagon has had programs over the last few decades studying what can be done with balloons that couldn’t be done in the past. Maybe they’re bigger, maybe they can go higher in the atmosphere so they’re more difficult to shoot down or disable. Maybe they could be more persistent.

The broad interest in this incident illustrates its unusual nature. Few people would expect any country to be actively using spy balloons these days.

The U.S. flew many balloons over the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s, and those were eventually replaced by the high-altitude spy airplanes, the U-2s, and they were subsequently replaced by satellites.

a black and white photograph of a group of men holding ropes attached to a large balloon being inflated from the back of a truck in a desert
Project Moby Dick was an early Cold War-era effort by the U.S. to monitor the Soviet Union using high-altitude balloons.
United States Air Force Public Affairs

I’m sure a number of countries around the world have periodically gone back to reevaluate: Are there other things we could do now with balloons that we couldn’t do before? Do they close some gaps we have from satellites and airplanes?

What does that say about the nature of this balloon, which China confirmed is theirs?

China has complained for many years about the U.S. spying on China through satellites, through ships. And China is also well known for engaging in somewhat provocative behavior, like in the South China Sea, sailing close to other nations’ boundaries and saber-rattling. I think it falls into that category.

The balloon doesn’t pose any real threat to the U.S. I think sometimes China is just experimenting to see how far they can push things. This isn’t really very advanced technology. It’s not serving any real military purpose. I think it’s much more likely some kind of political message.

This article has been updated to include news that the balloon has been shot down by the U.S. military.

The Conversation

Iain Boyd receives funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, and Lockheed-Martin.

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The UK preps for what could become the largest strike ever for the country

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Much of the UK is at a standstill after what could be the largest strike ever in their country.

Up to half a million British teachers, civil servants, and train drivers walked out over pay in the largest coordinated strike action for a decade on Wednesday, with unions threatening more disruption as the government digs its heels in over pay demands.

The mass walkouts across the country shut schools, halted most rail services, and forced the military to be put on standby to help with border checks on a day dubbed “Walkout Wednesday.” According to unions, as many as 300 thousand teachers took part, they’re the biggest group involved.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak condemned the strikes which forced millions of children to miss school.

His government has taken a hard line against the unions, arguing that giving in to demands for large wage hikes would further fuel Britain’s inflation problem. With inflation running at more than 10 percent the highest level in four decades Britain has seen a wave of strikes in recent months across the public and private sectors, including health and transport workers, Amazon warehouse employees, and Royal Mail postal staff.

Next week, nurses, ambulance staff, paramedics, emergency call handlers, and other healthcare workers are set to stage more walkouts, while firefighters this week also backed a nationwide strike.

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The Brazilian congress could soon criminalize people who refuse the COVID vaccines

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Six bills currently in the Brazilian congress will crack down on any opposition to the COVID vaccines.

The bills criminalize everything from cutting in line to receive a vaccine to people who spread “fake news” about how vaccines work. People could also face 1 to 3 years in prison if they omit or oppose the mandatory vaccination of children or adolescents in a “public health emergency”. The project also criminalizes, with a penalty of two to eight years in prison, people who refuse to take the mandatory doses of vaccines.

And the same punishment also applies to those who spread “false news” about the vaccines or how they work. If the individual is a public employee, the penalty is doubled.

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