At the height of the protests in Israel over Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned judicial changes early last month, a Polish minister gave a revealing radio interview in Warsaw.
“Of course, we are talking with Israel, and to some extent we shared our experiences in this regard,” said the deputy foreign minister, Paweł Jabłoński, when asked for his views on the proposed Israeli laws.
“I’m telling the honest truth. Israel was interested in what was happening in Poland,” he added.
The next day, Jabłoński quickly walked back the comments, saying there had been no consultations with the Israeli side over the changes after all. But they were quickly seized on as a sign of something significant nonetheless.
Netanyahu’s assault on the judiciary reminds many of the first steps taken by “illiberal” governments in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere. Legal experts say targeting the judiciary is the natural first step for modern would-be autocrats who want to dismantle the broader democratic framework.
“If you want to conduct a modern coup d’etat you no longer need to employ serious force and to kill people, you don’t need the army and blood in the streets. The first institution to destroy is the judiciary. Everything else can come afterwards,” said Eli Salzberger, the director of the Minerva Center for the Rule of Law under Extreme Conditions at the University of Haifa.
When Viktor Orbán was elected prime minister in Hungary in 2010, he quickly enacted a constitutional amendment to change the nomination and election procedure for constitutional court judges, as well as changing the number of judges on the court from 11 to 15.
Orbán is still in power, and in the intervening years has moved to dismantle much of Hungary’s free media and make numerous other changes with the result that last year a group of European parliament members declared the country is no longer a full democracy.
“This playbook was written in Budapest back in 2010, and later used by the Poles, by [President] Sisi in Egypt and others,” said Gábor Halmai of the European University Institute in Florence.
Halmai noted that Israel and Hungary have no second chamber of parliament and no strong president who can act as a check to the executive, which makes the highest courts even more important.
The anger in response to the proposed changes in Israel has been much more coordinated than it was in Hungary or Poland, however.
“We were much more prepared than the Hungarian and Polish civil society. Israel had a flawed democracy but a democracy for 75 years,” said Salzberger.
Unlike in Hungary and Poland, where with a few exceptions the ruling parties have been able to ensure broad loyalty in the ranks, the protests in Israel include a lot of former ruling party Likud appointees and others who might have once been seen as loyal.
There is also a sense that the examples of Hungary and Poland have served as a warning of where the country might be heading. Parts of the crowd at the protest were chanting: “Israel is not Hungary, Israel is not Poland,” according to one Polish television correspondent attending the demonstrations in Tel Aviv.
“The people in Poland and Hungary who were saying some years ago that this will go much further and have an impact on fundamental rights were considered to be fearmongers who were not giving the benefit of the doubt to these governments,” said Anna Wójcik, a Polish legal scholar.
“Israelis already know what has happened in other backsliding democracies – it’s such a big theme already,” she added.
Hungary and Poland are both EU members and the bloc has struggled to formulate a strategy for how to deal with democratic backsliding in the countries. Israel has no such body to answer to, but has faced stern criticism from its main economic and military partner in Washington.
“Netanyahu totally underestimated the American response,” said Salzberger. “It has led to many, including people from his own party, realising something is wrong with his ability to see three or four moves ahead.”
Alarmed by the strength of protest feeling, Netanyahu has promised to pause for consultations and put the changes on hold. Observers said, however, that a frequent tactic in Hungary and Poland was to present something outlandish, then water it down and portray it as a compromise solution after the fuss had died down.
“Maybe what the Polish and Hungarian experiences teach others is that it’s important to hold out. Weather the first protests, find a different way to propose something less scary, and mould it all so its very difficult even for experts in the field to follow because it’s so complicated,” said Wójcik.